Financial Commentary for Bitch

Article: “Dollars, But No Sense”
Publication: Bitch Magazine
Date: Summer 2008

“Pass the tissues! Why you should have a good cry at work!”

Pulling the April 2008 issue of Marie Claire out of my mailbox, I felt my eyes roll skyward. Since when does crying at work stand in for legitimate career advice?

Unfortunately, warped ideas about women, careers, and money have plagued most of the major glossies, resulting in them eschewing factual information for superficial advice, safely swaddled in discussions of relationships and feelings—you know, safe topics that girls like.

And yet, the demand for female-oriented financial advice has never been higher. Suze Orman’s latest tome on women and money, Women & Money, was given away for free on Oprah’s website; 2.2. million copies have been purchased or downloaded in the year since the book was released. Women-focused business magazines like Pink and Bee have emerged to tap into the women entrepreneurial market, often serving up advice on personal finance alongside tips on taking your company to the next level. Blogs like Savvy Sugar talk career and personal bankbook-building, as well as delivering information on global trends in business and economics. And targeted magazines like Essence and Heart and Soul have been promoting financial advice within their pages for years. Magazines geared specifically toward black women have long known that financial advice is a selling point, often advertising on the front cover each issue’s piece on money. The April 2008 issue of Essence announces that you too can “Be a Rich Black Woman;” the previous month’s issue deployed the cover’s left side to entice its audience to “Make More Money.”

Mainstream women’s glossies just don’t seem to have caught on. While men’s magazines (not the porn kind) often offer solid financial advice, women’s magazines are still more interested in telling you how to spend your money rather than how to grow it. The male/ female coverage divide is best exemplified in two articles, one from Marie Claire and one from Maxim.

Marie Claire is billed as “More Than a Pretty Face,” and has gained a reputation for being the fashion magazine for the thinking woman. In November of 2006, the magazine published “It’s Your Money, Honey” with the tagline “A special section on that slippery substance we love having but hate thinking about.”

The article opens with promise:

“We’re better educated, better read, and better at launching a business. So why, when it comes to managing money, do women lag behind?” Eagerly anticipating a gritty analysis of women and financial trends, I dove in to find ten pages of fluff. Accompanied by gorgeous photography, the text presents personal anecdotes, tidbits on the spending habits of celebrities, ways to “blow your dough,” a chart explaining what one hundred dollars is worth in various cities and quick snapshots of random women’s financial situations. Rounding out the article is a list of “20 Things to Get Before You’re 40.” The only useful advice is relegated to a small, ticker-like black box that threads across the article’s pages.

Contrast that with Maxim magazine’s “Make Your Money Multiply” feature, published in February of 2007. Maxim is not known for intelligent commentary. As one of the firmly entrenched lad mags, Maxim is described by my male friends as “the perfect toilet reading.” Bite-sized articles and fart humor are the defaults, and the article referenced above is illustrated with two dollar bills, folded origami style into rabbit shapes.

And the rabbits are humping. Of course.

Still, the four page article is packed with information with a true to form tagline: “Check into Maxim’s 12-step money-minting program and cure your chronic case of broke-ass.”

Visually appealing, the text is short and to the point. Blocking out chunks of lifetime, Maxim emphasizes the main goals in the title of each section. To illustrate, here is the six word summary of your post college life: “Early 20s: Drink Less, Save More.”

Maxim also lined up some venerable experts, condensing them down to paragraph sized chunks of financial wisdom. Suze Orman, Maria Bartiromo, Michael Corbett, David Bach, Dylan Ratigan, Larry Bennett, and Matthew Lesko all dish on savings, debt repayment, home purchasing, tax breaks, career mobility, dating, investing, stocks, pre-nuptial agreements, government money, and entrepreneurship. (To contrast, Marie Claire’s piece cites surveys, other magazines, and the chairman of Charter Financial Group, Inc.)

Celebrities are also profiled in this piece, but only to give financial advice. Check out this advice from rapper Ice T:

“Invest in pre-construction property. Usually you can double your money—coke is played out.”

The sidebars are also full of jarring statistics, explaining that the average renter is worth less than $5,000 while the average homeowner is worth more than $180,000. They also included stats on how much debt costs (dude, you just pissed away a flat screen!), the best of cheap knockoffs and purchase to commission ratios. All the advice is given in the typical Maxim style—but the information was so relevant to my life I have referred to the article multiple times in the last year.

Another study in differences can be seen by comparing “Cosmo’s Get-Rich-Quick Scheme,” which appeared in the October 2007 issue, and the January/February 2008 Men’s Health article “2008: The To-Do List: Part 2, Wealth.”

Both articles offer to grow your money, but it is quickly revealed that they have drastically different goals. The Men’s Health piece focuses on different ways to increase wealth through investing, saving, and increasing your earning potential. In the clearly titled section “5 Ways to Double Your Salary in Two Years,” Men’s Health readers are exhorted to negotiate aggressively in the workplace. Improving your visibility, becoming an asset, working your contacts and being informed about the pay scales for your position are stressed, as well as a topic that is almost never raised in women’s magazines— knowing when to quit. While men are being told to vacate their current position if they have not been promoted within a year, women are often instructed in the ways of trying to make the best of a hostile work environment.

The Cosmo article proves its financial advice is as shallow and vapid as its relationship advice continues by failing to mention any kind of link between increasing your paycheck and building wealth. Instead, the piece focuses on two major areas: smarter spending and saving. However, in Cosmo’s world, smarter spending really just means spending on the things the magazine deems worthwhile. Enthusing “You can rock designer duds!” the article encourages readers to embrace budget couture (save for one or two great pieces and fill your closets with cheapies), dress up their apartment with interesting accessories (more spending), and surf various websites for the best travel deals (you totally deserve an $800 trip to Dublin!) .

The page dedicated to saving money relies heavily on minor money moves. Citing the prevalent “latte factor”—the idea that daily expenditures for coffee drinks, snacks, and the like, add up fast—to explain many a lady’s lack of cash flow, the article asks women to analyze their expenses to reduce them and to pay bills on time to improve their credit. However, on the page dedicated to saving, there is also a large quote that reads “Sometimes a girl just has to splurge. You need a mad money fund to dip into for theater tickets or killer shoes.” In the end, this article about money management offers four out of nine tips that are about spending.

The Men’s Health article plays no such games with its readers. While the magazine does offer eight different ways to spend money, the tips are presented in the context of pleasing the woman you love. And right underneath that article, there are suggestions for six ways to invest your tax refund—designer gear not encouraged.

The most egregious difference between these two articles lies within its approaches to saving and retirement plans. The Cosmo piece is completely unrealistic in its aims—on one page, the editors urge their readers to tightly scrutinize their budgets; on the next, they recommend that young women invest a whopping $700 a month for the next 30 years to become a millionaire by age 50. Just one problem—if a woman is saving, spending on designer clothes, taking trips, and strapped for cash, where is she going to find $700 extra dollars a month? Even cutting out those daily Starbucks runs only grants you $120 in extra pocket change.

It is this feast-or-famine approach to money management that keeps women’s magazines lagging behind their male counterparts. There are two assumptions that are made and reinforced time and time again. Either women need baby steps (cut out your lattes, reexamine your budget) or they have money to burn and are able to put aside large amounts of cash. Interestingly, the Men’s Health piece also offers “Six Painless Ways to Build Wealth,” a piece that actually outlines a realistic approach to shoring up your savings. In addition to the basic advice (sneak money into a savings account; max out your 401K), the piece also advises spending money on a financial planner, reevaluating your tax load, and saving in $100 increments.

So why is it so difficult for women’s magazines to provide targeted advice that fits their readers lifestyles?

Stephanie Quilao of the blog Back in Skinny Jeans stumbles upon a key disconnect between the demographic information provided in magazine surveys and the topics those magazines actually publish. In a post titled “Now I get why every Cosmo mag helps us look hot to score that hottie1,” Quilao informs us that the average reader of Cosmopolitan magazine is “31 years old, college educated, and career oriented.” However, a quick glance at the magazine’s table of contents reveals that a scant one percent of coverage is dedicated to careers. (Relationships and fashion receive 29 percent and 21 percent editorial coverage, respectively.)

Quilao writes: “If the average reader is a career woman why is only 1 percent of the editorial spent on careers? And, in that careers section, I bet they lump in money. Every well-rounded woman I know wants to know how to make, keep, and grow her own money. How about this for a sexy Cosmo headline: “Men can’t keep their hands off a self-made woman.”

Don’t hold your breath for that particular cover head, though. Magazines like Cosmo and Marie Claire may not ever get the message that women are interested in their own financial futures. It could be because the writers and editors are drunk on the heady brew of stereotyping. After all, the idea that women are too emotional to deal with money or are disinterested is pervasive in our society. But those same writers and editors are career women themselves, and, likely as not, concerned with their own money. It’s also tempting to blame the lack of sound financial advice on just how beholden to advertisers women’s glossies are—if you tell women to spend money wisely, they might think twice about buying the $200 handbags touted in the ads. But men’s glossies and magazines targeted to women of color also depend on advertising, and still manage to print finance articles of substance, so while it’s always satisfying to blame advertising culture for the fluffication of our society, in this case we have to look elsewhere.

In the end, the lack of solid advice on money in these publications looks like sheer laziness, an unwillingness to venture beyond industry standards. And when economic times are hard, as they are now, it looks like something else, too: irresponsibility. As Maxim proved with its humping-bunnies article, sound financial coverage can fit into the overall attitude of a magazine—even if its audience is fart-joke-obsessed post-adolescents with short attention spans. So wake up Cosmo, Marie Claire, Glamour, and Vogue, and give us the advice we need so that we can earn, save, and grow enough money that we can have our handbags, donate to the Green Party, fund our IRA—and, yes, enjoy a nice cappucino without visions of dollar signs sliding down the drain.

Dollars But No Sense

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