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How to make managing your money less scary: Do it over eggs and bacon

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(Bloomberg Business) — The night before I was to meet with my new financial planner, I forced myself to open the online questionnaire she’d sent weeks earlier. It made me anxious immediately.

The form asked about my primary monthly income, which I couldn’t put my finger on, and about secondary and tertiary income, which I do not have. It asked me to list my regular expenses, to calculate my net income, and to estimate “one-time upcoming expenses,” which it had never occurred to me you could estimate. “Do you have renter’s insurance?” asked the excel spreadsheet. (No.) “Do you have life insurance? Do you have a will?”

I closed the tab.

That feeling of unmitigated horror is exactly what Pamela Capalad, a 29-year-old certified financial planner, has built her business on. Capalad quit her job as a wealth management advisor in November to put all her energy into Brunch & Budget, a service she started to help normal people manage their money without freaking out. Food figures prominently in that strategy.

“Everyone’s stressed out about [money], everyone’s nervous, everyone’s embarrassed about it, everyone thinks they’re making all these mistakes and they’re the only ones doing it,” she says, awaiting a plate of baked eggs on top of a short-rib hash on Tuesday morning. “The idea of getting to relax and have a meal with somebody just changes the conversation and changes the atmosphere.” 

Capalad generally meets clients only over meals and invites them to pick a restaurant in New York City, where her business is based, and decide how much they can afford to pay (the cheapest option is $50). The client also covers the food. Her website is plastered with photos of heart-shaped waffles, avocado toast, and poached eggs dripping with hollandaise. She sends clients an e-mail every Wednesday offering “weekly financial inspiration,” including hacks and uplifting stories about money.  

That cheerful model has helped Capalad attract a client base that has eluded many financial advisors: people under age 35. Two surveys released this spring found that just 29 percent of young people have ever sought advice from a financial professional and that only 30 percent of financial advisors are actively looking for millennial clients.

Meanwhile, 79 of the 95 clients Capalad has advised since she launched the service in February 2012 are millennials. This year, revenue has increased 69 percent, she says. 

Capalad’s approach tackles the anxiety about handling finances that plenty of young people feel, including me. Looking closely at my budget feels more like a punishment than a standard rite of adulthood: When I linked my bank accounts to the Brunch & Budget website on Monday afternoon, Capalad’s system spat out a number summarizing my net worth: $802.

“That’s totally typical,” says Capalad. I reassure her my net worth will increase on Wednesday, when I get my paycheck. She eventually pulls out an iPad and begins asking me the questions I avoided on the questionnaire. The first is strange: “What is important about money to you?” I don’t know, that it exists? This is not the right answer. Capalad asks me to think specifically about the things I spend money on that make me happiest. The idea, she says, is to separate expenses that matter from those that could be cut.

“Money is so emotional. Money means nothing until you realize, like, I really just want to go shopping because I am having a stressful day,” she says. “That’s what money helps us fulfill. It has nothing to do with the actual amount that you have in your bank account, but what kind of value do you assign to it?”  

Travel is important to me, I announce. She suggests putting 10 percent of my paycheck into a savings account separate from my regular one. I act as if I knew people could have more than one savings account. (She recommends Capital One 360, which doesn’t assess fees or require a minimum balance to open.) Capalad tells me I’m right to consider getting a new credit card, since I don’t have a long credit history, and even though I’ll initially take a hit to my score, it will disappear after about a year. Two years on, I will be in better shape to buy big things, since I’ll have expanded the ways for credit agencies to verify that I pay back debts. 

From her days managing the wealth of high-net-worth clients, Capalad noticed a difference between rich investors and the rest of us: They are perfectly comfortable talking — a lot — about money. Speaking openly with friends about what you earn and what you spend helps make thinking about money less terrifying. 

For example, according to the calculations Capalad asked me to make, spend $500 per month on eating and drinking at restaurants. “Do you really like trying new food?” Capalad asks, somehow without sounding judgmental. (I don’t.) She tells me to eat out once a week, instead of, say, four. She also suggests deleting my Seamless account and replacing it with a couple of months on a food delivery service such as Blue Apron, which sends people all the ingredients they need to make certain meals and kindergarten-level instructions for preparing them.

Apparently these moves will trick me into cooking regularly. Capalad’s theory is that the services help ease people into the rhythm of making food and teach them how much time and energy it takes and the amount of stuff you need to buy to make that happen. All told, that could save me $2,400 per year.   

At some point, the food runs out, and all that’s left is Capalad asking patient, probing questions and tapping the answers into her iPad.

Capalad suggests, at one point, that I call my health insurer to make sure I know what code my out-of-network doctor should be using, so that I can make sure I’m getting covered for the services I deserve. This sounds like a nightmare to me, but Capalad is determined to make it thrilling. “Yaaay, fun!” she says. I think she might be serious. 

See also:

Women vs. men in retirement: More stress, but also more joy