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Chelsea Fagan

Industry Spotlight > Women in Wealth

‘Sex and the City’ Hurt Millennial Women’s Relationship With Money: Chelsea Fagan

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Chelsea Fagan’s relationship with money was a hot mess — but only till she earned a chunk of change and paid off her debts.

As founder and CEO of The Financial Diet, a digital platform, Fagan, 33, has been teaching millennial women for more than seven years how to get smart about money and avoid slipping into hot messes of their own.

The heart of TFD is “the intersection of financial education and cultural commentary,” Fagan says in an interview with ThinkAdvisor.

Therein, she served up an example of the latter by taking to task the TV show “Sex and the City” for having a financially “irresponsible” protagonist that “negatively” affected “women and their money.”

Since 2015, Fagan has hosted The Financial Diet YouTube channel, the largest women’s personal finance channel and one of the first — with 957,000 subscribers and chalking up more than 96 million total views, she says. 

The entrepreneur is neither a financial advisor nor financial planner. But through TFD, she is educating young women about the practical aspects of handling money.

Ninety percent of TFD’s audience is young women.

The Financial Diet focuses on the meat and potatoes of managing one’s finances, along with some neat treats.

It is anything but stuffy. One newsletter topic, for instance, was a “Night Time Get Your Sh*t Together Checklist.”

Its interview podcast, “The Financial Confessions,” recently featured a psychologist on “How to Identify and Deal With a Narcissist — Financially and Otherwise.”

Stemming from a blog Fagan began in 2014, her firm takes a multi-pronged approach to helping young women through classes, workshops, conferences and other events, a newsletter and a podcast.

In our interview, Fagan describes how she turns to financial experts to provide actionable advice about how women can better handle their finances.

TFD’s investing expert is Amanda Holden, a former investment counselor at Fisher Investments. On TFD, Holden recently talked about “The Worst Investing Advice on the Internet.”

Formerly creative director of branded content at the media company Thought Catalog, Fagan brings to the table expertise in sponsored content: 30% to 40% of TFD’s content is produced in partnership with clients.

Sponsors include M&T Bank (identified as TFD’s “official banking partner”), Wealthsimple (its “exclusive investing partner”) and Intuit, partner in producing “The Financial Confessions.”

ThinkAdvisor recently held a phone interview with the Florida-born Fagan, whose firm is based in Midtown Manhattan.

She allows that being in the business of teaching women about money is the positive result of having had a “negative experience” with her own finances.

Here are excerpts of our conversation: 

THINKADVISOR: Why is your business called The Financial Diet?

CHELSEA FAGAN: Similar to the way we eat, the changes that are important to make are the ones that are sustainable, rather than radical overnight changes that can’t work in the long term.

Why do women often mess up with money?

According to statistics, women don’t receive financial education growing up, but male children do. 

Generally, women are raised to assume that when they get married — which is usually to a man — it’s the man’s responsibility to handle the longer-term financial planning [aspects] and that women typically will manage day-to-day household consumer choices and purchases.

It’s a sort of self-perpetuating cycle wherein we teach women quite a bit less about money growing up; and then we assume that men are naturally better at handling money.

But that’s not true. It’s just that men are often taught more about it.

You sounded off on a YouTube video about how TV’s “Sex and the City” (1998-2004) had a negative impact on women and their money.

“The unspoken fifth character was money,” you said. Why was it important for you to talk about this?

It was a humongous pop-culture tentpole that’s still relevant 10 years later. Many young women grew up looking at that show, not just in an aspirational sense, but they got a really formative idea about what adult womanhood should and can look like.

It really reinforced a lot of the most negative messages that women receive about money.

It was a financially irresponsible view of womanhood, what it means to be a woman and what makes a woman’s life successful, especially in how it handled financial questions.

There was a very strong implication that the protagonist’s financial irresponsibility [should be] considered aspirational. This was viewed through a very positive lens.

Do men visit your website as well as women?

Yes, but not many.

Yet much of your content would apply to men too, wouldn’t it?

It does. But historically, men, in the aggregate, don’t generally like to take advice from women.

You’ve said that you used to be “bad with money.” In what way?

I had a terrible relationship with money. I didn’t pay my bills. I was in credit card debt. I defaulted on loans. Ultimately, I was arrested for driving on a suspended license and suspended registration, both of which stemmed from financial problems.

You’ve had your own business for eight years. I assume that nowadays you’re good with money. If so, what brought about the change?

When I sold my first book in 2012, for the first time in my life, I had a decent-sized windfall of cash. I realized that I’d be able to pay off my credit card debt, which was the thing that was primarily damaging my finances.

So I did that, and the feeling of getting rid of all that debt was empowering and made me want to make more positive financial choices.

Does it strike you as ironic that someone who had such trouble with their finances now has a business educating women on how to handle their money?

Not at all. Because ultimately, people generally take an interest in things when they’re forced to. Most people who have a neutral relationship or somewhat positive relationship with money aren’t really that interested in money as a topic.

So my interest in it, especially from the aspects of mental health and emotions, comes out of having that negative experience.

At age 24, did you take any courses or consult with people on how to start a business about money and finances?

Yes. I’m not a financial advisor or financial planner. We work with a lot of them, though. I don’t pretend to be a certified expert in any capacity.

For specific projects or events, we consult with people who have either their Series 7 or are certified financial planners.

Who is TFD’s expert on investing?

Amanda Holden, a former trader who does public certifications to trade investments for others. She does classes and workshops for us on investing.

Why did you write a blog about money on Tumblr?

I started The Financial Diet in the summer of 2014 as a way to hold myself accountable [financially]. It was intended to be a public personal journal; it was never intended to be my business.

What did you write about?

Changes I was making in my spending or observances about improving my relationship with money — what I was doing with money.

At the time, I was working at Thought Catalog as creative director of branded content writing, and creating ad campaigns.

What prompted you to turn the blog into your business?

Shortly after I started that page, my co-founder Lauren Ver Hage, then an ad agency art director, reached out and said she was looking for side projects and would love to redesign my blog so that it looked more appealing.

So she did. Very shortly thereafter, a foundation that works with educational projects on the internet reached out and gave us a small grant because they wanted to support what we were doing.

That empowered Lauren and me to leave our jobs and start working full time on The Financial Diet.

You studied international relations and affairs at Anne Arundel Community College [in Maryland] from 2008 to 2010. So where did you get the know-how to run a business?

It was learning through growth. When we started, it was just my co-founder and I. 

In the early stages, I had to do quite a lot myself. But in the past few years, it’s been a matter of finding good people who can lead the parts of the business that I’m not really qualified to lead.

How many do you employ?

We have a staff of 12. I don’t manage a lot of the logistical aspects of running the business.

We have a head of finance and operations who does quite a lot of the administrative aspects. And we have a head of sales.

What are your plans for growth?

We’re working pretty aggressively on growing our newsletter, because we’ve been winding down the website.

We find that as people use the internet, more of them are interested in reading emails rather than going to websites.

We’re also extending our podcast offerings and are returning to doing more in-person events.

So we’re trying to diversify our mediums as much as possible so that however people prefer to consume our content, there’s an easy way for them to do it.

What’s the secret to your success?

For any small business, it usually involves a lot of luck and timing. So when we entered this space, it was a very small space. We didn’t have a lot of competition.

[In regard to how] we run the business, the executives are paid well above average; but those at the top, including me, aren’t paid much more than [many of] the entry-level people.

My salary is pretty much in the middle of what we pay everyone.

So not having those very expensive executive salaries puts a lot less financial pressure on the company and allows us to be competitive in hiring — and therefore very selective about who we hire.

That allows our employee retention to be extremely high, which, in the long term, costs us a lot less in turnover. That’s been a huge driver of our sustainability.

Your firm is on a four-day workweek. How do you do it? Squeeze in more work during the four days?

Nope. It’s just working 32 hours a week. In general, we stick to Monday-to-Thursday. But sometimes people have to do a bit of work on Friday; so they’ll [take] off a [little time] on Monday.

Now that [the staff] is used to this four-day schedule, they’re able to figure out which 32 hours works for them.

How is the schedule working out for the firm?

It’s wonderful. I think more companies should try it. During summers, we’d always leave early on Fridays. Then we thought: Why don’t we try not working at all on Fridays?

We did that and noticed that productivity actually increased.

So we thought: If we can get the work done in 32 hours and give those eight hours back to the team, why not?