Money & Wellbeing Podcast

Money – having it, not having it, managing it – can be a source of chronic stress, and chronic stress. Lena Rizkallah, financial advisor and recovering lawyer, joins Courtney Edwards, Alchemy Behavioral Health Coaching, to discuss the ways we can approach money matters in a healthy way.

Lena talks about practical ways to improve our financial wellbeing through educating ourselves, building a sound financial foundation, budgeting, and sitting with the emotions that this touchy topic sometimes brings about.

Transcript below:

Money + Well-Being Podcast with Courtney Edwards, Alchemy Behavioral Coaching


Courtney Edwards: Hi, and welcome back to the pragmatic alchemy podcast. I am Courtney and I am joined today by Lena Rizkallah, a financial advisor who’s going to talk to us about money matters and how this does also incorporate into wellbeing. Money can be incredibly stressful particularly in the last couple of years as people have just kind of tried to manage the best they can fluctuations in our economy.

And we’re going to talk a little bit about how this ties in with our identity, the ways that money is thought about and conceptualized from a societal level, I’m gonna try to not get up on too big of a soapbox about how we vilified and demonized poverty. But we’ll, we’ll see where this conversation goes.

So Lena, I’m so happy that you’re here with us today, and really excited about the information that you’re gonna share with our listeners. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about.

Lena Rizkallah: Great. Well, thanks for having me, Courtney. I’m really excited to be on this. And I, I think what you do in your life’s work and me being a financial advisor has such a great overlap in terms of how people feel about money and what they do about it.

So just as a background about me, I’m a financial advisor, a recovering attorney. I practiced a long, long time ago and then came into the financial industry randomly, but I love it! I think it’s a great industry and I’ve loved being part of it. I’ve been in the industry over 20 years, working at different banks.

And then a few years ago—conveniently right before a pandemic!—I decided to switch gears and just have my own practice as a financial advisor. So I’m part of a firm Conte Wealth Advisors, and I work independently up here in New York, between the Hudson valley and New York City. And I’ve learned so much just in the past three years of being a financial advisor that I don’t think my financial career had really prepared me for and especially working with individuals and dealing with people’s emotions when it comes to money.

And when we talk about money, there’s so much that comes up, not just like, what are we gonna do about it?

Or how do I get it? But also how did I grow up? What do I think about it? What are the emotions that are connected to this? And as an advisor, I think you kind of have to navigate that. And then also help them understand where they stand and then hopefully build a plan that works for them.

Courtney Edwards: So you’re really working with sort of both sides of your brain in that way, because you’ve got the mathematical analytical financial component, but then also tapping into compassion and empathy and understanding sort of the fallibility of the human condition that we do sometimes get really emotionally tied to some of these things.

Lena Rizkallah: Yes.. The most effective thing I can do for a client is listen. And I think we come with a lot of expertise and information that the clients are coming to us for, but you really can’t give them the right advice until you really listen to them and listen to who they are, what they want, what concerns them to be able to build that plan going forward.

Courtney Edwards: Right. One of the things that I was curious about just in hearing your history a little bit, I also started this practice conveniently right before the pandemic and saw just an explosion during the summer of 2020 really is when things kind of got very busy for me because people were just struggling so much and I’m wondering if you noticed that same parallel, like how has the pandemic specifically shaped your experience in this role?

Lena Rizkallah: I came into this during the pandemic and what I noticed most and what I really enjoyed the most was people were looking for information so whether it was the Cares Act that was passed, like right in the beginning of the pandemic, when they expanded unemployment benefits and opened up more money for small businesses, et cetera. Like people were really interested in learning more—what does this mean to me? How am I gonna get a stimulus check? How do you apply for it? So many business owners would come to me and ask me information about like, how do you even apply for this? How much can I get? Is it gonna be forgiven? So. There was definitely a lot of a thirst for information. That was number one, especially, in the beginning of a pandemic, when the market dropped significantly 34% on March 23rd or something 2020, and beyond that it was just the uncertainty of the world. And on an individual household basis people really were interested in finding out what does this pandemic mean for me? They need a little certainty in the middle of uncertainty and then secondarily.

And then, as the market recovered, people were like, okay, let me get into this. Should we be invested in Game Stop? So there was a need for information as well because people were interested in learning how to make the market work for them.

Courtney Edwards: I have one question about your bio and that was that you do stand up and sketch comedy. Can we just talk about that for a minute and then we’ll get into like the business stuff?

Lena Rizkallah: Well, early in my career, when I moved to New York, I was working at a financial institution and I was like, is that all I am? I didn’t wanna just be like a ‘mousey’ corporate person. And so I decided to take a standup comedy class because I always loved writing and comedy. So I took a standup comedy class and then I got involved with the NY Arab American Comedy Festival that began after 9/11, I guess it was 2003, 2004. So I met a bunch of people, did very minor standup comedy, wrote sketch comedy, did a couple shows. It’s been fun. I dabble, but yeah.

Courtney Edwards: Do you still perform, like if people wanna come see you, can they come see you somewhere?

Lena Rizkallah: Not lately, but before the pandemic I did some storytelling in Hudson Valley. So, it’s fun!

Courtney Edwards: I love that. That’s fantastic. So one of the things that, this is aimed for is really helping people make practical changes. So with that in mind, what are the basics with the ABCs of financial advisement? Where would you like to start Lena?

Lena Rizkallah: Well, I’d love to start with like the need for financial advice and the need for, people needing some type of guidance, whether they get it online or they download digital apps, and help them manage their money or budget or invest or whether they work with a financial advisor.

I think there’s such a need. Just very recently there was a study that was published in June, 2022, that 61% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck versus last year at the time it was 55%. So maybe the stimulus checks have dried up or maybe you know, people aren’t finding the right work, whatever it is. It just seems like a situation that’s getting slightly worse.

Courtney Edwards: The inflation that we hear about nightly on the news is contributing to that also. I mean, I was just gonna say my grocery shopping bill has doubled in the, the two and a half years of the pandemic. It’s insane. Twice as much as it ever was before.

Lena Rizkallah: And that’s absolutely a huge factor! What’s gotten really expensive for people is food and gas. That’s what’s really been a huge dent to our budgets. So even if you were not able to manage it last year or two years ago, now it’s even worse. And just reading the newspapers, you can, see that the middle to , lower income families are the ones that are hit the hardest by these increasing costs. We did get a little bit of good news today that inflation is slightly down!

Courtney Edwards: I saw that. Yeah, actually right before I came on the call, my NPR app dinged me to say, inflation’s down.

Lena Rizkallah: But you know, what’ll take it. Of course it’s not gonna go from 9.1% from last month to like 3%, which is what we had years ago. We just waiting for it to flatten. Definitely inflation has been a huge factor. In terms of savings, people are still living paycheck to paycheck. And part of that study, I thought that was really interesting was that the, biggest rise in that paycheck to paycheck demographic were people that earned a $100,000-$150,000 a year.

So even those higher income earners are being affected by inflation or, you know, maybe expanding their lifestyle because now we’re out of the pandemic and now we wanna go to Europe.

Courtney Edwards: I mean if you think about travel and just what that cost is, and now that’s back on the table where maybe it hadn’t been the last couple of summers. And just even thinking like on a smaller scale, like my kids are back in camp.

Lena Rizkallah: Yeah, and I think just even before the pandemic Americans, we were not the best savers. We just haven’t been really good savers in general. Especially, I mean, you kind of look at when did credit cards become popular and then people just started using leverage, like using debt as a way to pay for things, or during times of expansion and we just came out of the longest expansion that we’ve had in historically. And our savings rate goes down when our bank accounts, our investments, our housing becomes more expensive. So you forget to put that money away, just having that mentality of savings is important.

One more thing, I would say 56% of Americans can’t cover an unexpected bill of a thousand dollars. That’s where we’re going into more credit card debt or getting a loan or something like that, or just foregoing on some type of need.

Courtney Edwards: So when you do have a savings and then something happens and you have to tap into it, mm-hmm , it’s like, oh, I can see how quickly that actually evaporates. ,

Lena Rizkallah: I’ve definitely had clients comment to me when they are tapping into their emergency savings how stressful it is because before, they’re like, “Oh, I’m good. I have, $10,000 or $20,000 or more in savings.” And then when you start seeing it go down (because you have to tap into it for an unexpected expense) people get very nervous when they see their savings go down. And again, what I try to do is help clients refocus. So on the one hand they’re back to a mindset of back fear and scarcity. Am I gonna have enough?’ And questioning yourself —where you should redirect and say, “look how amazing you are, that you saved that money, that you were able to tap into it in this weird time that you never planned for. You didn’t go into credit card debt, you tapped into your savings.” That’s exactly what it’s there for.

Courtney Edwards: Right, right. So, what else would you tell clients about just sort of how to organize themselves around starting the planning process? I think there are a lot of folks that hear the words, financial planning, and maybe what comes to mind is rich people,

Lena Rizkallah: I think that’s a really great point.

You have a job, you earn income or you have debt or you’re planning to have a job. Whatever the reason, you’re going to make money and money is going to provide you with the things that you need and the things that you want. So the more that you can be more intentional about how you spend the money that you earn, the more protective of it you should be. So that you’re spending on the splurges that make you happy and putting money towards the things that you need for your future. And so ultimately, I think that’s what people really want when they come to me is they’re like, I just wanna sleep at night

Courtney Edwards: Yes!

Lena Rizkallah: That’s what everybody really wants is they want to know that they’re saving enough for their future. And then they’re not going to be homeless and especially, because I work with a lot of women, and that’s most women’s biggest fear the majority of women end up single as they get into retirement. The best step you could take is to have this initial conversation.

Courtney Edwards: Right, right, let’s talk a little bit about women in finances. It does seem across the board, women are less likely to advocate for themselves in the workplace for a higher salary, they’re less likely to negotiate. We know all about the pay gaps for women and, to recognize, I think the 79 cents to the dollar is, is a pretty well known figure, but understanding that that also changes for women of color, for Latina women and indigenous women, that there is a discrepancy in income and how do they show up in the work that you do? I think when I last looked at the analytics about 87% of our listeners are women too. Oh, so wow.

Lena Rizkallah: So we all know, the pay difference. We know that most women tend to be the caregiver of the family. So even if you’re earning a regular wage that a man would, there’s gonna be some interruptions in your career. So you’re going to get out of work to take care of kids and then go back to work and maybe be a little bit behind because you’ve taken the time out. then later on, you’re taking care of the in-laws or the parents, and then the kids come back. I always joke that we’re not even in the sandwich generation anymore. It’s more of a panini generation where we’re just like crushed and melted (and there’s more years to spending and fewer years to save for retirement). People are getting married later. They’re having children later. They’re buying houses later. And then as their kids get older, older parents get sick and then kids get out of college and they come back!

So you as a parent probably have a lot less time or opportunity to save for your own retirement and that’s kinda the dynamic of this panini generation. And for women, women get paid less, women take breaks in their career to take care of family and that results in an even lower Social Security benefit at the end of the day, because you have more zeros in your work record that averages out probably to a lower Social Security benefit.

So there is the fallacies that women are risk averse investors or they don’t know much about investing and that’s not necessarily the case. I would say people are raised differently.

I think there’s generational differences in how women relate to money. And there’s been a lot of really interesting studies on physiologically, the difference between men and women trading. They looked at how men have high levels of testosterone that make them more likely to engage in risky behavior, like trading more often where women have less testosterone and will buy and hold.

And so over a certain period of time, women may have better results or returns than men. Especially when you also average in trading fees. Men are gonna trade more often again, not just generalizing, and not saying every man is like this! Just the fallacy that women are not as good as investing or risk averse and that’s not necessarily the case.

And ultimately the biggest issue is confidence and that’s a problem for both men and women. but especially women, because many of us have not been socialized to manage money. So it’s really about having the confidence to just take the reins, start making some decisions and stand behind your decisions.

Courtney Edwards: Yeah. Yeah. That’s powerful stuff.

Lena Rizkallah: It’s interesting. I’m single. I finally bought a house a few years ago because I was like, what am I waiting for? Do I have to wait to get married, to buy a house? Or can I just buy a house and make myself happy, take control of my life. It took me a long time to get there, and I’m seeing a lot of other women that do that: I’m gonna buy this house. I’m gonna build a business. I’m gonna do these things. I’m just not gonna wait anymore, or I’m not going to, even if they’re partnered, I don’t have to get his approval or her approval. I can just do it. And I think that’s very empowering.

Courtney Edwards: You mentioned you work with a lot of women. Do you seek out working with women for those reasons or does that, is it just kind of the way that it’s worked out?

Lena Rizkallah: I think it’s the way that it’s worked out. I think certain women gravitate towards me. And I love my clients! They’re fascinating people, men and women. I do have a lot of women that are clients that are successful, they know what they’re doing, they’re just really brilliant and they have amazing stories. And I think that’s what keeps me in this business, that excites me, is every single person I sit down with has this story of how they got to where they are. And I’m like, I can’t believe you’re my client! This is amazing!

Courtney Edwards: You have the makings of a good therapist. One of the things that you mentioned even when women are coupled and not kind of waiting for permission. How do you see the financial health of a couple come into play in your work? What are some of the concerns or what are some of the tips that you would give couples for? How to approach this as a team?

Lena Rizkallah: It’s one thing for a woman to feel empowered and make some financial decisions, even when she’s with a partner, but ultimately money can be the biggest issue that comes between a couple. One person can be super frugal and has a budget and keeps everything on Excel spreadsheets. That’s their love language, whatever! And then the other one could be hiding a bankruptcy or some other debt. I had a coworker that would order clothes that would come to the office and then she would change and put the new clothes on during the day. And then change again back to her original outfit before she went home so her husband didn’t know how much she was spending on clothes. They’re not aligned on how to spend as a household. It’s important to come together and have an honest conversation about putting together a new budget and then also to just have ongoing, honest conversations as you’re in this partnership and in this household.

Courtney Edwards: You know, for my partner and I, we’re both married for the second time. We brought a lot of money baggage from our first marriages, and so we’ve had to work really hard. We’ve had to get really good at having open honest, vulnerable conversations. And we are the couple that you were kind of mentioning. H is super-focused on retirement savings. He has a tremendous percentage of his salary goes into his retirement and he’s very dedicated to that. But I’m like, spend it while you got it. But because we’re able to communicate through it, we’re nice balances for each other. He reminds me-you have to look beyond tomorrow. You have to have a plan for the future. And I help him understand-nothing’s guaranteed. So yes, have a plan also live in this moment, you know?

Lena Rizkallah: Absolutely. You just covered everything in a nutshell. It’s being able to talk about who you are as a person with money or without money. And how he feels about money and being able to agree on a course of action together.

Courtney Edwards: Yeah. It was interesting. Going back to the pandemic conversation, what I learned was that my favorite hobby is eating out and I was shocked. I had no idea, what a central place in my life that activity took! So during the pandemic when I couldn’t eat out, I could see the financial implications of how much extra cash I have on hand. So it’s helped me come out of the pandemic with a little bit better balance – every once in a while I can treat myself to lunch, but, you know, I should probably pack lunch more. I had a salad today.

Lena Rizkallah: Well, that’s a really good point that you made. In my early conversations with some clients, when we’re trying to help them set a budget- I ask them to track spending, or look at your Chase app or whatever, and pay attention to your discretionary spending. How much do you spend on eating out? On groceries? The wine store? Movies, going out with friends? Whatever it is that makes you happy. I know there’s a lot of talk about okay, you can cut out all the lattes and then you save $6 a day and that’s like $5,000 a year, for example. but if you love lattes and that’s your one splurge, don’t cut out lattes. When you’re putting together a budget, you wanna look at how much do you need to spend on your necessary expenses. And then that’s how much you would then think of like four to six months of that amount would be your emergency fund. And then how much do you spend on discretionary and food, your own grooming, clothes going out, and really acknowledging how much you spend on certain things. It’s been such an eye opener for a lot of clients.

Courtney Edwards: Oh, that makes me uncomfortable. I do not wanna look at what my budget is. One of the things you said earlier that I wanted to come back to, because I think this is really one of the areas that touch on, and where kind of my work comes in is this idea of needs versus wants. And what I really find is people struggle to differentiate those things based on their internal dialogue. But also lack the skill to sit with the discomfort of not getting the want. Right. So maybe the person decides they do wanna cut out that $6 a day latte. There’s gonna be a discomfort with that.

Lena Rizkallah: You’re right. What I try to do when I’m working with clients is help them redirect. So, in terms of listening, what do you want? What are you planning for this year? Do you like to travel? Do you wanna go to wine country or do you wanna buy this amazing bike so that you can go on these great bike trips with your family?

What is it that you really love and want? And if it is I like to go and have a, an amazing luxurious dinner with my partner every Friday. Great. That’s who you are. And if you’re just a person that all you want is a latte, then get a latte.

On the other hand, if your money goal is I need to beef up my retirement. I’m 45 years old and I only have $5,000 saved for retirement. That’s gotta be a priority if I’m $20,000 in credit card debt and interest rates are going up. That’s gotta be a priority. And that’s also something that keeps you up at night. So. What happens with some clients eventually is they start understanding ultimately their goal is to bring their debt down. They want that dress or, they want that latte or they wanna go and have that seafood tower or whatever, but it doesn’t feel as good to get that immediate want. When you start focusing, not on the immediate, but on the goal that you’re working towards you’ll put that hundred dollars seafood tower fund towards your debt instead. And after a while people just get more confident, they get boosted. They get the reward, the feeling of pride of being able to prioritize and meet that priority. And it’s funny because when I meet with some clients, especially during the pandemic, there was a lot of anxiety. Clients would feel anxious, wake up in the middle of the night. They have insomnia. And so they log on to Amazon to go shopping or whatever it is. So it’s kind of identifying that and saying, okay, So, this is how you’re feeling. This is what you do when you’re feeling that way. But here’s your money goal that we talked about and let’s keep that in focus. And a lot of times people call me like a month later and they’re like, ‘Lena, I heard your voice. I was about to go online-shopping, blah, blah, blah. But I didn’t because I heard you say no. This is what you should do.’ And I’m like that, wasn’t my voice. That was your voice. You said that I just shifted your direction, but you are the one that’s telling you to do this. You should be proud of yourself.

Courtney Edwards: I love that. I get, yeah, people come to me and say you are gonna be so proud of me and I’m like, I already am. Yeah, exactly. So some of the things that I’m hearing here is getting educated, being able to recognize what your priorities are, effective communication with whatever partners you share, finances or financial goals with making a budget. Sticking to a budget. I feel like those are two different things, right? So really understanding kind of how that’s gonna show up for you emotionally, if it doesn’t always feel so good to deny yourself and then creating some kind of balance of, of splurge and rewarding yourself while holding to this goal that you can see in the future, are there other sort of takeaways? Concrete tangible things that you would advise people to do to get their money in, order, so to speak, whatever that definition is for them.

Lena Rizkallah: Yeah. Number one. Save for an emergency fund. And that again should be four to six months of necessary expenses. So that means maybe sitting down and putting together a formal budget or jotting it down, kind of in your head. I have a client who does like a money date, like once a month or once a week. And she pours herself a glass of wine, and gets her Excel up and going through her receipts. So whatever it is that gets you to looking through what you’ve been spending so that you understand your spending. And prioritizing how you spend.

The second thing is make sure that you’re saving for retirement. So if you’re part of a company that offers a 401k or retirement plan, make sure that you are contributing to that. Money that you don’t see, that’s not taxed, that goes directly to your 401k it’s tax deferred. And then when you take it out, you take it out in retirement. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself, because it’s like an automatic saving that you don’t even feel the lack of. And a lot of companies do match your contribution. So check if your company has a match and make sure that you’re at least saving towards that match so that you get that free money. If your company’s like we’ll match you 3%, if you contribute 5%, that’s great. You’re already at an 8% savings rate, which is amazing.

Studies show that to have enough savings for retirement, you should be saving about 15% a year. If you’re not there yet, that’s okay. If you can only save 3% super do it. Set those small goals for yourself, right? So you’re like, okay, by next year, I wanna be able to save 4% by next year, and so forth.

So number one, emergency fund, number two, save your for retirement. And then the third thing I would say is definitely try to pay down that high interest debt. So if you have credit card debt definitely prioritize that over investing or buying Bitcoin or whatever it is, make sure that you have those first three things happening.

 That’s gonna be the first step to sleep full nights. Okay. And then maybe get someone like an accountability partner, whether it’s a partner, a friend, a group, a financial professional, somebody who’s gonna help you stick to this budget and make adjustments as you go.

Courtney Edwards: Okay. Wonderful. I love all of that. Accountability is huge. There’s a really wonderful habit change research that’s coming out that basically tells us that willpower alone is not enough. There are so many other ways that we can move ourselves towards our goals and accountability with a community or a partner is, is one of the highest ranked things in terms of really helping people move towards the type of behaviors that they desire.

 Any other points that you wanted to make that we didn’t touch on in another way?

Lena Rizkallah: Just the idea that people have certain emotions when it comes to money. A lot of it is negative— shame, remorse, regret. Everyone thinks that they’re unique in this way, I think what will help us overcome those feelings of negativity, shame or whatever that is, is to talk about it.

Talk about, with an accountability partner, even with our friends, I have a great group of girlfriends. We hang out, we talk about everything except for money. But maybe we should start talking about money. How did you negotiate this raise? How did you get that mortgage? What are you thinking about investing in? This can help you kind of overcome those negative feelings you’re out of your head and you’re just talking about it and it becomes normal. Yeah, absolutely.

Courtney Edwards: I love the work at Brene brown and one of the things that she says, the shame can’t survive, being spoken. It’s like, it turns to dust when you speak it out loud, it can’t continue to hurt you once it’s out. So, yeah, so I love that, Lena, thank you so much for being here. This conversation was so much fun. And I really, it was fun. Think it’s gonna help people. So keep doing the good work.

Securities offered through Registered Representatives of Cambridge Investment Research, Inc., a broker/dealer, member FINRA/SIPC. Advisory services offered through Cambridge Investment Research Advisors, Inc., a Registered Investment Advisor. Conte Wealth Advisors, Money + Well-Being Podcast with Courtney Edwards, Alchemy Behavioral Coaching, and Cambridge are not affiliated.