Your Money

The Financial Influencers Women Actually Want to Listen To

10 minute read

If you’ve spent any time on TikTok in the last eight or so months, you’ve probably come across the concept of “girl math.” Essentially, it’s the idea that spending less money, or buying something on sale, is actually saving money, and that using cash means a purchase is free. It’s a joke, but not everyone finds it funny.

“I hated girl math,” says Haley Sacks, better known to her social media followers as Mrs. Dow Jones. “The moment I saw it, I was like, absolutely not. Because it made women look like they were not smart enough to manage money or that we have to deceive ourselves and trick ourselves in order to splurge.”

Sacks, 32, is one of a number of women who runs a company that aims to give women honest financial advice without infantilizing them. These financial influencers–often called finfluencers–cite a real need to help women become more comfortable with and adept at managing their money, but they have also seen a proliferation of personal-finance advice online in recent years and worry about what it means for women seeking financial stability. 

Read More: Why We’re Spending So Much Money

Sacks, who now reaches 1.4 million followers across social platforms and offers personal-finance tips alongside money memes as well as courses on financial management and investing, launched her flagship Instagram account in 2018 after looking for advice herself and being disappointed by the wisdom of the so-called experts. “They were all so boring, just white guys with whiteboards behind them, mansplaining,” she says. “Then the female-driven content was so much more about couponing and saving, which felt miserable to me and it felt like a tampon commercial.”

It was concern about perpetuating this type of two-tiered advice that kept Sallie Krawcheck from starting a women-focused business sooner. Krawcheck, who graduated from Columbia Business School in the early ‘90s, spent decades working in corporate finance and says a number of people urged her to start an investment company for women. At the time, however, she thought wealth-management companies geared toward women were “junior varsity,” and she was turned off by the "rah-rah, you-go-girl" feel of financial offerings for female clients

Then she considered just how big the gender wealth gap was and the extent to which money can change the life a person leads. “I put aside the preconceptions I had and said, ‘I've got the experience. I don't know that I can solve this problem, but I've got as good a chance as anyone,’” says Krawcheck, 59. In 2014, she co-founded Ellevest, a financial-services company with a goal of helping women build wealth. On March 13, it announced that it had $2 billion in client assets under management.

Read More: How to Realistically Save for Retirement

Men still outearn women in most heterosexual marriages, but the share of women who make equal to or significantly more than their husband has climbed, nearly tripling over the past 50 years, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey. And yet women’s retirement savings are just 70% of those of men, even as women in the U.S. are outliving men by about six years. 

“Good financial advice is good financial advice, and I'm not sure there needs to be a gendered separation,” says Kelly Shue, a professor of finance at the Yale School of Management. Still, she says, men and women do tend to invest differently. Shue points to studies that show that women have greater risk aversion and may be more likely to avoid stock-based investments, which could reduce their wealth accumulation on average. She also notes that women earn less on average than men—women working full-time, year-round, on average earn 84 cents per every dollar earned by men, with Black and Hispanic women earning even less—and are more likely to have interrupted career paths because of life events like motherhood that affect wages. “If women on average have a different set of concerns than men, maybe it's good that they have access to targeted information,” she says.

Chelsea Fagan, founder of The Financial Diet, adds that approach matters too. When she launched her company a decade ago, she noticed that the biggest players in the financial-advice market trended masculine, because of the “gamification” of personal finance. These were people who touted the idea that if a person just made all the right moves, they would win. And they were workaholics who tried to live as frugally as possible in order to maximize their net worth and retire early. Women, she says, are less inclined to gamify money or to prioritize it at the expense of other things like their health or social lives; they instead tend to take a more holistic view of things, thinking of money not as an abstract concept that is a separate part of their day—where they “go to their computer and look at charts”—but as something that is more integrated into their lives.

Read More: How Much Should You Tip? Five People Share Their Habits

But the fact that women may think differently about money doesn’t mean they’re worse at it. In fact, Fagan, 35, set out to dismantle the idea that personal finance is a byzantine concept, and today, The Financial Diet uses various forms of media, from books like its upcoming Beyond Getting By to explainer and confessional videos on YouTube, to demystify money. “The entire concept that money is complicated and difficult to understand is part of the problem, because it’s not,” she says. “It doesn’t require some special knowledge or understanding. Anyone can manage money.”

Krawcheck says Ellevest learned to eradicate financial jargon early on. “It is not that women don't understand jargon and men do,” she explains. “What we actually found in the research is neither understand it, but a gentleman will continue to engage and sort of piece out what it is, whereas women will shut down.” That shutting down could be one of the reasons many financial institutions think women need advice packaged in dumbed-down, bite-size pieces. 

Not so, say Krawcheck, Fagan, and Sacks, who all emphasize that the key is having a baseline assumption that women are smart. “We take her seriously, the brand voice we have,” says Krawcheck. “It doesn't mean you need to be deadly serious all the time, though there are times you have to be deadly serious … I always think of it as your older sister who went to work on Wall Street, the two of you are sitting at the Thanksgiving table—after you've helped mom and dad clear it and put the dishes away, of course—and you're just a couple of sips shy of getting too loose and then you start to talk about money and it's that very relatable way.”

Of course there’s plenty online that feels relatable and yet is unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. Finfluencers and advisors often share personal stories to engage their audiences, says James Choi, a professor of finance and Shue’s colleague at the Yale School of Management. He mentions hearing commercials for a company that proudly advertised the fact that it listed personal stories for its financial advisors on its website. “It doesn’t matter at all,” he says. “But customers feel like it is relevant.” He says he could see a situation, for instance, in which a woman feels like advice from another woman is more relevant to her. “I think that's probably a real feeling,” he says. “And I also feel like, for the most part, that's going to be an illusion rather than something really substantively different about suitability of advice.” But given that only about 23% of certified financial planners are women, there may be an opening for finfluencers, whether they are credentialed or not.

Read More: Why a Burger Costs More Now

Moreover, thanks to the virality of TikTok and the pressure to brand yourself online, there’s been an explosion of people positioning themselves as experts even if they don’t have the background to give financial guidance. Choi says there’s “bottomless appetite” for finfluencer content because “personal finance is something that affects all of us and none of us have all the answers,” but in a market in which people compete for clicks, people can be incentivized to make outrageous claims that turn out to be bad advice.

Young women face immense pressure to spend, spend, spend—whether attending a friend's wedding or buying a viral Stanley cup or clicking on the Instagram ads that fill their feeds—which can lead to long-term problems like credit-card debt. Meanwhile, trends like "girl math" may be silly, but Sacks believes they also reinforce the myth that women are bad at managing money, deterring them from even trying to take control of their finances. "Those narratives are so loud in our mind from when we're young," she says.

Fagan says it’s great that the personal-finance space is slowly offering a wider range of people a wider range of perspective—there's a reason former Wall Street trader Vivian Tu of YourRichBFF calls her sizable audience of women, people of color, and others who have been historically overlooked by financial institutions the “leftovers”—but she points out a downside of short-form videos on platforms like TikTok. “We're sacrificing quite a lot of accuracy and nuance in favor of digestibility and virality,” Fagan says. “And as a result, a lot of the work or content that, for example, will go viral on TikTok is often bad if not outright inaccurate information or advice and a lot of the focus for some of these social media influencers is about their personal enrichment and about maximizing their own net worth.”

So how is the average person supposed to know what’s reliable? “It’s hard,” says Choi. “Because the reason you're seeking out the advice is that you don't know what's right to do.” One rule of thumb: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. “Things that would make you rich quick are also things that have the potential to make you very, very poor and in trouble quick,” Choi says. Or as Sacks puts it: “Getting rich should be boring. It shouldn't be thrilling. It shouldn't be something that happens overnight.”

And be skeptical of anything that treats women like children. “I think anything that's kind of centered around the infantilization of women as it pertains to money and self-sufficiency, that humor just never lands well with me because that is a real problem,” Fagan says. “Women being encouraged 24/7 to consume things and, as a result, getting themselves in credit-card debt or not being able to save anything for retirement or any of those things—that's girl math too, right?”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at