Virginia-based financial experts weigh in on a booming trend

Written by Erika Reynoso

Some experts are predicting that 2021 will be the year of the she-cession, where more women will leave the workplace and amass less personal wealth due to fallout from the pandemic. However, financial experts are seeing quite the opposite. More women than ever before are building their own wealth — and seeking advice on how to manage their money. 

Helping women own their financial futures is in Hume resident Sarah Atkins’ blood.  Atkins grew up watching her mother take the lead on the family’s finances, investing in treasury bills by phone from the kitchen table. Atkins initially worked as a chemical engineer, but often mentored her friends on their finances. At age 40, she decided to turn her hobby into a new career. Based in Marshall, she now works as a financial advisor and certified financial planner for Edwards Jones, where she serves a growing number of local female clients, many of whom are increasingly serving as the financial heads of their households. 

“I work with many financially-empowered women who are making great progress toward meeting goals, and that’s something that’s been a multi-year trend in my business,” Atkins said. “More married women are contacting me, and more women are taking the leadership role in their family’s financial plan.”

Above: Chris Merchant with a client. Photo by Still Blessings Photography.

While only 15 percent of current financial advisors are female, Atkins and her practice represent part of a growing demand for more women-centered services in the wealth management industry. According to a recent McKinsey study, women are increasingly serving as their family’s breadwinners, and are expected to control as much as $30 trillion in U.S. household financial assets by 2030. As a result, they’re seeking financial advice more than ever, and are on the hunt for advisors who fit their personalities and backgrounds. 

Atkins, a local horseback rider and avid fox hunter, said the connection of a shared experience can be invaluable to her clients. Her typical clients are single, college-educated women between the ages of 50 to 70. 

“Clients will ask me a question and often it’s something I’ve personally pondered for myself, and that’s where my best answers come from,” Atkins said, noting that she puts a high priority on ensuring her clients have the financial education they need to inform their decisions. “We work to develop an understanding about how today’s actions impact tomorrow’s goals, and that can empower women to make good choices. That’s a basic part of my practice.”

From left to right: Heather Merchant, Naomi Merchant, Christian Merchant, Chris Merchant, Natali Merchant, and Holli Merchant. Photo by Stephanie Leigh Photography & Design.

Experts have long known that women tend to approach money differently than men, and often bring a number of attributes to the table that can benefit their long term investment plans, according to Chris Merchant, a Hunt Country wealth management advisor who co-founded his Winchester-based firm with his wife Heather. 

While Merchant’s practice specializes in catering closely to needs of both male and female clients, he has noticed that women excel in some areas, including patience and a willingness to ask for help. 

“Decisiveness is also something that a lot of men would like to say they are, but in my experience, after women know their financial strategy, they tend to commit to it and let it play out. Those traits are so important as an investor,” Merchant said. “The future is already here and women are already a big part of the financial landscape.” Merchant’s firm was recognized with the Financial Advisor Women’s Choice Award last year. 

While personal relationships have always been an important part of wealth management, Merchant agrees that female investors tend to put more emphasis on finding a customized connection. 

“We know women are typically more apt to seek advice, and interestingly, a lot of women aren’t necessarily happy with their financial adviser,” Merchant said. “Research shows 70% of the time they will fire their financial adviser and find someone new after their husband dies.”

While neither Atkins nor Merchant have had many clients significantly impacted by the economic turmoil of the pandemic, both experts encourage women to take the New Year as an opportunity to strengthen their financial management goals for the long run. 

Sarah Atkins. Photo by Jennifer Gray.

Atkins’ advice: seek education, as it creates confidence. “‘Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it,’” Atkins said, quoting Albert Einstein. “If clients have a high level of anxiety about their finances, often education is the best anecdote. It can tell them what to expect both in good and bad years.”

Merchant’s advice: don’t be afraid to break up with your existing adviser if he or she is not a fit. 

“My advice is to find a firm you’re comfortable with, one that is collaborative and education-based,” Merchant said. “A lot of Wall Street cultures aren’t that way, and if you don’t feel good with someone, there are a lot of other good firms out there.” ML

Published in the January 2021 issue of Middleburg Life.