Otegha Uwagba was 26 when she realised what a big disconnect there was between the life she appeared to be leading on social media (a young, up-and-coming author, attending parties and publicising her new book) and the reality (still living at home with her parents, anxious about money and unsure what her financial future would look like).
Walking home one evening, she reflected on the yawning gap between her professional success and the constraints her financial reality put on her life. ‘I thought, I can’t be the only person who has this complex, emotional relationship with money.’
In fact, she believes most women have a complex, emotional relationship with their finances, and it’s at the core of her upcoming book, We Need To Talk About Money.
The pandemic has only served to widen the fiscal inequality between men and women. Research has found that the gender savings gap has widened as a result of Covid, with women having on average a third less saved than men, more women relying on savings to cover essentials, and with Millennial women hardest hit. The gender pension gap is also widening.
Laura Whateley, Grazia columnist and author of Money: A User’s Guide, agrees that women’s finances have been hit disproportionately. ‘I’ve spoken to financial advisers who say more women than men have been asking to pause their payments into a pension or investment account over the past year,’ she says. ‘The scary thing is not just the immediate impact, but the hidden ways this affects women’s money.
If women can’t afford to save, invest or pay into a pension now, it will mean they are poorer for years and years to come.’
In many ways, this was always going to be a financial crunch point for many young women. Even pre-pandemic, there was a generation who graduated around or after the 2008 financial crash who weren’t able to buy property before the cost of housing started to far outstrip wages, and for whom adult life in general is simply too expensive.
Otegha only noticed the real disparity between her financial situation and that of some of her friends (mostly the ones who had access to family money) in her mid- to late-twenties. ‘It came as a shock a couple of years ago to suddenly discover that lots of people who I thought I was on the same footing as “came from” money. People stopped renting and started buying houses, and I thought, “Where did that come from?”’
It was the lack of transparency around money that really got to Otegha and it’s what she wants to tackle now. ‘All of the milestones we’ve been told are in our future and we’ve been taught to expect are not happening – or they’re happening for some people and not others. That inequality is really hard to ignore. If you have the visible trappings of wealth then people want to know where you’ve got it.’
If there’s one place where you’ll see these visible trappings, it’s Instagram. From the suspiciously nice houses belonging to people working in low-paid creative industries, to the low-key influencers with seemingly bottomless wardrobes, the world is telling us that to do life the ‘right’ way, we have to splash some serious cash. ‘It’s a huge amount of pressure,’ says Otegha. ‘I like shopping and I like clothes, but I have to ask myself, “Am I buying this item to put on Instagram?” If so, then I try to avoid it, because that seems like a crazy way to live, especially when people you’re following are getting stuff for free, and you’re trying to emulate that on your own dime.’
Laura agrees that Millennial women are being increasingly priced out of life choices that we would once have taken for granted. ‘It’s why we need to rethink our idea of what a normal, “successful” life looks like,’ she says. ‘I think a lot of people feel they are failing at being an adult because they are still renting into their late-thirties and forties, are financially reliant on parents or a partner for longer, or they are not able to afford to get married, buy the family home, have 2.4 kids. It’s not a failure; the economy we’re having to grow up in makes these things increasingly challenging for most young people.’
Both Otegha and Laura are keen to reiterate that this isn’t about young women’s financial illiteracy or failings, it’s about structural issues that make it so much harder now to become financially secure.
Part of Otegha’s message is about lifting the curtain on both the structural and societal pressures as well as the inequalities that make financial health really, really hard for many people right now. ‘I want to give a name or a voice to those emotions, feelings and dynamics so that women can challenge them. For example, there’s a fallacy that women don’t ask for pay rises, but actually, they do – they’re just more likely to be told no than men. The fact that there’s this preconceived idea that women don’t ask for money, and that explains the gender pay gap – basically our inaction – that’s harmful.’
Money certainly evokes a lot of emotion, as anyone who’s ever felt sick as they log into their online banking will attest. But what does Otegha want the woman lying awake at night worrying about bills, or her nonexistent pension, or not being on the property ladder, to take away from her book?
‘I hope she feels less alone and realises that other women are going through the same thing. Ultimately, I want her to realise that it’s normal – and it’s probably not her fault.’
‘We Need to Talk About Money’ by Otegha Uwagba is out 13 May (Fourth Estate).