Women and Financial Illiteracy: A Local Documentary Filmmaker Exposes the Truth in Her New Film, $avvy

Savvy film

I’ve always considered myself financially savvy. Afterall, my father was an investment counselor, and supply-side economics was a frequent topic of conversation at the family dinner table. I earned an MBA and my first jobs out of b-school were in international banking and the stock market. As a young woman working in finance in the late 1980s, I was disrupting the stereotype about women and money.

Fast forward 40 years, I’m now a documentary filmmaker and my business background proves useful when it comes to working with budgets and accounting. And yet a recent divorce taught me that my relationship with personal finance was anything but unique. Like so many married women, I relinquished financial matters to him. Once single again, I quickly learned why taking an active role in managing personal finances is so crucial for women.


Being solely responsible for my financial well-being for the first time since my late 20s was extremely stressful. I didn’t know how to find a financial advisor I could trust or if I was even qualified to have one. My scarcity mindset made me reluctant to pay for financial advice. I reached out to my girlfriends for help and started asking questions: “How much money have you saved for retirement?” “What are you investing in?” “Who manages your money?” It’s probably not a surprise to you that very few of my gal pals were comfortable with this conversation. One actually recoiled when I broached the subject of savings, and another told me she thought my questions were “inappropriate.” True, I was breaking the taboo of talking about money. But what’s a woman to do?

Following my inquisitive nature as a documentary filmmaker, I turned to the internet and dove deep. I set a Google Alert that forwarded articles about “women, finance and money.” What surfaced were articles that ranged from “How to Prevent Your Divorce From Ruining Your Credit” and “Why Many Retired Women Live in Poverty” to “Will Women Fuel the Next Revolution in Investing?” Fascinated and a little obsessed, I read stories from women who were strapped with six-figure student loan debt and confessions from 20-somethings who owed tens of thousands on their credit cards. And then I read something in Own Your Worth, a 2018 study by UBS, which truly shocked me:

Fifty-six percent of married women still leave investment decisions to their husbands. Surprisingly, 61% of millennial women do so, more than any other generation. What’s more, most women are quite content with their backseat role when it comes to investing and financial planning.”

Wait. What? 

And that’s not all: Eight out of 10 women in the U.S. will be solely responsible for managing their finances at some point in their lives. Women 65 and older are 80% more likely to be impoverished than men of the same age. And more than half of women in same-sex relationships sluff their money matters as well. 

Ladies, this is serious.

Shocking as the facts were to read, I knew what I needed to do. My next documentary film would focus on women and money. Producer Tierney Henderson and I began our research. We scoured the web for stories, listened to podcasts, and read what books we could find about women and money (thanks, Suze Orman). What we discovered was that the consequences of women’s disengagement from their money were worse than I’d imagined. Though we live in a time of #MeToo and female empowerment, too many women are suffering from money issues: financial abuse, financial fragility, poverty in retirement and expensive debt, to name a few. 

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Not me; I’ve always handled the money in my relationship.” If that’s true, good for you. You’re the minority. But ask yourself this: “If my partner suddenly disappeared from my life, could I manage?” Of course, you’d likely be emotionally distraught, but logistically, would you be able to cope? Do you know how much debt you have? Who manages your SEP, IRA or 401K? What are your monthly expenses? 

In my work on $avvy, I was determined to discover why women often take a back seat to managing their money. Is it because we’re busy raising kids, working, volunteering and taking care of the home? From a young age, our culture permeates an implicit bias that girls shouldn’t be good at math. So do we acquiesce to the stereotype that money is male territory? 

I decided it would be important to incorporate real stories into the documentary to have a lasting impact on our audience. The trick was finding women who were willing to open up and tell all. We needed compelling and relatable stories about women who experienced and overcame economic hardship. Our research yielded thousands of stories — far too many to incorporate into an 80-minute film. 

Each interview I conducted fascinated and terrified me:

  • Chanel Reynolds had a 5-year-old son when her husband was killed in a bike accident. Despite being smart and capable, she was blindsided by not just the emotional grief of losing José, but also by the overwhelming burden of having to suddenly learn and manage the family finances which he had handled. 
  • Tanya Rapley was earning her college degree when she caught her boyfriend stealing money from her checking account. She learned the hard way about being vulnerable to financial abuse. 
  • Caitlin Boston amassed $222,000 in student loan debt because her well-intended parents fell for high-interest, predatory loans. 
  • Yanely Espinal, while on a full-ride scholarship at Brown University, accepted credit card invitations without understanding the devastating consequences of compounding interest. 
  • And Christel Turkiewicz left tons on the table when she got divorced, despite her years of experience as a financial advisor.

Reeling from these life lessons, each of these women took the reins of their financial lives and became strong, empowered, savvy women. My hope is that their stories will inspire conversations in relationships, families, communities and workplaces, which will educate, inspire and empower women to take control of their financial futures. 

As for me, within months of finalizing my divorce, I found a private banker who made me feel comfortable asking questions about money, investing and saving for retirement. I met with an estate planner and got my affairs in order. I’ve gained confidence in my financial savviness, and I absolutely love being in control of my finances. Talk about empowering!

I truly believe that women will not be on truly equal footing with men until we address the pervasively unequal control of resources in families and relationships, in addition to workplaces and public spaces. Though money is personal and there’s no one-size-fits-all way of managing finances, transparent access to information and open dialogue about personal finances will help us move toward parity. 

As financial blogger Farnoosh Torabi says, “When women become financially independent, the world becomes a better place. This is not just a victory for women, this is a victory for everybody.” Word!

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Robin Hauser is an award-winning director of documentary films at Finish Line Features based in Belvedere. She a diplomat for the American Film Showcase and speaks about unconscious bias and the importance of diversity and inclusion, as well as on behalf of women’s rights at U.S. embassies, conferences and corporate headquarters worldwide.