Alexa von Tobel left Harvard Business School in 2009 to start LearnVest, a personal finance and financial planning site for women. As a young entrepreneur and CEO, she shared some of her thoughts on career, life, and the relationship between the two.
What do you think of the whole “having it all” conversation? Does the phrase even make sense? Can women have it all? Can men?
I’m not sure if it is possible to have it all. Some of my best friends and mentors have always told me it’s family, friends or career: pick two. I hope to have it all, but I can see that it’s really hard. Lately a lot of people have been saying work-life balance is a total joke, and I kind of get that.
I think where balance comes from is actually liking your job, because then work blends with play, and play blends with work, and it makes it a lot easier. I feel like I have a life because I really like my job. I’m in a good mood when I go home so I have a better home life, and if I have a better home life, I work better.
Is work-life balance something you think about with your employees at LearnVest?
We try to make it work for people. We have moms on staff, and we try to make everything work for everyone. We have summer Fridays for the first time this year, because we want people to actually know it’s summer. We also try to make this a place where people enjoy their job and like what they do — that’s really important to us.
Any advice for people seeking better balance?
Time management is the most important skill set if you want to do anything. I focus so much of my time on prioritizing my time. If you can do that, it makes everything a lot easier. You’re in a position where you can get more done in a day.
Do you have any specific time-management tips or hacks?
I bring my breakfast and lunch to work. That way I come to work at 8 AM and i leave at 8 or 10 PM, and I don’t physically leave the office unless for a meeting. I don’t take personal phone calls at the office. But then when I’m home, I’m home. Trying to be two places at once is what’s hard — that’s when you get disgruntled.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about women and money?
The thing I’ve been so fascinated by is this: I don’t care if someone went to community college or Harvard, often the questions people have about personal finance are similar. Really it’s a topic that we’re all struggling with, because we don’t get personal finance education in school. And we’ve seen through LearnVest that it doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, male or female, educated or not, people have the same questions about money. We’re all pulled in six to eight different directions financially, in terms of paying down debt, trying to save, buying what we want, and other concerns. It leads to a kind of financial whiplash. Everyone’s asking: where should my next $1,000 go, should I think about investing, things like that.
Women still make around 77 cents to men’s dollar — what can women do to help make sure they make what they’re worth?
It’s important for everyone, men and women, to know what you’re worth. And if you can’t get paid what you want to get paid, think about the add-ons — you can ask for more vacation time, a part-time, getting your cell phone paid for.
Another tip: don’t ask for something that’s so beyond what you’re worth that it’s crazy. At our Q&A, Joanna Coles [editor-in-chief of Marie Claire] talked about having people come in and ask for as much as she makes, or more than she makes, and that’s a bad idea. So make sure you do ask for what you’re worth — worst case, the answer is no. But I also really respect people who take the time to research what a reasonable salary is.
People don’t always talk about how much they make — what are some specific ways to do this research?
I don’t think you should get it from inside your company. You could go to recruiters and ask them, or go to Salary.com or Pay.com. And talk to your friends, ask them how much people they know make.
Any advice for when your financial goals seem really far away?
I think most people’s goals do feel really far away. One of the things I like to do is stop and break the goals into tiny micro-goals. Say in five years you want to buy a half-million dollar home. But if you pause and say, “how much do I need to save per year,” then “how much do I need per month,” this is extremely helpful
Another thing is to have a really detailed plan. If you have directions, it’s much easier to drive. You might discover that your goal is way too big, but you can cut it in half or by 25%. You can come up with a realistic plan that can get you all the things you dream of, but maybe compromise a little bit. Getting that context is actually half the battle, because once you have a plan you’re like, “okay, I can do this.”
And if there’s are a few easy things you can cross off your list, do those things first to help you get started.
Do you have tips for talking about money with your romantic partner?
I’ve said this before, and I’m not joking: it’s important to schedule time on a Saturday, in the morning, when you’re feeling refreshed, with no alcohol involved, to talk about these issues. And plan something really fun for afterwards, so you can de-stress. You can also talk to a financial adviser — they can sometimes act as a mediator or a moderator in financial conversations. There are lots of things that you can do on your own but there are things you don’t know, and an expert can tell you things like, “these are the two really tough discussions you’ll need to have, and here’s how I usually have clients talk about them.” And remember that once you start getting through this stuff, both of you will start gaining momentum and you’ll feel good and be more likely to stay on track.