Online efforts encourage LGBT Americans to mind their financial P’s & Q’s

Personal Finance

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The legal and financial fortunes of gay and lesbian Americans have changed beyond recognition. That’s largely thanks to the legalization and rapid public acceptance of same-sex marriage and antidiscrimination protections, as well as other civil rights shifts, for LGBTQ people across the U.S. in recent years.

Whereas same-sex couples, unable to marry, once had to wrestle with unique challenges around estate inheritance problems, hospital visitation rights and the like, they now must learn to deal with many of these issues much as their straight peers have.

LGBTQ Americans — transgender and non-binary, in particular — still face unique hurdles on the national, local and personal levels. But it might be argued that many, though certainly not all, also enjoy the luxury of worrying a little more about more prosaic, everyday concerns — including personal finance — and a bit less about outright discrimination.

“LGBTQ+ clients have many of the same set of concerns and worries as the broader population: How much should I save for retirement? Will I have enough money to live once retired? How much will I need to save to send my child to college?” said certified financial planner Kyle Young.

Young is senior vice president and portfolio manager director of the New York-based Schmitt-Young Group at Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, which manages $500 million-plus in assets for a client base that is 90% to 95% LGBTQ-identified.

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According to a 2018 survey from Experian, the two top financial concerns among LGBTQ Americans are saving for retirement, cited by 29% of respondents, and paying off debt, named by 20%.

Two online initiatives are looking to help LGBTQ Americans with just those types of worries. Debt Free Guys, from married couple and newfound personal finance experts David Auten and John Schneider, and Frügayity, a site from Indianapolis-based web entrepreneur Joey Amato, look to provide LGBTQ consumers with everyday financial advice, albeit tailored to the community’s ever-evolving specific needs concerning money matters. (The LGBTQ acronym stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning.”)

LGBTQ Americans may be more visible than ever but there’s not a lot of money-related info for them out there, said Auten, even in welcoming or community-specific spaces.

“This is not … a topic that our community is used to hearing about,” he said. “None of the gay media have any information about personal finance and how we can improve our lives through our finances.”

Amato agreed. “I’ve been in LGBT media for 15 years [and] I’ve worked for newspapers, for magazines, all within the LGBT niche,” he said. “And I can count on one hand how many times we published an article about finances.”

For his part, Auten added that “some people are surprised that actually there are gay people talking about money.”

At least not about anything other than spending it. Magazines, newspapers, websites and TV stations aimed at an LGBTQ readership feature the same barrage of commercial ads dedicated to conspicuous consumption that mainstream media do. The only difference? The context is LGBTQ-specific.

Both online efforts use taglines — “Live fabulously, not fabulously broke,” for Debt Free Guys, and Frügayity’s “The key to a frugal but fabulous life” — that allude to the stereotype that LGBTQ people — and gay men, in particular — like to live large, or at least look like they are.

There is some truth to the perception, said Amato, pointing to himself as an example. “I wanted to drive the BMW,” he said. “I wanted to go to the bar almost every night.

“If I could rewind the past 10 years and get back all the money I’ve spent on appearances, alcohol and everything, I would be very, very wealthy right now,” he added, with a laugh.

LGBTQ+ clients have many of the same set of concerns and worries as the broader population.

Kyle Young

senior vice president and portfolio manager director of the Schmitt-Young Group

Indeed, a 2018 survey from Experian found that LGBTQ respondents devoted 16% of their monthly income to discretionary spending, compared to 11% in savings or investments. When asked about overspending, 46% pointed to dining out and 20% to travel as trouble spots.

Subsets of the LGBTQ population had different degrees to difficulty. For example, 26% of gay men said they spend too much on travel. And millennial LGBTQ consumers, aged 25 to 34, reported higher rates of overspending on personal hygiene (26%), clothing (38%) and dining out (53%) than older peers.

According to the 13th LGBTQ Community Survey from San Francisco-based Community Marketing, 73% of LGBTQ people eat dinner out at least once a week, 69% buy wine while out or for use at home, 77% pay for streaming TV subscriptions, 52% regularly attend live theater or musicals, up to 73% buy facial moisturizer, and 41% have paid for a clothing item worth over $100 in the past year. In addition, 86% took at least one vacation or leisure trip in 2019 — and almost one-third took four or more.

All that spending can mean less saving. More than two-fifths (44%) of LGBTQ respondents told Experian they struggle to maintain adequate savings, compared to 38% of the general population. Just more than one-third (34%) said they have bad spending habit they’d like to kick, compared to 28% of all Americans.

Sofie Delauw

The increased financial distress might be down, in part, to psychology — at least among older LGBTQ people, said Schneider, at age 46 a member of Gen X.

“Many of us came from times and places when it wasn’t OK to be gay,” he said. “When we start making money, we want to make up for … feeling inferior, being bullied and picked on … and inadequate.”

Later, many LGBTQ adults fear being ostracized if they don’t “keep up” with others in their own community, he explained. “If we don’t go to Mykonos once a year, if we don’t have the right boots, if we don’t do all the fancy parties, maybe this other community of people will make fun or ostracize me, as well.”

Pietro Massina, a certified financial planner at Christopher Street Financial in New York, agreed.

“As a gay male myself, I do think there’s a certain element, with social media these days, of keeping up appearances,” he said. “Sometimes that may include overspending or going to great lengths to do that.”

Schneider said he and Auten, 48, had faced those challenges themselves — and pushed through. “It wasn’t until we realized what was truly important to us, and we stopped spending trying to make everybody else happy or prove ourselves, that we were able to get our finances aligned,” he said.

A dream purchase nearly scuttled by undisclosed debt forced Schneider and Auten, who now live in Sitges, Spain, into a financial reckoning — and their new line of work. They’d wanted to buy land in Deer Park, Colorado, on which to build a vacation home, and the necessary financial disclosures led to the realization they had a total of $51,000 in credit card debt together.

“We had a combined 13 years in financial services [but] while we were helping other people with their money, we were clearly sabotaging ourselves,” Schneider said. They paid off that balance in 2½ years using an approach they call the “Debt Lasso” method, and then wrote a book about the experience. To promote the book, they launched their Debt Free Guys blog.

A general misconception that’s obviously prevalent in financial services is that when marriage equality happened in 2015, everything became equal.

John Schneider

co-founder and co-CEO, Debt Free Guys

About two years later, “we decided to … help more people in our community directly,” said Schneider. “That’s when we started the Queer Money podcast.”

There’s definitely a market niche to be filled. According to Community Marketing, just 22% of LGBTQ Americans avail themselves of a financial advisor’s services.

Yet there’s still a market need and niche out there, says CFP Jennifer Hatch, president and managing partner of Christopher Street Financial. She said that, in her experience, LGBTQ customers do seek out specialized help. “They’re looking to work with somebody who gets them; that’s a driver,” Hatch said. “They may not understand exactly what their distinctions are, financially, but a lot of people want to work with somebody who can be supportive.”

Queer Money attracts anywhere from 1,200 to 1,800 listeners per week, and listenership has grown 11% monthly of late, he said. The podcast Facebook group has about 1,300 members. “In all of our social media, we reach probably close to 35,000 individuals, both in and out of the LGBTQ community,” said Auten. “And our website gets anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 unique visitors a month.”

For his part, Amato, 39, launched Frügayity last September after observing that many of his friends — 30-somethings, like him — were having the same financial struggles he had had. He told them “you need to figure this out because we aren’t getting any younger.” The site attracted 1,000 visitors in its first month.

Home page of DebtFreeGuys.com LGBTQ personal finance page.

Debt Free Guys

Amato began his quest for financial fitness tens of thousands in debt on four credit cards. He’s now whittled that down to $1,500 and is documenting his ongoing efforts for Frügayity readers. “I want people to relate,” he said. “So I do really put a lot of personal information out there.”

That personal perspective is crucial, but Amato, as well as Auten and Schneider, recognize that their perspectives and experiences as white gay men might not resonate with all parts of the wider LGBTQ community.

“I can’t write from a woman’s perspective,” said Amato, adding that he’d like to add content from and for other LGBTQ demographics. “Some of my information is generic and applies across the board but there are certain things I just won’t understand.”

Auten acknowledged that, whatever their own challenges, he and Schneider occupy a “place of privilege” as cisgender (born male) gay white men. “Because of that, we feel a level of responsibility to use that privilege to benefit those who do not have the same privileges that we have through educating.”

To wit, they make sure that Queer Money “brings in the stories of other individual,” he added. “Whether it’s an African-American gay man, a transgender woman of color or lesbians, we want them to tell their stories,” he added. “Often, our focus is not on promoting them or a product that they have, but allowing our listeners to see that these individuals have found a path to success themselves.”

Despite advances, discrimination persists

Of course, overspending and under-saving are not the only financial issues LGBTQ communities of any stripe face. Despite socio-economic gains, discrimination is still a problem. The Experian study found that 62% of LGBTQ respondents reported “having experienced financial challenges because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Challenges in the workplace include general discrimination or harassment, reported by 13% to Experian, or reduced salaries or chances for promotion, 10%. “We still do not have a federal law that protects LGBTQ+ employees,” noted Young at the Schmitt-Young Group.

Meanwhile, 11% of respondents reported discrimination that led to higher housing costs. “Discrimination is still a very real part of life for many in the LGBTQ+ community,” said Young. “Aging members of the community face housing discrimination, health-care discrimination, mistreatment in eldercare facilities, etc.” A recent study by The Williams Institute found nearly 50% of LGBTQ respondents identified discrimination in a care facility or from a care provider personally, he noted.

Despite same-sex wedlock now being legal, the previous inability to marry set many older LGBTQ couples back years ago in terms of retirement planning, compared to their mainstream counterparts. In addition, many older HIV-positive gay men who assumed they’d never live long enough to retire have now survived well past middle age, thanks to medical advances, but face serious savings shortfalls.

Community Marketing has found that 76% of LGBTQ Americans fear an imminent rollback of recent civil rights gains.

“A general misconception that’s obviously prevalent in financial services is that when marriage equality happened in 2015, everything became equal,” Schneider said. “But we’ve spoken in states where LGBTQ people can be denied housing, employment and services, and … financial advisors in those states didn’t know that was a challenge for our community.

“All those added risks and potential expenses, that’s an important factor when creating a financial plan,” he added.

Young agreed, noting that while the nature of his firm’s work for LGBTQ clients has evolved along with legal and social developments, “the need for our unique planning is still as relevant and necessary as ever.”

While Amato, Auten and Schneider all agree that wider societal and corporate support is both welcome and long overdue — Capital One, for instance, is now a sponsor of Queer Money —the solution to LGBTQ financial challenges must ultimately come from within the community.

“We think it’s an important conversation for our community to have and for our community, not corporate America, to drive that conversation,” Schneider said.

A financially strong community requires financially strong individuals, noted Auten. “If we’re strong as individuals, we can support and give back to our own community,” he said, advocating for legal change and funding charitable organizations for needy LGBTQ youth and seniors. “As a community, we need to be able to say, ‘Yes, we’re strong and successful on our own.'”

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