Inspirational Women – Sarah Pennells

I am so pleased to bring you this interview with Sarah Pennells, editor of Savvy Woman, a web site dedicated to bringing women good sound financial information.

Jane: Sarah, you are well known for your work with financial information for women, and I’m sure many of our readers will have seen you on BBC’s Saturday Breakfast or heard you on Radio 4.

So my first question is -Why a specialist site for women? Are our financial issues very different?
SARAH: Yes, I think they are – in two significant ways. Firstly, women often have to make different decisions about money because of different working patterns and priorities and secondly, women often approach issues around finance, such as risk and debt, differently.

For example, many women will want to know how much they could lose before they’ll invest whereas men tend to focus more on the maths of how an investment stacks up. Women also typically owe less than men but have debt that charges a higher interest rate (such as credit cards) and also worry about it more.

How did you first get into the world of finance? Was it something you had planned to do from school days? Were you always good at managing your pocket money? (I wasn’t…!)
I can safely say that my burning ambition when I was at school wasn’t to work in personal finance. I wasn’t very good at managing my pocket money (unlike my sister) and would often run out of money halfway through the week.

I gradually moved towards personal finance journalism via a theatre company, an arts centre, catering for rock bands and reporting and producing for local radio. When I moved to London I was offered some freelance work on BBC Radio 4’s Moneybox, filling in for someone who was on holiday. She didn’t come back and I stayed for six years! I loved working on the programme because I felt that – by giving people information – you could make a real difference to the amount of money they had and ultimately to their lives.

It was also a great programme to work on because you had to get all the facts right otherwise you’d be inundated with letters and phone calls (this was before email was popular!).

What was your very first paid job? Do you remember how much you got paid?
My first job, during the school holidays, was working at a fruit machine company filing invoices. I had no idea there was so much money in fruit machines (literally!).  I think I was paid £37 a week, which seemed like a fortune at the time.

You now run your own business. What’s the best thing about being your own boss?
The best thing was being able to set up SavvyWoman in the way I wanted to. I had strong ideas about the content, tone and look of the website – I didn’t want it to be fluffy but was keen to make sure that women felt it was written with them in mind.

It’s really rewarding when you get positive feedback to one of your ideas.  I also have a huge amount of freedom about the topics I can cover on SavvyWoman. Sometimes I’ll write about a topic that’s in the news, but look at it from a female perspective, at other times I’ll pick a completely different subject that I know will be of interest to website users.

What advice would you give to any woman thinking of launching their own business?
‘Go for it’ is the obvious piece of advice. The other one is to say that there are bound to be times when it’s scary so don’t think it’s only you who’s experiencing that. You have to be prepared to work hard and you have to do your research before you start, but it’s a great feeling when you see that your idea has translated into something tangible.

When do you think we’ll have our first female Chancellor of the Exchequer? Do you think the public is less ready for that than they were a female prime minister?
I’d like to think we wouldn’t have to wait too long for our first female Chancellor of the Exchequer but I have a feeling I’d be wrong.  The absence of women in politics – especially at cabinet level – is such a problem and it’s one that parties of various political shades don’t seem that keen to tackle.

Why it should seem acceptable that decisions about the future of this country are led by a cabinet largely representing 50% of the population by gender is a mystery to me.

What was the best piece of advice that you were given when setting up Savvy SavvyWoman?
I don’t think I can pinpoint one piece of advice that stands out. Overall, I was just pleased to get encouragement from so many of my friends. There were times, especially in the early stages when I couldn’t talk about what I was doing because I was waiting to get the trademark on the domain name and when I was trying to choose a web designer when it felt like it was a long way from a business, but in the end it all came together very quickly.

In terms of things I’m glad I did, I was very lucky with the web design team – thebrightplace.com – as they were fantastic communicators as well as having the ability to interpret my non-technical speak into a great website. That took a huge amount of pressure off me.

I was also really pleased to get such a brilliant panel of experts lined up for the website, all of whom give their time free of charge. It felt like a great endorsement of the idea.

In your experience, what is the most common dilemma or issue for women and finance?
I think the biggest issue is retirement. I get more questions about pensions from SavvyWoman users on pensions than any other subject. I know that retirement and, in particular, how to pay for it are big issues for both men and women but all the statistics show that women retire on less than men and in around one in three cases, retire on very little at all.

Not all women have career breaks to look after children but those who do invariably put the pension on hold for quite a few years and never make up that lost time.  Even those who work throughout their lives generally earn less than men (sometimes a lot less) and may be less keen to lock money away.

Of women reaching state pension age last year, fewer than 50% received a full state pension compared to well over 90% of men. Changes were introduced in April that will benefit women, but they’ll take quite some time to filter through the system. A pension may not be the answer, but you cannot rely on the state.

Who most inspires and motivates you currently?
I absolutely love working on the website and I’m genuinely really pleased if I’ve come up with something that women can relate to and that will help them get more from their money. One woman said it was the first finance website that didn’t scare her, which I was really touched by.

I hate unfairness and injustice and it frustrates me that some financial companies will treat customers as badly as they think they can get away with and will only behave decently once they’re threatened with the prospect of publicity.

I’m not motivated by money and I don’t advocate thinking about it day and night but neither should you dismiss it as boring or complicated because it’s hard to function without it. Sometimes a relatively straightforward piece of information can make all the difference between a good or bad financial decision.

What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
From a financial point of view, the best advice I was given was never to combine borrowing and investing. This was when endowment mortgages were all the rage and I was working on Moneybox at the time. It was a favourite saying of one of the producers – but she was right.

In terms of general advice I think the one that’s rung true for me over the years is to trust your instincts. I think I generally have quite a strong gut feeling and the times when I’ve not listened to it I’ve normally regretted it.

And what advice would you give to women re their own financial affairs?
I’d say, don’t be scared of money and don’t think you have to be money obsessed to take an interest in it.  Women often make very good financial decisions but can miss out because they’re put off by the jargon that often litters financial articles or brochures (more so than men, it seems).
The last piece of advice would be to think about what you’re going to live on in retirement. It doesn’t have to be a pension, it can be some other form of retirement saving, but make sure you won’t have to rely on the state.

Sarah, thanks you so much for sharing your thoughts with us.

If you’d like some more information about Savvy Woman, or to sign up for a regular newsletter from Sarah, visit her web site by clicking here

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Posted on August 31st, 2010 by

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