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Leanna Haakons is a trailblazer in the financial world – and she wants you to achieve your own personal "Financial Nirvana." From her best-selling book Young, Fun and Financially Free to her running her own marketing and financial firm, Leanna is on a mission to educate the masses on money smarts and investing. She's made her own money mistakes, and she's doing her best to make sure you don't make your own.
In this exclusive interview with Spotlight, we talked to Leanna Haakons, a serious financial wizard, and some of her tips and conventions might surprise you.
Spotlight: Financial freedom has to be a myth. Right?
Leanna Haakons: Absolutely not—depending on how you look at it, and what “freedom” means to you. In my book I talk about “Financial Nirvana”; to me this is financial freedom, and it means something different to everyone. Particularly Millennials who have very different ideas of what financial freedom/"Nirvana" looks like as compared to generations past. This is my definition of Financial Nirvana: Living in your own state of Financial Nirvana means making the absolute most of your money, allowing you to meet your lifestyle goals to live a fulfilling and abundant life. Living in Financial Nirvana really comes down to what kind of lifestyle you ultimately want to live. Of course depending on your current and projected income, your lifestyle goals will vary.
What was your first investment, and what made you do it?
Individual stocks, because I was watching CNBC every day after school and was influenced by my peers and mentors who had done very well and wanted similar success. This isn’t something I would recommend to other new investors though. Buying individual stocks of publicly traded companies takes a lot of knowledge, time, and skill, and is not for the faint of heart. That’s not to say it should be left to professional money managers only, though if you really want to do this you must invest a lot of time to learn how.
What is the best first investment someone can make?
With the development of so many cost-effective, easy ways to start DIY investing I suggest new investors use ETFs (exchange-traded funds), which they can buy themselves online through a discount brokerage account, or open a robo-advisor account if they don’t want to deal with researching their own ETF selections and portfolio allocations. Robo-advisors buy ETFs as well so both are investing in the same thing, though robos will give you the complete “hands off” approach to your investing.
How did you get into financial services?
After I started learning about individual stocks and the stock market through self-teaching and mentorship, I decided to start applying to jobs in the industry while I was still in university so I could get a head start on some real world investor relations experience. I got a full-time job with an office of publicly traded companies while I did my school courses for my business degree online; double-duty! I couldn’t have been happier. I’m still friends with the brokers and investors I met back then when I was 18. It was an eager and smart move to start building relationships early, that’s just the way I was (and still am).
Your book Young, Fun, & Financially Free is geared for Millennials; what are they doing incorrectly with their financial decisions, and why do they need to address it now?
Because a lot of Millennials are already feeling financially hopeless and lost, they often give up on their goals before they even get started by ignoring the root of their money problems, overspending, and not fighting for what they’re worth. Being in the right money mindset is the first place to start to change this. To get in the right money mindset you need to know what you’re working for. What do you want your life to look like? Now? In five years? Day to day? Yearly? What things really matter to you? Do you want to work eight-hour days? Four-hour days? Be an entrepreneur, or have the benefits of being an employee like extended medical coverage and a 401(k) plan for retirement? Do you want to travel four weeks a year? Support a loved one in need? Be involved in your community or give back to a cause important to you? Once you actively start to think about what really matters to you and your lifestyle wants and needs is when you’ll get the motivation and inspiration you need to make the changes required for growth.
I love that you talk about Notorious B.I.G’s “Mo’Money = Mo’ Problems” mantra in the book. Why did he get it wrong?
Money is only a problem if you’re not using it, or recognizing it, for what it truly is, a powerful tool. If you treat money like it’s worthless you’re likely to not have, make, or keep much of it. B.I.G.’s reference was to having too much money and that creating problems. If the value of a dollar was truly recognized, and to some people like me I believe that it is, we would all be much better off. Next time you spend a dollar on anything, remember all the people around the world who have nothing, and what they could use that dollar for (food and water for days, access to education, medical supplies, etc.). This might help you curb your spending and boost your savings. Plus it won’t hurt you in the gratitude department either, which we can all use more of.
You advocate against impulse spending, but what can you absolutely not resist to buy, even with your budgeting?
I believe in investing in good quality shoes, bags and coats. Timeless pieces that will last for years. That said, they will always be at least 40% off and in current season (sounds crazy), but I find them! My mom and grandma made me a fantastic shopper and I give no apologies for my fashion or finance expertise :-) The business of fashion is also a passion of mine!
Any mistakes along the way that you learned from?
No one’s perfect! I wrote this book because I made mistakes, had lots of crazy things happen, and learned from it (the key*)! Live and learn. My 20s were full of major risks and rewards. One piece of advice I would pass along to women in particular is a warning against mixing money, in particular loans in personal relationships whether it be with a friend, partner, or otherwise. I made this mistake far too many times and these relationships suffered deeply. I would say be very selective with these types of arrangements as the resentment isn’t worth it, particularly if the relationship is of the romantic kind.
How important is branding for not only a company, but for yourself? What kind of personal brand should people strive to create?
My company Black Hawk Financial is all about helping financial services companies create brands and marketing strategies specific to their values and ethics. So of course for my own business, this is something I focus on with my team closely. We align my own personal values with that of Black Hawk, #YoungFunFree (the book), and the work we do with clients. Aligning our values, ethics, and creating emotional connections between consumers and our brands is the goal, and not just from a client and sales perspective. When someone has a point of contact with me, my book, or business, I hope they get a sense of who I am as a person, because all of those things represent me and my values.
Do you need a college education to understand the everyday world of finance?
No. No, and no. Did I say no? Money is simple. The word should be money not finance. You don’t need to understand the “financial world” to understand the basics of your money, your investments, and the things you need to do to plan for yourself and your future. Ignore the media, ignore the hype and all the extra stuff. It’s meant to scare and confuse you. Be prepared, yes, know what insurances you should have, medical coverage, etc. But forget the rest and focus on your needs.
Why is it important for women especially to take hold of their financial freedom?
The gender pay gap still exists. Into 2018 the median salary for women is roughly 22% lower for women than men. That’s not to say that all women fall into this statistic, but it goes to show that generally we are likely fighting harder for our money in the workplace. Which also means that we also need to be smart about how we are saving, spending, and investing our hard earned cash to make it grow, so we have some left over for fun and the future. Not just because of our gender alone do we need to take hold of our financial independence, but we should be doing it because we want to be just that—independent! Gone are the days of being expected to be married off and a housewife once you turn 23. You can choose to do that, or whatever else you want. Again, whatever your Nirvana looks like, make a plan, manifest it, and work for it to make it happen.
Biggest female inspirations/role models?
- Diane von Furstenberg (Founder, DVF & Author of The Woman I Wanted to Be)
- Tory Burch (Founder & CEO of Tory Burch)
- Lori Harder (Self Love Specialist, Podcast Host, & Bestselling Author)
- Tanya Zuckerbrot (Dietician, CEO & Founder of F-Factor, Author)
- Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook)
- Sophia Amoruso (Founder of Nasty Gal, Author of GIRLBOSS)
What’s next for you?
Continuing to build Black Hawk Financial and partnerships through my work with Young, Fun & Financially Free and the WE Charity. Beach walks in LA, hiking in Vancouver, and runs in Central Park with my canine best friend Mickey. Family and friends time skiing, boating, and drinking wine. Living my ever-changing gypsy life one day at a time.