“One of the tough things for women is that they don’t have role models for handling their money,” says Karen Altfest, Principal Advisor and Executive Vice President of Altfest Personal Wealth Management.
For twenty three years, Altfest, a Certified Financial Planner (CFP), has dedicated herself to both educating women about their finances—through lectures, books and articles—and helping her clients, all of whom are women, assess, plan, invest and take control of their financial lives. She conducts seminars for recent widows and people seeking to retire. Her Financially Savvy WomanTM programs, including the Women’s Financial SpaTM, are popular with clients. Her husband, the “near legendary” Lewis Altfest, is CEO and Chief Investment Officer of their New-York-based, fee-only, financial planning and investment management firm.
They are a formidable team, routinely listed among the top wealth management and investment advisors in the U.S. by Barron’s, Wealth Manager, Worth and other top financial publications. But what is unique about Karen Altfest is her exclusive focus on the needs of women, be they single, married, divorced, widowed or in a same-sex relationship. Seated in her comfortable corner office on Park Avenue, she makes it clear that, “Women are the people I most want to work with.”
Altfest did not expect to become a financial planner. She received a PhD in history from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, working closely with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., her mentor. But upon graduation, academic jobs in her field were nonexistent in New York, especially for a married woman with a child. So she created and developed for Pace College an educational program for people who wanted to become CFPs, then went on to run the Investment Program at The New School for sixteen years. It was a job she loved but eventually, perhaps inevitably, she became a CFP herself and joined the firm that her husband started in 1983.
“We have different skills, and it’s been a fabulous combination.” They co-authored a book, Lew Altfest Answers Almost All Your Questions About Money, and in 2001, she wrote and published, Keeping Clients For Life. Their son joined the family business after receiving his MBA from Columbia. Today, the firm’s twenty-plus specialists, organized into “teams,” serve a growing list of clients.
Altfest believes graduate school provided an excellent background for her life. “It taught me skills I always use. I became a really good writer. I love to write articles and write to my clients. I’m a fabulous researcher. And even in history I was less interested in battles and dates, then in the individual lives of people. So it was an easy transition to what I’m doing now because I still want to know, what are people doing? How are they living, saving, going to retire? What about their grandchildren? It trained my mind. The firm is very analytical. What if you retire in a year or three years or ten years? Or you inherit your money? Or you get ill? Or your husband decides to take some years out of the workforce? We do as much analysis as we can.”
Altfest is a fountain of insight, knowledge and wisdom on the subject of women and money. Here are a few of her answers to questions we posed.
When should a woman start thinking about her financial future?
When you have questions you can’t answer. Instead of listening to a guru on TV who doesn’t know you or your situation, instead of talking to a colleague who has her own problems or requirements, or asking a brother-in-law, you should get a check-up from a CFP. As with a dermatologist, a CFP will tell you if you should come back immediately or in a few years. When you have a lot of doubts, fears, worries, questions, have the courage to consult a professional.
What is the most common mistake women make?
Many woman put off thinking about money far longer than they should. Somebody in their 40s should be taking their money very, very seriously. Thinking that somebody else is going to do it for you or putting it off is not a good idea.
I think to stand back and see the big picture is the way to go, as opposed to making what I call pizza-pie decisions, such as, can I afford to go out to dinner? Can I afford a vacation? Instead, you should be looking at your long-term goals and figuring out how to achieve them. So, for example, if you have $10,000 and wonder where to put it, you need to know what else you have, and what are your goals.
What is the biggest problem women face when it comes to their finances?
Lack of confidence. Which is strange because we drive without knowing how to fix an engine. We e-mail without knowing how to fix a computer. But we stay away from our finances because we don’t know how to construct a portfolio. In a way, that doesn’t make sense. People are very, very afraid of making mistakes.
Who should consider consulting with a Certified Financial Planner?
Anybody who wants to reach their goals….to educate their kids, to take vacations, to have a house, to retire one day. Don’t assume you are like everyone else and can do what your girlfriend is doing.
One final piece of advice you can offer women?
Sometimes the best advice comes in the simplest form. I was speaking to a woman who is very accomplished but not a big money earner. She had a very clear, down-to-earth philosophy. She said, I was taught to live on less that I earn. I still do that. Sounds like good advice to me.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions
Favorite Place to Shop: I enjoy museum stores. You can often pick up interesting gifts there. Recently I found an unusual folding trivet for an engagement party at the MOMA store.
Favorite Place to Eat: In the summer, I like to have lunch outdoors at St. Bart’s Church at the Inside Park restaurant. It’s so charming, the salads are great, and it seems like it could only exist in New York City.
Favorite New York Sight: The trees, dog run and children’s playground in Carl Schurz Park near Gracie Mansion are unrivaled.
Favorite New York Moment: For the 25th Anniversary of our company in June 2008 we held a celebration at the New-York Historical Society. When the bagpiper descended the marble staircase, and then led our staff down the aisle to the stage, our 350 clients in the Great Hall held their collective breath. That was a heartfelt New York moment, and one to always remember.
What You Love About New York: When you’ve moved to NYC from somewhere else, you never completely get over the sense of being at the epicenter of excitement and activity.
What You Hate About New York: That’s a stronger word than I would choose, but I do wonder if we need so many street fairs that all seem the same.