The secret? There are no egos involved!
I am many things. I am a woman. I am a Millennial. I am a first-generation immigrant from Vietnam. I am a hard-worker. I'm also someone who thinks about the value of money, because growing up that wasn't something that myself or my family had a lot of.
These days, I think about money a lot. That's not just because I have a career in the finance industry, but because in my marriage, I chose to. I am the wearer of the theoretical “financial pants." While it's not the most “traditional" or romantic role that I fill in our relationship, its one that I really enjoy - even when it means making difficult financial decisions for me and my husband.
To fully unpack what it means to be the financial “pants wearer" in our marriage and how we came to this agreement, I think it's important to go back to square one and look at why I'm more inclined to this role in the first place.
I grew up in Vietnam, a wonderful and vibrant country that I'm extremely proud to be from. That said, when thinking of the most financially prosperous countries in the world, few would put Vietnam at the top of that list - and rightfully so, workers in Vietnam average $148 a month in take home salary.
While my family was lucky enough to earn more than that, we were not frivolous. We recognized that our material comfort came from my parents' hard work and aggressive saving on a middle-class income, so that they could afford quality education for me and my sister. We were fortunate to be around when money was discussed at the dinner table, among other topics that my parents believed we would benefit from knowing from a young age. We were a team after all, they said. Instead of treating ourselves to meals out, we got an annual membership to a warehouse club that gave us access to quality ingredients and bonded over cooking our own meals.
My mother agonized over buying a new handbag, but never said no when my sister needed tutoring lessons.
I thought we had everything we needed. But that all changed when I enrolled at a magnet high school further from home, where my friends' parents were executives and government officials at places I had only heard of on TV. I started to realize that we would need more than my parents' middle-class incomes for me to attend language immersion camps, among other enriching experiences that would have real impacts on my future success. For the first time, I was made aware of the very real disadvantages that not coming from a lot of money may have in my academic and life progression. It was then that I vowed to give my own kids the opportunities that my parents couldn't always afford for me and my sister.
I made do with what I had, and won a full-ride scholarship at a liberal arts college in upstate New York. It was there that my interest in finance and money intensified. I ended up majoring in Economics - which taught me a ton about not only about how money works on an individual scale but also how the entire economy of the United States and other countries operates. Straight out of college, I paid off my student loans and immediately began using budgeting apps to get my finances in line. These apps allowed me to better understand my expenses and budget - which helped me balance both saving and taking advantage of all the fun things to do in New York City - where I lived at the time.
Cut to several years later, in the midst of grad school (and even more loans), I met my future husband and as they say, the rest is history. With our common Vietnamese heritage, we immediately clicked on our shared heritage and admiration for each other. What did we not click about? You guessed it: money. From the outside, few would suspect that our attitudes toward finances diverge. From the inside, it couldn't be further from the truth.
Unlike me, my now-husband didn't grow up in a money-minded household. My husband's parents came to the US as war refugees and picked up blue collar jobs. Eventually, they bought and owned a small tire shop to earn their living and put he and his two siblings through college. My in-laws worked hard to make sure my husband and his siblings would have a better life, but when it came to managing their careers and balancing a young-professional budget in expensive cities, they were on their own. It wasn't until his late 20s that my husband acquired a copy of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad." Looking back, it's easy to see how this stark difference in our upbringings affected our attitudes towards money.
Where I really saw this difference wasn't so much in our day-to-day spending habits, but in our long-term financial goals. While I maxed out my 401k, put much of my paycheck towards paying down my students loans, and consistently used finance-tracking apps and software, my husband took a more lax approach to his finances. While he had a general idea of his current finances, he was content with a “I'll get to it later" attitude when it came to his planning for the future. He also scored a well-paying job right out of college so “making it work" wasn't as much of a worry for him.
Thankfully for us (and the health of our finances), we recognized these money-related differences in ourselves pretty early on. Just by recognizing it, we were able to have an honest conversation about our priorities around money, our preferred roles and what we wanted our financial future to look like. With this, I assumed the role most natural to me: the financial planner and “pants wearer."
What does this really mean? Day to day, I make sure the bills are paid, and long term, I plan our finances ahead of new phases of our lives - like when I entered graduate school or when both of us started working again. It's at those big life moments that I take into account our new incomes and financial goals and make adjustments.
Four years into our marriage and I have to say that discussing our philosophies towards money was one of the better things we've done for our relationship. My husband has absolutely no qualms about me setting the direction for our financial future, and there are no egos involved. That doesn't mean there aren't small hiccups here or there, but overall we're truly happy with how we divide and conquer our financial roles and responsibilities.
I've heard of stories of couples fighting over money dynamics, and I honestly cannot put a finger on why we were so successful. Perhaps it is the mutual agreement of each others' strengths and weaknesses when it comes to financial management. Or maybe it's the open communication, and staying honest when I want us to pursue or financial goal, or when my husband thinks we can cut back.
Like many things in life, money reflects our life experiences and deep-seated values. While everyone's experiences and values can be different, it's important to take the time to sit down, reflect and discuss these things with your partner - preferably before you walk down the aisle. For us, I'm more than grateful for our journey, as it only helped us reconcile our money differences and bring us closer and more appreciative of what each other brings to our special relationship.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.