For Sarah Miller, feeling empowered all starts with leading a more intentional life.

It’s how she approaches work, giving back and, especially, finances. “My belief is that people do better in their finances and achieve more of their targets if they narrow their focus on what’s important to them,” says Miller, a Northwestern Mutual financial advisor based in Denver.

Miller believes that women in particular often “feel pulled in different directions in their budget — as in, ‘I have to put money into this or that because that’s what I’m supposed to do,’” she says. “But then when they get honest about where they’re spending their money, it doesn’t really fulfill them.”

That’s why as an advisor she coaches her clients to focus on what makes them feel happy, and how to incorporate those things into their financial goals and create a more fulfilling budget. Here’s how she came to embrace this principle in her own life and in her work with others.

Who did you look to for inspiration early in your career, and what sort of advice did they give?

I came straight off the college campus to Northwestern Mutual and grasped for any mentorship that I could find. I reached out to the chief development officer of my office, Dina Traskos, and asked her to informally mentor me. I wanted to have a female mentor who understood some of the things that were a little different for me as a female advisor. She told me to be more authentic and to stop trying to do things a certain way because that’s how other people were telling me to do them. When I started to feel more authentic about how I wanted to run my practice, more people wanted to work with me.

How do you like to pay it forward when it comes to empowering other women?

I understand my role as an advisor to be a bit more of an educator. A lot of women I work with do a lot of the budgeting and planning around their finances, but don’t always even enjoy all the things they’re spending money on. My approach is, if you want to travel, then let’s redirect where you’re spending and earmark more of your budget toward travel. I want them to understand what the priorities are for their budget and that they can be more intentional about their spending. I’ve been comparing it the KonMari organizing method. It’s about asking yourself what’s important and what sparks joy in your budget.

Outside of working with clients, our office does a lot of work with Girls Inc., which offers STEM curriculum for girls. I’ve read that a lot of times girls get disinterested in math and science at a young age and are discouraged from going into careers like sales or finance. From a giving back standpoint, I’m trying to empower the next generation — that’s really where I can see the most impact. I was on a committee that helped the girls come up with an entrepreneurial idea for repurposing prom dresses. I’ve also volunteered on days where they learned about aerospace engineering and architecture. It’s really been fun and fulfilling to see girls expand what’s expected of them.

You can’t just tell a woman, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do with your money,’ — they don’t want to be told, they want to understand why.

Do you notice a difference in how women and men approach their finances?

I feel like men are a lot quicker to make decisions, whereas I think women are taught to be more cautious so they approach their finances with a lot more practicality. You can’t just tell a woman, “Hey, this is what you need to do with your money,” — they don’t want to be told, they want to understand why.

So as an advisor, when I bring into the conversation things like tax planning and estate planning and market volatility, I explain how all these efficiencies can play well together in a well-orchestrated financial plan. Then I think they are a lot more inclined to do the work to get there, because they can visualize all the options that financial planning can really create for them down the road.

What’s the biggest mistake you see Americans making with money?

Not really understanding why they’re spending their money on what they spend it on. I’ve done this exercise with a lot of clients on their budget, but I started it with myself. I evaluated my discretionary expenses and realized I was spending so much money on things that I didn’t really care about. I was just doing it because it was part of the norm.

For example, I was constantly finding myself going out to happy hours, and I don’t even really enjoy drinking alcohol. And I was eating out a lot every week when I’d rather enjoy a more intentional meal a few times a month at a nice restaurant. I needed to stop spending money on things that gave me stress when I realized how much I was spending on them.

Now I intentionally spend money on the things I feel great about. I made the conscious decision not to drink anymore, mostly for budget reasons. I love to cook, so when I want to have dinner with my friends, I invite them over and cook for them. It has saved me a tremendous amount of money and allowed me to take two pretty sizable international trips within a three-month period: I went on a trek in Patagonia with a friend and to Cambodia to visit my older brother, his wife and my nephew and niece. I didn’t feel the crunch of having to plan for a trip financially because I wasn’t spending money on other stuff that didn’t matter.

What’s the best piece of financial advice you’ve ever received?

The best piece of advice I've ever received is so true but is also the most counterintuitive: I’ve learned that the more generous you are, the more you give, the more your financial situation changes for the better. It's certainly not a logical thing, but there is power in giving. Currently, I’m focusing my giving on a church that is near and dear to my heart, The Genesis Project in Fort Collins, Colorado, my home town. Not only are they bringing faith to the community, they are focused on building real relationships with people who may have lost hope or been overlooked.

Whenever I've made giving a priority in my financial plan or seen others make it a priority, it’s reaped so many benefits in the long term. It’s certainly not the most “financial advisor” thing I’ve ever said, but it’s the best lesson I've ever learned. In fact, my biggest personal financial goal is to make giving my biggest bill.

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