Get to know the people behind the financial advice in our Planner Profiles series, where you’ll get the inside scoop on their best money tips.

By all accounts, Andrea Williams is a self-starter.

She worked her first W-2 job when she was 13. She got a full-ride scholarship to college and graduated early. When she first realized she wanted to put her savings to work, she rented DVDs on how to start investing. She’s always working on other ways to help people understand the financial basics.

That type of determination helped Williams understand from an early age the importance of managing your money responsibly, which ultimately led to her becoming a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual in Chicago. Here, she describes why she thinks education is the key to feeling in control of your finances.

You’ve been a self-starter your whole life. Did that apply to your career as well?

One of the challenges of being a woman in finance was that there weren't many women who had come before me and were available to provide mentoring. So I had to learn a lot on my own by furthering my education through thousands of hours of study and exams, which ultimately led me to earn the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification and a Chartered Life Underwriter designation. I’ve really made an effort to continue a lifelong education in this space and leaned on education to serve as my mentor.

They say if you want to go fast, go alone — but if you want to go far, go together.

Has that impacted how you pay it forward to other women professionally?

Absolutely, 100%. They say if you want to go fast, go alone — but if you want to go far, go together. I think if you are able to tap into other people’s knowledge, your trajectory is just so much stronger. I find myself pouring energy into other advisors, giving back to my company and getting engaged with affinity groups at work, whether it's our women's groups or diverse groups with a focus on helping people of color.

Are there any challenges that you think are specific to women when it comes to their finances?

I think, culturally and historically, women have been kept out of financial conversations. How you were raised and what kind of conversations you had with your parents dictate a lot of how much you know, even about the basics. So my challenge is bridging that gap and bringing my clients to a place where they feel like they really understand the essentials. I want them to feel empowered to make decisions for themselves and understand why they’re doing so.

I have noticed that in my 11 years in this space, the newer generation of women are a lot more curious and proactive about financial planning. It's changed the way I deliver financial planning in my practice. There’s a lot more focus on education and understanding how and why things work, as opposed to me just delivering a list of recommendations with limited explanation. I've also invested in having additional people on my team who focus entirely on educating our clients.

Who first taught you about money?

My parents were deliberate about making sure I had strong money management skills. I always had to work for my allowance and was responsible for a lot of my everyday needs: bus fare around Chicago, school lunches, my phone bill. If I wanted to spend money on any discretionary things, I had to budget for it. I learned that I could walk to and from school instead of spending $2 each way on the bus. I could make my lunch instead of paying for it. I learned to make tradeoffs so I could invest in things or experiences I felt were more enjoyable. My parents knew they were going to give me a fixed amount every month and that I wasn't going to bother them for every random little thing, so it created predictability for my parents, and it created an opportunity for me to make adult decisions with my dollars.

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

Americans can build a false sense of security around retirement, especially if they saw their parents retire with a pension. But we are in very different times, very different economies, and there's a lot more personal responsibility these days in making sure your finances are on track to live the retirement of your dreams.

It's like asking someone: What would your financial situation look like if you stopped working for 30 days? How about 60 days? Can you afford to take 90 days off without an “auto-replenish” to your bank account from your employer? A lot of people would say they don't know. Well, think about taking off 10,000 days. When people think about it that way, it really lights a fire in them to get more curious about how they can take control of their retirement strategy.

What is the most satisfying moment you've had as a financial advisor?

In 2013 my younger brother, Drew, had a traumatic brain injury that he incurred from a high school football accident. For a long time we didn't think that he would make it. Six months after the injury, he finally came out of his coma, and my family realized he was going to be disabled and require 24-hour care for the rest of his life. I think the most rewarding moment in my career was knowing exactly what to do in that situation for the sake of my family's finances.

We immediately sat down and had a meeting with a special-needs specialist at Northwestern Mutual. As a result of that, I can sleep at night soundly knowing there's a financial plan in place for Drew. It gives me the confidence to continue planning and living my life, even enjoying my life, knowing he's completely taken care of.

What is your biggest personal financial goal?

I want to make sure I have the resources to do everything in my power to help Drew make progress with his brain injury, whether that’s doing elective procedures or more research on alternative treatment methods.

And I also want to make sure that my financial plan is still set, even as I’m carving out resources to help him. I have found comfort and reassurance in knowing I have taken active steps to not have to worry about my finances, because everything is so well planned for.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, CFP® (with plaque design) and CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.

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