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Turning Challenge into Opportunity

Learn how Steph Wagner harnessed the power of resilience and is now paying it forward.

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By Jessie Sardina, Contributor

Given this issue’s theme, The Power of the Pivot, I sat down with Steph Wagner to learn more about her personal story of reinvention: from private equity vice president to stay-at-home mom, to single mother fearful about her financial security, to Northern Trust’s National Director of Women & Wealth. Her life’s biggest turning point led her to discover her passion and devote her life to educating and empowering women to take charge of their financial lives.

Steph, can you share a bit about your story and what led to your passion for helping women?

One day, I had a happy and prosperous family — or so I thought. And the next, I was alone, sobbing on a park bench and wondering how I would support my three sons. My husband of nearly 20 years had just told me he was in love with someone else and wanted a divorce. I was devastated.

Back in time and pre-kids, I had a thriving career in private equity and was on track to an Ivy League MBA. Then, when I was six months pregnant with a 2-year-old at home, I was asked to board a four-seater Cessna to go look at a deal in rural Alabama. Juggling this, combined with the fact that my husband traveled over 150 nights a year, I knew in this moment something had to give. So, without hesitation (like, the very next day), I quit. I put my career on hold and, despite my financial background, eventually left all money matters to my husband.

What I did not realize then, was that these choices also caused me to relinquish my independence and become a passive observer in my eventual financial downfall.

Thirteen years later I found myself divorced, jobless, and a single mother of three. I had to start again.

Like many divorces, mine was not a pleasant one. It was difficult enough to get past the grief, abandonment, and place of staring at the floor trying to figure out how I was going to put one foot in front of the other. All I wanted to do was crawl back in bed to escape the reality of my situation. Compounded with my sadness was a loss of purpose and an urgent need to regain the financial independence I once had.

I remember thinking: ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life? And how will I ever be able to support my family after being out of the workforce for 13 years?’

But I knew I didn’t have a choice. I had to rebuild my life and reinvent my career because failure was not an option. I was raising three boys alone and (among other things) facing 12 years of college tuition, as well as my own eventual retirement. I also knew my sons were watching me and I needed to teach them the importance of resiliency.

Steph and her sons

Finding my way back to economic security was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But as painful as the journey was, it was also a gift that changed the trajectory of my life.

I discovered my joy and am now living a life full of purpose.

I care about women owning their financial power because I lived it. I took what I learned during that challenging time and combined my financial background with a newfound and unwavering passion for educating and empowering women to take charge of their wealth.

This led me to build a national consulting business as a divorce financial strategist and create an educational company for women about money. Nearly a decade later, I joined Northern Trust to oversee the firm’s advisory practice for women and to lead its Elevating Women platform. One of the things I’m most proud of is that Northern Trust has been committed to the needs of women for more than 130 years. It’s an organization filled with people — both women and men — who share my passion.

As you began to forge a new path, what was your first step?

Despite a successful financial career earlier in life, when my husband left I had no idea how much was in our bank accounts or what our monthly expenses were, let alone how our assets were invested or the specifics of our retirement plan. The demands of running a household, raising children and subsequent division of duties between my spouse and I led to such blind spots. To successfully rebuild my life, I knew I had to regain a comprehensive understanding of my finances, and my first step was to take a hard look at my spending.

I began to examine everything: I documented monthly expenses, itemized bills, and (among other things) I read the fine print on my credit card statements — 18 percent interest, OUCH! I realized two things: I was wasting a heck of a lot of money! And I had more control over it than I thought.

Needing to put a roof over my head didn’t mean it had to cover 3,500 square feet. Same went for my grocery bill, which was out of hand thanks to my organic food and a fine wine habit. Within two months, I traded in the big house (along with its big utility bills, and big rooms to furnish and clean) for a more manageable condo a few blocks away. I also replaced my luxury SUV (and its high monthly payments, costly maintenance, and gasoline bills) for a more affordable and reliable sedan.

I kept going: I ditched the gym membership for a bike; I learned to say 'no' more often to my kids (and,  wouldn’t you know — they still love me). In total, I cut nearly $3,500 off my monthly nut. I knew that money would be better spent investing in myself and creating opportunities for the future. 

And that’s when I began to think about how I could turn my nightmare into something good that could help other women in similar circumstances and eventually build a new career out of it.

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