Why financial independence is a top priority for the LGBTQ+ community
A study reveals how common experiences — and challenges — have defined the goals and concerns of LGBTQ+ individuals
By Bill Van Parys
AS MY HUSBAND AND I SAT IN THE AUDIENCE of the Global Pride Kickoff on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in June 2019, I listened with amazement to the keynote speaker. Her tribute to LGBTQ+ elders and pioneers was a testament to the monumental progress — the right to be out while serving in the military, the right to adopt, the right to marry — that the LGBTQ+ community has achieved in spite of the systemic challenges we’ve faced.
But as I looked around at my fellow audience members, I wondered how these challenges may have shaped our behavior and worldview. And for those of us who have been financially successful — the event was, after all, a fundraiser with pricey tickets — I also wondered what subtle effects those challenges may have had on our sense of self-reliance, the ways we define success and how we prioritize our financial goals. The answers to these questions, of course, aren’t simple, not least because it’s almost impossible to overstate the diversity of the group of individuals that identify as LGBTQ+.
In order to better understand the financial planning needs and goals of the LGBTQ+ community as well as their social identity, diversity and the challenges they have overcome, Merrill conducted an in-depth survey. Over a period of months, the company undertook an immersive educational journey, hearing stories from employees, academics and community leaders, as well as parsing data from an online survey of hundreds of affluent individuals.
“‘Diverse Viewpoints: Exploring Wealth in the LGBTQ+ Community’ is just one in a series of studies1 we’ve commissioned to help us better understand the financial realities and needs of the diverse communities we serve,” says Shelley Saraniti, currently a managing director and National Financial Advisor Development Program (FADP) performance executive at Merrill and chair emeritus of Bank of America’s LGBTQ+ Executive Leadership Council. The series includes studies exploring the financial priorities and experiences of the Black/African American community, the Hispanic/Latino community and the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. “As a member of the LGBTQ+ community myself, I’m proud to say that Merrill is committed to serving all people. That begins with listening to their needs — hearing from them how we can better serve them,” Saraniti adds.
What respondents to Merrill’s LGBTQ+ study confirmed is that, despite their diversity, LGBTQ+ individuals have a few things in common when it comes to the financial realities of their lives, their priorities and the challenges they face as they pursue their goals.
Overcoming shared challenges
While LGBTQ+ individuals may come from different backgrounds, have different family experiences and represent every race, age and career choice, we share hard-won struggles and experiences. For example, Merrill’s survey found that workplace discrimination and a lack of career advancement opportunities led many older LGBTQ+ individuals to pursue less traditional career paths, often in sectors that don’t facilitate the accumulation of wealth.
“The fear of being homeless if you come out to your parents is a very important and significant issue in the LGBTQ+ community.”
The study also showed that LGBTQ+ individuals were less likely to have achieved key financial milestones such as buying a home on the same timeline as the general population — and were more likely than their non-LGBTQ+ peers to say they had to chart their own path toward financial independence. “I had to do things differently out of necessity,” Carlene Jadusingh, an attorney from a matriarchal Jamaican family told me, reflecting on her success in running her own practice. “I actually found an apartment when I was 21 and signed a lease because I knew that in order to live my life the way I needed to and wanted to, I had to be out of my mom’s house. The fear of being homeless if you come out to your parents is a very important and significant issue in the LGBTQ+ community.” This perceived need to work harder to prove ourselves professionally and find our own way to financial independence may help explain some of the other key findings of the study.
“Just think of how vulnerable you are if you’re in a nursing home and staff doesn’t approve of you as they help you shower.”
We worry about growing older alone. Financial independence comes with some challenges. Among them: the question of who will take care of us as we grow older. The LGBTQ+ individuals surveyed were one-third more likely to cite paying for long-term care as a top financial goal than the general public. LGBTQ+ discrimination within public senior-care facilities is another very real concern, particularly for those in the trans community. “Just think of how vulnerable you are if you’re in a nursing home and staff doesn’t approve of you as they help you shower,” notes Sterling Cruz-Herr, who identifies as transgender and nonbinary. Cruz-Herr is the founder of TransClue, which advances inclusion for all genders through training and consulting.
Leading cause of LGBTQ+ financial stress:
Paying for healthcare and long-term care
“One of the reasons I joined the board of SAGE — Advocacy and Services for LGBTQ+ Elders — is because I came to realize that our pioneering elders, the people who have made it possible for me to live my life out loud and proud, have been discriminated against, bullied, separated and forced back in the closet in the nursing home, which is, you know, it’s outrageous,” adds Jadusingh.
Without children as advocates and with worries that public facilities may not be trusted to carry out one’s best interest, healthcare proxy issues are best sorted out in advance: LGBTQ+ individuals were far more likely to be focused on end-of-life planning than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, and older affluent LGBTQ+ individuals were also more likely to have a will than the general population. In some cases, that may be because we have fewer children, who would be natural heirs.
We fear outsized medical bills. LGBTQ+ community members who witnessed the AIDS epidemic — myself included — keenly understand the importance of maintaining good health and of being able to afford to pay for it. HIV/AIDS care and its related health complications over time are a critical factor for gay men, while in the transgender community, the sheer physical cost of transitioning — surgeries, medications, therapies, speech training — is enormous if not prohibitively expensive, topping six figures in some cases. And in vitro fertilization and surrogacy can present huge financial challenges for those in the LGBTQ+ community who want to start families.
It makes sense, then, that affluent LGBTQ+ individuals were one-third more likely to list paying for healthcare as a top financial goal and a main source of financial stress than non-LGBTQ+ folks. Indeed, I’ve been sweating this issue for the past 40 years. In fact, LGBTQ+ individuals were more likely than the general population to list paying for medical care as a greater source of stress than saving for retirement. It’s among the chief reasons I want to make sure I get financial advice from professionals who understand the specific needs of my community.
“I’m not going to pinch pennies for something if we really want it. I know more than most how things can go in an instant.”
We’re generous with ourselves — and committed to helping our community. Speaking of retirement, though we value financial independence, according to the study, we are 35% less likely to list saving for retirement as one of our most important financial goals and 34% more likely to say we want to spend our money on enjoying life now. “I’m not going to pinch pennies for something if we really want it,” Tammi Schaeffer, D.O., a longtime emergency room physician now working in the pharmaceutical industry, notes regarding her spending habits and those of her wife. “I know more than most how things can go in an instant.” That’s a realization that really hit home during the coronavirus pandemic, she says.
Yet despite our desire to live in the here and now, the LGBTQ+ community is also far more likely than the affluent general population to view giving back to their community as a top priority — most notably by donating money to national causes.
My husband and I can relate to that finding; we never lose sight of how fortunate we are as successful professionals in fields that we love. So we plan to continue thinking about the concerns and realities that underlie some of our financial goals — and use them, we hope, to create a brighter future both for ourselves and the coming generations.
Bill Van Parys has covered international news, pop culture, sustainability and design for many national publications, including Rolling Stone, The Advocate, The New York Times, Vibe, Men’s Journal and Fast Company. As a community activist, he works to advance LGBTQ+-friendly elder housing initiatives nationwide through SAGE, where his husband, Doug Harris, recently served as board co-chair.