From left, TogetHER Invested volunteers Sheila Menair, Lisa Dunning, Allison Bishop, Erin Chenard and Alison Thompson meet in Menair’s barn in Harpswell. (Photo courtesy TogetHER Invested)
“When I first say the word finance or budget, what’s the first word that comes to your mind?”
When Harpswell resident Sheila Menair, one of the founders of the local nonprofit TogetHER Invested, asks that question, the answers tend to be rooted in anxiety.
That’s why she and eight other professionals in law, finance and family matters — Allison Bishop, Erin Chenard, Terri De Coster, Sarah Doucette, Lisa Dunning, Cecilia Guecia, Whitney Lallas and Alison Thompson — volunteer their time and expertise to empower women through financial wellness.
TogetHER Invested, established in 2021, traces its beginnings to financial education for women going through divorce.
A financial advisor for more than 20 years, Menair became a certified divorce financial analyst in 2014 to enhance her business’s offerings.
“I just started meeting women who were coming in desperate to find someone who could help them,” Menair said.
Allison Bishop, of Falmouth, a certified public accountant and financial coach, was also seeing a need.
“I had a few people say to me that I should work with women going through divorce, which honestly sounded terrible to me. It sounded really depressing!” Bishop said.
Seeing that Menair was a certified divorce financial analyst, Bishop reached out.
“She said, ‘Working with divorced women is the most rewarding work that I do,’ and that honestly changed my whole mindset about it. I will say, now I completely agree,” Bishop said.
In 2017, Menair and Bishop began collaborating with other local professionals to host what is now known as the Maine Divorce Workshop, which is still the group’s most in-demand workshop.
“Women who are going through a divorce are very often terrified financially. And most people have not gone through a divorce before, so it’s brand new to them. They sometimes can’t visualize the path in front of them,” Bishop said.
A 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that women who divorced or separated after age 50 experienced more financial harm than men. For example, women’s income fell by 41%, nearly twice the 23% drop for men.
The Maine Divorce Workshop does not offer legal advice, but provides general education.
“It’s really good for someone very early in the process or even who hasn’t decided they want to get a divorce, they just want to explore the idea and to get a sense of what it would look like for them,” Bishop said. “The idea of it is to help them identify what is relevant to them, and then what kind of professionals they need to help them through the process.”
Menair attributes some of the workshop’s success to the group’s whole-picture approach.
“There are plenty of financial literacy classes out there, but nobody tackles the emotional side of it first,” she said. “We cover the legal side of it, the financial side and the emotional side.”
The workshop is broken into three parts, each taught by a professional in that field. Topics range from how to choose an attorney, to the splitting of assets, to how to handle difficult conversations with children and take care of yourself.
“The Maine Divorce Workshops we do monthly because they are needed that badly,” Menair said. “We’ve never not had interest. The No. 1 thing women say, especially when I’ve met women who have already been divorced for years, is, ‘I wish I knew about this back when I got divorced.'”
“My husband handled all of the financial stuff, and I think that’s the case for a lot of women,” said Jena Gorham, of Scarborough, who attended a virtual Maine Divorce Workshop in 2022 after hearing about it from a friend. “It can be very intimidating as far as you have no idea where to start.”
The workshop “made me feel like I had the skills to protect myself and do what was best for me,” Gorham said. “It gave me a feeling of confidence in what I was doing, and that I knew what to do and where to go, and if I didn’t know something, where to get more information.”
From left, TogetHER Invested board members Erin Chenard, Sarah Doucette, Allison Bishop, Lisa Dunning and Sheila Menair. (Photo courtesy TogetHER Invested)
Workshop leaders say the results are visible.
“It’s amazing to see the shift in women — in just that one workshop you can see a lot of weight off their shoulders and the relief,” Menair said.
In order to broaden their services beyond divorce education and seek new funding opportunities, the group of volunteers established TogetHER Invested as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2021. Volunteers Menair, Bishop, Chenard, Doucette and Dunning became board members.
Over time, TogetHER Invested has expanded its offerings to include a yearly Waking up to Wealth workshop, as well as “GatHERings” for women to get together, learn more about the nonprofit’s mission and have judgment-free conversations.
“I get a lot of women who are like, ‘Nobody talked to me about money when I was growing up,’ and they don’t feel capable, and they are totally capable and savvy,” Bishop said.
The Waking up to Wealth workshops, held over brunch, are aimed at cultivating financial knowledge and confidence.
“It’s for women to get over the emotional psychology of money and get comfortable with it,” Menair said. “It’s a money mind shift, first of just getting you out of the angst and the scary part, to advance yourself personally, and your family, and the next step is to help yourself and the community. I can teach you all I want about budgeting or saving for retirement, but if you have extreme angst over it … even if you know the skill, you’re not going to get to the skill if you can’t get past the emotional response of it.”
“Once you have confidence and feel more comfortable talking about money, then you are going to be more comfortable asking for a raise, you’re going to be more comfortable negotiating for a car,” Menair continued. “It’s just a whole other attitude to have and it’s great to see it. And we see it from women every workshop we do. It’s a three-hour workshop, but you see it happen right in front of your eyes. If it didn’t happen, our volunteers wouldn’t still be doing it.”
Even with information about the workshops traveling mostly through word-of-mouth, they have been in high demand, with four to 10 women participating in the monthly Divorce Workshop, and another 20-25 women participating in the yearly Waking Up to Wealth brunch. So far, the organization has served more than 250 women.
Some attendees of the Maine Divorce Workshop have found it so valuable that they have sponsored future $35 seats for other women who may be in difficult situations.
“Things like that are beautiful,” Menair said. “We’ve kept that price so low for so long, but part of it is the pay-it-forward mentality of just, we’re here to help you get in a better place in your life.”
Donations can be made to sponsor attendees, or to support the nonprofit’s work in general, on TogetHER Invested’s website.
The workshops have been held at various professional offices, community rooms, and even in Menair’s barn in Harpswell. During the COVID-19 pandemic, workshops were held via Zoom, significantly expanding their reach.
The Maine Divorce Workshop now rotates each month between Zoom and locations in Brunswick and Falmouth, so participants can choose what works for them. A recorded version of the workshop is available year-round.
The nonprofit’s next goal is to create a women’s financial wellness center in the Midcoast, which would serve as a central location for their events and workshops.
“It’s like a village of women. We all work very well together, we all share the desire to help, because we’ve all been doing this for so many years,” Menair said.
“It is truly a labor of love,” Bishop said.
TogetHER Invested’s next workshops will take place in September. For more information, or to sign up for an event or join the mailing list, visit togetherinvested.com.
Jessica Picard, of Newcastle, works for the Maine Department of Labor, writing and photographing in her spare time. She previously worked as a journalist and photographer in Midcoast Maine and Massachusetts.