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Courtesy of Lauryn Williams

Lauryn Williams had plenty of wins during her athletic career. She became the first American woman to earn a medal at both the summer and winter Olympic games, scoring a gold medal in the 4X100-meter relay in London in 2012 and a silver in the two-woman bobsled in Sochi two years later.

But she says it was her losses that helped fuel her post-retirement success as the owner of her own financial planning firm in Houston. “Being able to gracefully handle loss and dust yourself off is a good skill to have,” says Williams, now 35.

Her resilience has helped her persist through the challenges of building a business from scratch. These include passing the certified financial planner exam and attracting new clients through speeches and other community outreach. Her business, Worth Winning, will turn three in April and has just become profitable.

Williams has carved a niche for herself helping her millennial peers tackle their student debt, adopt sound budgeting practices, and start saving for retirement. “They’re young professionals trying to figure out what ‘adulting’ means,” she says.

Investing for retirement is crucial, Williams says, but before you jump into the stock market you need to lay a solid financial foundation. Here's her playbook for success.

Own Your Mistakes

Williams finds that many clients want to sweep their money mistakes under the rug. But she encourages them to face their past head-on: “Ok, I made a mistake,” she says. “Now what?” If you don’t openly acknowledge what went wrong — and forgive yourself for it — then it’s harder to learn from your mistakes, she says.

Williams speaks from experience. She turned pro in track and field at age 20, making more than $200,000 a year. It was a lot more money than anyone in her family had ever made. One of eight siblings, she was raised by two entrepreneur parents who split up when she was three years old. Her father became sick with leukemia and was unable to work for years before he died in 2008, when she was 25.

Silver medalists Elana Meyers (L) and Lauryn Williams of the United States team 1 celebrate during the medal ceremony for the Women's Bobsleigh on day thirteen of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at at Medals Plaza on February 20, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Alexander Hassenstein—Getty Images.

“I knew there were responsible things to do [with money], but I didn’t know what they were,” she says. Over a stretch of years, she hired and fired two financial advisors after they got her into inappropriate investments and failed to help her the way she wanted. “It was a lot of, ‘don’t you worry your pretty little head about it, you just race,’” she says. “I felt very disorganized with finances.”

She began researching the financial planning profession and decided to become an advisor herself after she retired from her athletic career in 2014. She failed the first time she took the exam to become a certified financial planner, a rigorous, optional designation that indicates competency in a broad range of financial planning concepts. “I didn’t realize it was more like the bar exam,” she says, an endeavor whose preparations consumed students for months on end. So she redoubled her efforts and passed the second time around, in early 2017.

Budget for Emergencies

Before you can save for retirement, you need to understand your cash flow, Williams says. And that involves making a budget. She’s a fan of the financial planning software You Need a Budget, or YNAB for short.

Many of her clients live paycheck to paycheck, juggling both credit card debt and student loans. Budgeting helps them recognize how much they’re spending on eating out and cell phone bills, two expense categories that are ripe for cutting, Williams says. She also helps them understand their options when it comes to student loans. For example, many aren’t aware of income-driven repayment plans, where monthly federal loan payments can be capped at a percentage of your income.

The next step is creating an emergency fund. She recommends that young professionals hold three-to-six months' worth of their take home pay in their emergency pot and advises athletes to hold six months' to a year. Without such a cushion, it’s easy to rack up credit card debt if faced with an unexpected bill for, say, a car repair or a medical procedure.

Start Saving for Retirement

Retirement isn’t even on the radar for many of her young clients. She’ll get blank stares when she asks them, “What will it look like when you’re not working any more?” To prod them to think about retirement, she’ll ask them about their parents, or other older relatives who are much closer to that life stage.

With the groundwork laid, it’s time to look at clients’ investment options for their retirement savings. Some clients are professional athletes like she used to be, without access to a company 401(k), and she helps them set up a SEP IRA or Solo 401(k). (She wrote a guidebook to becoming a professional track and field athlete that's available for pre-order now.) Helping fellow athletes is a particularly rewarding part of her job, Williams says: “It feels good getting them on the right track and not getting into the situation I was in.”