Despite our many advances, it seems like women still fall behind men when it comes to money. Is that true? And what can we do to catch up?
Your question is spot on because, yes, women are still behind men financially. And yes again, there are definitely things we can — and must — do to catch up.
The encouraging news is that women have come a long way in terms of education and participation in the workforce. In fact, according to recent analysis from Pew Research, more women than men in the labor force have bachelor’s degrees, and women 25 and older now represent more than half of college-educated workers.
However, the news isn’t quite as good on the economic side. Again from Pew Research, although the wage gap between men and women has narrowed somewhat in the 25-34 age group, full-time working women still make roughly 80% of what men earn. And this has a lot of economic repercussions — both present and future.
Salary differences don’t just affect our day-to-day spending decisions; they also affect our ability to save and invest for the future. Statistically women live longer than men so we generally need to save even more. But earnings are only part of the story. In spite of professional advances, women are still struggling against some cultural stereotypes that, whether we like it or not, affect how many of us relate to money.
A lot has been written about why many women don’t engage more directly with their finances. Some of us underestimate our financial abilities. Or we’ve historically relied on men. Or, all too frequently, we haven’t had strong female financial role models. But whatever the reason — and whatever provides the wake-up call — women need to be actively involved.
While the need for women to engage in their financial lives is urgent, I also find it exciting and empowering! By taking charge of your finances, you’re taking charge of your life. Here are five practical things you can start doing right now:
1) Make retirement a top priority
Women often put others’ needs ahead of their own, but when it comes to retirement savings, you have to be more focused on your own needs. Make sure you contribute to your 401(k) or other employer plan at least up to the company match and more if possible. Don’t have a company plan? Open an individual retirement account.
If you start saving in your 20s, you’ll need to put aside 10% to 15% of your income for retirement. But if you wait until you’re 40, you’ll have to save a whopping 30% of your salary.
While those numbers may be sobering, so are some statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services. According to the 2018 Profile of Older Americans, almost half of all women 75 and older live alone. We need to be prepared.
2) Don’t just save; invest
Part of that preparation is learning to make the most of your money, and that means investing. Studies show women are more cautious than men when it comes to the stock market. Overall, we invest 40% less money than men do — even though other studies show women tend to earn higher returns than men!
Long-term, that hesitancy to invest can put us at a real disadvantage. Especially for something with a long time horizon such as retirement, you ideally want a diversified stock portfolio that’s positioned for growth, which translates into taking a bit more risk. While that can sound daunting, it doesn’t have to be. You can take that risk and structure your portfolio in the context of a well thought-out financial plan.
3) Team up with an adviser
When it comes to investing and managing your money, having a support team can be a great confidence booster. So even if you’re just starting out — and especially as your assets grow — consider working with an adviser. I think of a financial adviser sort of like a personal trainer: someone to guide you and keep you going on the right path, even when you might otherwise lose focus.
An adviser can help you look at the big picture, focus on retirement planning and build a well-diversified portfolio. And working with an adviser who understands you and your goals can be a major source of peace of mind. So think about the type of person you’d be most comfortable with. A lot of women prefer to work with a female adviser. But gender aside, look for someone with whom you can communicate easily.
Financial advice comes in many forms, and how much you want to work with your adviser is up to you. You might be satisfied with a one-time consultation or periodic check-ins. Or you could opt for full-time asset management. If you go this route, just make sure you understand and are comfortable with the way your adviser is compensated.
4) Develop a financial plan
Whether you work with a certified financial planner or prefer a more DIY approach, having a financial plan can make a real difference in your sense of financial security. A recent Schwab study on women’s confidence levels in managing their finances indicated that women with a written financial plan were significantly more confident — and less likely to lose sleep over their finances — than women without a plan.
This backs up my own opinion: I’m a huge advocate of having a financial plan because it means going beyond saving and investing to look holistically at all the interrelated parts of your financial life. It means reviewing your income, expenses, investments, retirement planning, insurance coverage, income tax liability, estate planning needs and desires and, most importantly, how they all work together. Plus, it means you have a roadmap to follow.
5) Be your own advocate
Female or male, single or married, all of us need to be actively involved in our financial lives. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Seek out help when you need it. And realize that it’s your money, it’s your life, and ultimately, you’re in charge.
Finally, as you get on top of your own finances, share your experiences. Talk to other women. Expand the financial conversation. Together we can buck the stereotypes and become the CEOs of our own financial lives.•
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, Certified Financial Planner, is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty.” You can email Carrie at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are those of the author.
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