Dear Carrie, I’m a single woman, just turned 40, and recently got a new job with a significant salary increase. This is a wakeup call that it’s time to get on top of my finances. What should I be doing? — A Reader
Dear Reader, It’s interesting how a milestone like turning 40 can bring with it new realizations. (For me, turning 50 was a pivotal time!) But whether it’s a new decade, a new job, or a new life stage, realizing that you need to take control of your finances is important for anyone at any age.
To me, it’s particularly important for women — both single and married — for a lot of reasons. For one, statistically we live longer than men so we need to plan for our money to last longer. Not only that, according to a 2015 Census Bureau study, we’re paid just 80 percent of what men are paid. This means we need to stretch our dollars even further when it comes to saving and investing. Plus, we’re still struggling against some cultural stereotypes that, whether we like it or not, affect how many of us relate to money.
There’s been a lot written about why women don’t engage more directly with their finances: we underestimate our financial ability; we’ve historically relied on men; and, for the most part, we haven’t had strong female financial role models. But whatever the reason — and whatever provides the wakeup call–women need to be actively involved.
While the need for women to engage in their financial lives is urgent, to me, it’s also exciting and empowering. By taking charge of your finances, you’re taking charge of your life. The question, of course, is how.
Make Retirement a Top Priority
Women often put the needs of others ahead of their own, but when it comes to retirement savings, you have to be a bit more selfish. Make sure you contribute to your 401(k) or other employer plan at least up to the company match, and more if possible. At 40, if you’re just starting to save, you really should be socking away a minimum of 25 percent of your annual salary.
That may sound like a whopping amount, but before you panic, do a quick estimate to determine how much you may need. Ideally, your Social Security benefits and any other guaranteed income plus a 4-5 percent annual draw from your portfolio should cover your expenses. The numbers may be sobering, but so are some recent statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services. According to the 2015 Profile of Older Americans, almost half of all women 75 and older live alone. We need to be prepared.
Don’t Just Save — Invest
Part of that preparation is learning to make the most of your money, and that means investing. Studies have shown that women are more risk averse than men when it comes to the stock market. Long-term, that 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 because you don’t have to go it completely alone.
Team Up With an Advisor
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 advisor. I think of a financial advisor sort of like a personal trainer, someone to guide you and keep you going when you might otherwise be tempted to call it quits.
An advisor can help you look at the big picture, focus on retirement planning and build a well-diversified portfolio. And working with an advisor 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 advisor. But gender aside, look for someone with whom you can communicate easily.
Of course, how much you want to work with your advisor 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 your advisor is fee-based (not paid on commission).
Consider a Financial Plan
To really get on top of your finances, you may want to work with a Certified Financial Planner(r) professional to develop a comprehensive financial plan. 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 goes beyond saving and investing to look holistically at all the interrelated parts of your financial life. It reviews 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 gives you a roadmap to follow.
This can take a huge burden off you in the short term because you won’t have to sweat it on a daily basis. It can also be a great motivation to stay engaged for the long term because you have a plan of action.
Be An Advocate
Female or male, single or married, all of us need to be actively involved in our financial lives. But many women especially need be encouraged to take greater charge. 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 “It Pays to Talk.” You can e-mail Carrie at askcarrie@schwab. com.