Women have something in common when it comes to their money: At some point in their lives, they will need to manage it on their own.
Women are marrying later or never marrying, at a higher rate than ever, with marriages down 60 percent from 1970.* The divorce rate in the U.S. remains high, at 40 to 50 percent, and women still outlive men by about five years. Still, many women are unprepared to be effective stewards of their financial lives.
As an advisor focused on women clients, I often hear statements such as:
“My dad invested my money for me, and I haven’t looked at my accounts since he died.”
“My brother is managing my money, and I’m not sure how it’s invested.”
“I handled the bills, and my husband took care of everything else.”
“I’m embarrassed about my finances and how clueless I feel about my money.”
By seeking out an advisor, these women acknowledged they needed help, but there are many who don’t seek help and miss out on opportunities to save and invest wisely—possibly undermining their financial health.
Because of these realities, I believe it is crucial that women make financial decisions as if they were the sole keeper of their personal finances in all phases of their lives. Learn from these women and their stories:
Single, Urban and Underpaid
Mary is a single woman living in an expensive urban area. She is 35 years old and has a job that she loves.However, her pay covers her living expenses—and that’s about it. She isn’t saving for retirement and has $15,000 in a savings account, earning next to nothing. She feels she is underpaid, but she is very loyal to her employer and is always willing to take on extra work for no extra pay.
Advice: As the sole steward of her finances, Mary owes it to herself to ask for a raise – at least enough so that she can contribute to an individual retirement account. Or, she could ask her employer if they would contribute to a retirement savings account for her.
If she can’t get an increase in pay or benefits from her employer, then her only options are to find a higher-paying job or to reduce her living expenses. Then she can afford to save for retirement and other financial goals.
Middle-aged and Widowed
Sally is 57 years old, the mother of a teenage daughter and a recent and unexpected widow. She gave up her career to raise her daughter and now works part-time for very little money.
For the first time, she is forced to handle the finances: understanding her investments and figuring out whether there is enough money to last through retirement. As she becomes more educated, she realizes that her husband left some money on the table. For example, he wasn’t contributing the maximum to his 401(k) plan or contributing enough to get the full employer match. In addition, he invested his 401(k) savings in stable value funds as he was extremely risk-averse. Given the number of years he worked, the 401(k) balance is disappointing.
Fortunately, he worked for a large corporation, and there were other retirement income benefits. Sally and her husband were frugal, and she thinks she will be able to get by, but she is actively looking for full-time work.
Lesson: Women who disrupt their careers to raise children also disrupt their ability to save for retirement. However, there are several things that wives can do even if they aren’t earning money:
– Get educated about basic investments, and understand the investments in spousal retirement and joint accounts.
– Make sure their spouse is fully maximizing employee benefits, (especially employer match to a retirement plan), life insurance, and disability benefits.
– Learn about and take advantage of the spousal IRA.
– Have jointly owned, as well as individual, bank and credit card accounts.
– Know where all the money is, and keep log-in credentials for all accounts stored safely.
– Open a Roth IRA and contribute any earned income from part-time work.
Successful and Divorcing
Jane has a lucrative corporate career in technology. She is 45 and has made six figures since her late 30s and receives generous company benefits. She has a large balance in her 401(k) plan and substantial investments outside of her 401(k).
Her husband, who is a writer and stay-at-home dad (they have a 7-year-old son) announced unexpectedly that he wanted a divorce. Jane, focused on her work, did not expect this and realized too late that she did not prepare for this possibility. She has hired a lawyer to help with a property settlement.
Lesson: If a woman is coming into a marriage with wealth, it pays to consider executing a prenuptial agreement beforehand. Prenups are not a romantic proposition, and it might seem like they’re meant only for the super-rich, but that isn’t the case.
At a highly emotional time, she will be required to make decisions that will affect the rest of her life, as well as that of her child. A prenuptial agreement would have made this process a lot less stressful and ensure a fairer outcome.
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