Six ways women can improve their finances

Oftentimes women feel the pressure to say "yes" to everyone's requests, inevitably emptying their wallets. How can you reduce the number of financial burdens in your life but still feel good about your money decisions?

Mary Knox Merrill/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Imaging specialist Cassandra Murray scans documents at Pixily headquarters in Waltham, Massachusetts. Women are more likely to have less savings due to interrupting their careers for their families, and only 47 percent of women have an emergency fund compared with 62 percent of men.

Women like me — and you! — tend to nurture and care for those we love, even to the detriment of our own needs. We support our loved ones in many ways — emotionally, spiritually, academically, physically. Women are also often called on for financial support, and we find it hard to say no.

How are you burdened financially by your children, significant others, parents, relatives, friends and neighbors? How do you evaluate the validity of their requests and handle them well?

First, ask yourself:

  • Whom do you feel the need to help (financially and otherwise)? Kids, parents, husband, boyfriend, church, your business, friends, kids’ schools, worthy causes …
  • What are some ways you can say no that reduce hurt and disappointment?
  • How can you put aside your own guilt while avoiding blame?
  • What methods can you use to rationally and kindly explain your limits?

Women’s impulse to help others can reduce their own financial security. According to the US Department of Labor’s Women and Retirement, “Women are more likely to work in part-time jobs that don’t qualify for a retirement plan. And working women are more likely than men to interrupt their careers to take care of family members. Therefore, they work fewer years and contribute less toward their retirement, resulting in lower lifetime savings.” So you save less and give more, which makes your midnight fears of becoming a bag lady more real.

Even today, with women making up nearly half of the workforce, women step easily into the role of caretaker. And caring for someone costs money as well as time. The typical woman loves her partner, her children, her parents, her partner’s parents, her extended family, her friends … Add to that all the lives (and financial requsts) that nudge — or collide with — your own (neighbors, schools, worthy causes, natural disasters, homeless people, professional associations, friends of friends, musicians, artists, churches), and your wallet and drooping bank account will feel the pinch. The list really never ends, nor does your compassion for those affected.

It’s hard to say no. You need to say it every day, though, because you need to be financially stable yourself. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau defines financial well-being as “a state of being wherein a person can fully meet current and ongoing financial obligations, can feel secure in their financial future, and is able to make choices that allow enjoyment of life.”

So, how can you make the right choices to feel safe?

  1. Prioritize. First, identify what you really care about. That means what you think matters, not what you’re told is important by society or family or friends or your church. If you care about making a child’s ballerina dream come true, and you can afford it, then let your money go to that, even if others tell you it’s an unrealistic, impossible goal.
  2. Be flexible. Acknowledge that there are less-expensive routes to a goal. A college education doesn’t require four-year attendance at Harvard complete with an Audi and an Ikea-inspired loft. Community college at home for two years while a student waits tables before transferring to the local university can serve the same purpose and cost much less.
  3. Don’t insist on perfection. Think about how easily kids accept and have fun in situations that are less than perfect. If the football field is lopsided, kids simply adjust by making it five points for a touchdown on the downhill end of the field, and then they start hiking the ball. They don’t stop the game because the setting isn’t perfect. Women need to fight the urge to throw the perfect Harry Potter-themed birthday party or find the perfect designer bag for an outfit. “Good enough” is fine — and much cheaper.
  4. Delegate and empower. OK, say you’ve gotten to the point where you’d like to devote some of your resources to yourself instead of to others. (Just saying that makes you squirm a little, doesn’t it?) To accomplish this goal, start by gently but firmly shifting responsibility for problems to the owners of those problems. The change doesn’t have to happen right away, and you can un-delegate if you change your mind! How can you empower others? Try referring them to an expert for advice. Pass along ideas on how to save or generate money for a particular goal. Help a loved one get the necessary treatment to end a costly bad habit. Change like this is hard for you and for the person who has come to depend on you, but small steps to resolution are good.
  5. Educate yourself. Bolster your resolve by learning about managing your money. According to Tabea Bucher-Koenen of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Group, “financial education programs seem to be particularly successful for women. Women are more likely than men to change their behavior after attending a seminar on retirement goals and saving behavior. Specifically, they are more likely to increase their retirement age and adjust their saving behavior.” Sign up … and then go!
  6. Visualize the future. A final inspiration to put yourself first is a sobering statistic from CNBC: Just 47 percent percent of women have an emergency fund, compared with 62 percent of men. Less than half of women have money saved for our own unexpected expenses. It’s hard to look into the beautiful face of a beloved daughter who needs money for modeling pictures and say no, but when you peer into the future at 65-year-old you, the words “No, sweetheart, I can’t afford it” come a bit easier.

The very courageous Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who introduced Montessori education to the US, wrote that “a mother is not a person to lean on, but a person to make leaning unnecessary.” Resolve to become someone who encourages self-sufficiency in your loved ones.

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