Many surveys have shown that women tend to carry more debt than men, and that they make less money to boot. To compound matters, under-saving for retirement is common for men and women of all ages. Here are some steps you can you take to help level the playing field and secure your financial future.
- Know what you’re worth – and fight for it. Not negotiating a fair salary at the beginning of your career is like leaving anywhere between $1 million and $1.5 million on the table in lost earnings over your lifetime. That’s because even a small raise translates into bigger annual raises and possibly bigger bonuses as well, year after year. Women are particularly vulnerable to this mistake because, as many studies have shown, we generally don’t negotiate our salary increases as often as men, and when we do, we typically ask for less.
- Ask yourself the question first. For many women, there’s a real reluctance to confront the question at all. So, the first step is to ask yourself: Am I being paid fairly? Then, take it a step further. Ask yourself: What would happen if I asked my employer this question? Get comfortable with the idea of asking. It’s an important question that deserves to be addressed.
- Get the data. To be in a strong position to negotiate a fair salary, you need to get the facts and be sure they are current: What is someone in a comparable role, in the same industry, being paid today? Accuracy of information will bolster your confidence as the negotiations warm up.
- Be ready to get creative. An immediate raise is great, but if that’s not an option, consider other options, such as additional vacation time. Or, work out a long-term plan with your boss to earn a raise in the future. The more specific the plan, the better. Specify deliverables and a time frame for each. Once you meet the agreed-upon goals, your boss will find it very difficult to refuse you the raise you’ve demonstrated you deserve.
- Strategize with a coach. A growing category of experts called salary coaches or compensation analysts specialize in helping women figure out what their singular skills and experience are worth in the professional marketplace and how to negotiate for that. To a woman unaccustomed to confrontation and negotiation, a salary coach’s insights can be invaluable, whether she is crafting a resume to fit a particular job description, negotiating starting compensation with a hiring manager or asking her current boss for a raise.
- Quickly get a handle on your expenses. When you know where your money goes, you are in control and can be thoughtful about aligning your spending to your priorities. Use a money tracking service online, like Mint or Quicken, to see all your financial accounts in one place and even create your first budget. You will always know where you stand financially: Mint, for example, gives you complete access to your data through the website and your mobile device, whether you use iOS or Android. Better yet, Mint keeps an eye on your money for you. It even sends alerts to remind you to pay your bills or when you go over budget.
- Get your emergency fund squared away. Unexpected expenses happen all the time, but if you have a cushion of savings, these unexpected expenses don’t have to derail you. How much should you set aside? Your cash reserves should cover six months’ worth of expenses. After you have this six-month cushion, you should also set aside a separate emergency fund, enough to cover 24 months of expenses, for longer-term situations such as an extended illness. The small spending sacrifices you make as you build your cash reserves will be well worth what you gain in peace of mind. (Don’t forget to replenish your emergency fund every time you use it.)
- Save 10% of your income, no matter what you earn. If you are able to regularly save 10% of your income, you’re living within your means. These routine savings will make other smart money moves possible, such as a down payment on a house, college fund for future offspring, and your eventual retirement, no matter how far off it may seem. If saving 10% seems too hard, set up automatic bank transfers for the beginning of every month. By doing this, money you have earmarked to save is transferred from your checking to your savings account before you have a chance to spend it on something else.
- Tame debt like it’s your job. Work towards paying off all your credit card balances. Then, once they are paid off, continue to pay off your credit cards every month. Why? Interest on credit card debt is usually many times more than that of other kinds of debt, and also many times more than what you could make if you put this same money in a savings or investment account. So every penny you pay down on your credit card saves you a lot of money in the long run.If you are carrying student loan debt, consider refinancing. It is one of the best ways to pay off your debt faster and more cost-efficiently. When you refinance your student loans, you’ll have one consolidated loan with a single monthly payment and a lower interest rate, which is important as more of each payment goes toward paying down the balanced owed. If you decide to take this path, the first step is to find a reputable bank you’re comfortable working with and see what they can offer (ask friends and family for banks they do business with). Compare interest rates and steer clear of companies charging high upfront fees to help you consolidate your student loans or that claim to be “approved” or “exclusive” services to “special programs.
- Bite the bullet and start maxing out your 401k and saving in an IRA. Too many people delay saving for retirement because they don’t know which accounts they need, which funds to buy and how much to contribute. My advice: Don’t overthink it. Get help. Your benefits administrator and reputable fund companies like Vanguard and Fidelity can answer those very questions without requiring you to get a finance major in retirement accounts along the way.
Nervous about committing yourself to the maximum contribution for a full year? Start as close as you can to the maximum, then bump up your contribution at the next enrollment date (usually quarterly) after you understand your expenses more clearly. Set a calendar alert so you won’t forget.
Whatever you do, be disciplined about never borrowing from your 401k. Over the years, emergencies will come up, and you will need to cover unexpected expenses like if your car breaks down. Find other ways to cover these expenses. Your 401k is for one thing only: funding your retirement.
- Start an investment portfolio. These days, many younger people are deliberately “traveling light” financially — for example, by choosing not to own a car or by delaying buying their own home. If you are one of these people, remember that you still need to cover the basics: building a cash cushion, paying down debt, and saving for retirement. But by spending less and assuming less debt, you may be in a position to start an investment portfolio earlier than your peers. Do it. Time is on your side, and the earlier you begin, the more you will have when you need it in the future.Don’t worry about making mistakes. The truth is, you don’t really have to “learn” investing before doing it; you can get started investing in just a few simple steps. To get set up: call one of the high-quality, low-fee money management companies, like Vanguard, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price, tell them about yourself and ask them to tell you what type of account or fund you need, and what minimum investment requirements apply. These companies, which are the gold standard in the financial services industry, are extremely knowledgeable and committed to serving their clients (who, in the case of Vanguard, are also their shareholders). Companies like this get you started with a comprehensive, diversified, low cost fund that will serve you well as a beginning investor. Follow their recommendations and you won’t go wrong.