How Every Woman Can Take Control of Her Finances

It may seem patronizing or silly to offer specific retirement planning advice for women. After all, money is money, and compound interest works the same way whether the name on the account is John or Joan. And it's not as if we are living in an era where most women stay home instead of earning an income; today women make up nearly half of the workforce.

But even if I feel like my husband's equal in earning power and investing know-how, the fact is that I am more likely than he is to be among the ranks of the elderly poor. In fact, a recent analysis by the National Institute on Retirement Security found that women are 80% more likely to be in poverty at age 65, and the disparities just get larger as women get older.

There are many reasons why we women may not do as well as men in retirement preparation.

"Women statistically make less than men, so they have a smaller base to work with. And women tend to want to take care of others before themselves," said Sally Brandon, vice president of client services at investment adviser Rebalance IRA.

Then there is the fact that more women take long breaks from full time work to care for children, and are more likely to work part time -— conditions that diminish our likelihood of socking away retirement funds.

So what should women do to avoid having to subsist on Friskies in our latter years? Keep these things in mind.

Find an Adviser Who Listens to You

In my household, I handle our taxes and other finances. It's just not my husband's forte. So imagine my chagrin when I decided to hire an accountant, and he switched my husband's name to "taxpayer" and mine to "spouse" on our IRS forms. He said he did it because the IRS likes consistency — nevermind that we had consistently filed the other way for 15 years at that point!

Other couples I know have met with financial planners who address all their questions to the husband only. That's why it's important to interview a potential adviser before committing. If you visit with your spouse, make sure the adviser addresses both of your concerns. Pay attention to how women working in the adviser's office are treated. And of course, if it makes you feel more comfortable, you can always hire a female adviser or one who specializes in helping women.

Just as important as selecting an adviser you're comfortable with, Brandon says, is signaling to that adviser that "you're a part of that process as much as the person next to you" with your active participation. For instance, Brandon and her husband recently met with an estate planner together.

"I started asking a lot of questions, and by the end, everything was being addressed to both us, and not to just him," she says.

Make Your Retirement a Priority

A survey by financial services organization TIAA-CREF revealed that nearly half of women say they can't afford financial advice, and one in three say they don't have time to seek it. That's another example of women putting the needs of others before their own.

"You get pulled and tugged in so many directions," said Brandon, herself the mom of three.

Because starting early is key to amassing adequate retirement savings, it's important for everyone, including busy mothers, to take the time as soon as possible to set up a retirement savings plan and check up on it regularly.

Save Even If You're Not Working Full-Time

Women are twice as likely to work part time as men, and we are also more likely to take extended breaks from the workplace and have nonlinear career trajectories. If your career has taken this kind of path, it should be incorporated into your planning. Better yet — and I get that this can be tough — evaluate the effect that such a break or shift would have on your retirement before you decide to do it.

One way to keep saving during a break, Brandon suggests, is by contributing to a spousal IRA, which is simply a regular IRA that a nonworking spouse can contribute to in order to keep retirement savings going even during a career break.

Don't Let Divorce Derail Your Future

No one plans for their marriage to end in divorce. Yet, after seeing too many friends and relatives have their finances shredded by divorce, I've come to the conclusion that all married people should be prepared to weather a divorce if necessary.

Statistically, women are more likely to be financially hurt by divorce. We're more likely to have custody of the kids, and many single mothers receive no child support. Anecdotally, I know women who had no credit in their own names until they got divorced and found themselves applying for a credit card with no credit history, or even worse, a credit history that was shredded by the ex's actions.

The first thing women can do to prepare for divorce is the same thing she can do to prepare for successful retirement if she stays married: Understand the family finances. Pay attention and ask questions. Don't leave it all to your spouse.

The next part happens during the divorce: Fight for what you deserve. Divorce attorneys report seeing many women settle too soon in divorces and accept too small a share of the couple's net worth, just to get it over with. Some men bully and harass their wives into giving in, and even use the children against them.

In divorce, as in marriage, remember that as important as the pressing issues of today may seem — the kids' needs, the stress — retirement can last a long time, and it will seem even longer if you have to spend it eating cat food.

What are you doing to take control of your finances?

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