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Why Women Need to Master Their Finances

A few money truths suggest key challenges to secure their futures

By Kerry Hannon

I’m also keenly aware of a rising number of single women over 50 who pay a steep mortgage rather than rent and don’t put a penny into their tax-deferred, employer-sponsored retirement accounts. Another big mistake.

How women deal with their money is a subject near and dear to my heart. I began exploring this area of personal finance back in 1996, when I wrote the book 10 Minute Guide to Retirement for Women. Two years later, I followed it up with Suddenly Single: Money Skills for Divorcées and Widows. Since then I’ve interviewed, counseled and given speeches to many women about their finances.

What I tell them is this: Women don't need to invest differently from men or think about their finances in a dramatically divergent way. But they do need to work harder at it.

The Obstacles Women Face

Forgive me if you've heard this before, but the way the deck is stacked against women is worth repeating. Sadly, things have barely changed since I entered the workforce in the early '80s:

Women typically earn less than men. Their median wage is 81 percent of men’s, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study based on 2010 incomes. Even top-tier professional women generally earn less than their male peers. As Bloomberg just reported, female chief financial officers earn 16 percent less, on average, than male CFOs.

Women live five years longer, on average, than men. This means they need to set aside more money than men to avoid outliving their income.

Many women take time off to raise a family or care for an aging relative. That’s wonderful in many ways, but it has loads of problematic financial repercussions — causing them to miss out on raises, reducing the amount they eventually receive from Social Security during retirement, and giving them fewer years to finance a retirement plan at work and to have their contributions matched by their employers.

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Women are more likely to work part-time or for smaller firms. In many cases, this means they don’t have access to an employer-sponsored, tax-deferred retirement plan even when they are working.

Many women are less confident than men about managing their money. A new study from the BMO Retirement Institute, a think tank run by BMO Financial Group, found that nearly three-quarters of men felt at least somewhat knowledgeable about financial products and services, while only 54 percent of women did.

If you are 50 or older, make it a priority to take advantage of what the IRS calls “catch up” contributions. People of this age can invest an extra $1,000 in a traditional IRA or Roth IRA for 2015, boosting the standard $5,500 limit to $6,500.There are also catch-up rules for 401(k) plans: For 2015, the standard contribution limit for those plans is $18,000, but people 50 and older can invest an extra $6,000.

If you can take advantage of the catch-up gift, you should. You’ll thank yourself when you retire.

Photogtaph of Kerry Hannon
Kerry Hannon is the author of Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home. She has covered personal finance, retirement and careers for The New York Times, Forbes, Money, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today, among others. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life, Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond. Her website is kerryhannon.com. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon. Read More
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