Listen Up, Ladies: Tips for Closing the Financial Gender Gap

Jean Chatzky
Income gap
Income gap

This week, I bring you good news and bad news, both of which come from a study by the folks at Financial Finesse. For three years, they've been analyzing the gender gap in financial literacy. The bad news is that after some progress in 2011, the gap appears to be widening in 2012. Women are falling behind, specifically when it comes to money management and investing.

Only 43% of women reported having an emergency fund in place (compared to 63% of men) and just over half felt comfortable with the amount of non-mortgage debt they were carrying (compared to 71% of men). About half of the men surveyed say they rebalance their investment portfolios, while among women, it was only a quarter.

Now for the good news: Women are slightly more likely to report participating in their employer's retirement plan, says Liz Davidson, CEO and founder of Financial Finesse. "We're doing a better job with some of those longer term issues, and at least at the rate we're participating, we're in line with men there. That hasn't always been the case."

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That, of course, doesn't mean we're contributing the same amount in dollars and percentages, which is the next hurdle to tackle. "We ideally should be contributing more than men, because we live longer. And that makes the gap even more concerning, because women have pressures that men do not have," says Davidson.

One of those pressures: A high likelihood of having to be solely responsible for our own finances at some point. The National Center for Women and Retirement Research reports that nine out of 10 women will end up in this position, either after a divorce or the death of a spouse.

Those possibilities are no fun to think about, but you'll feel better if you prepare for the unexpected. Here's how to start.

• Put yourself first. We have a problem doing this in general, not just financially. If you don't prioritize yourself, you'll put the needs and wants of your family over your own -- whether that means saving for college or buying your teenager those pricey shoes has to have. One easy fix is to set up the contributions to your retirement account -- a 401(k) if you have access to one; an IRA if you don't -- so they are pulled automatically every month. Do the same for an emergency fund. That money is off limits.

• Get risky. Women are more likely to avoid risky investments -- recent research from Northwestern Mutual showed that 44% of women prefer lower risk choices, compared to only 35% of men. But low risk often means low return, and any gains you do see can be eaten away by inflation. It's important to have a good mix in your portfolio -- both equities and safer investments like bonds.

• Find (good) help. We're not afraid to ask for help, which is great. But often, that help arrives in the form of a financial adviser spewing jargon that does us no good, because we don't really understand it. I've said this before: If your financial adviser can't explain things in plain English and answer your questions, it's time to find a new one. Ask friends and co-workers for recommendations, meet with a few of advisers, and then go with your gut instinct.

• Do your own research. Maybe CNBC is intimidating to you. That's fine -- I'd tend to agree. But there are a ton of websites (like this one) and books (like my latest, Money Rules) that break down financial information into manageable pieces. Find one that speaks your language.

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