How Every Woman Can Protect Her Financial Future And Why She Needs To

August 29, 2023

We marry later, live longer than men, and spend way more on health care. That’s just the beginning.

THE HOTTEST QUESTION in financial management right now isn’t about rates of return or the next hot stock. It’s about a market worth trillions — yes, trillions — of dollars: What do women want?

The financial services industry as a whole, long an old-boy fortress, has finally awakened to the notion that it has not been speaking to women, though women control an estimated $11.2 trillion in investable assets, according to the industry’s Center for Talent Innovation. That discovery has not only spurred new approaches in marketing and training by big asset-management companies, but it has generated new companies founded by women eager to support female financial well-being.

And yet, despite all of this wooing, women’s increased earnings and status, and the reality that in this pension-less age we must all cultivate our own retirement funds, women can be hesitant investors. We are more likely than men to hoard our money in cash, and there’s a debate over whether we suffer from an investing confidence gap.

 “Not to go all patriarchal, but if you think about the financial services world, it was built for and by men,” says Diane Bourdo, president of The Humphreys Group, a San Francisco-based wealth management firm founded in 1983 with an emphasis on marketing to women. “So, everything is defined from their perspective, and that’s fine. But it’s not necessarily how women might have developed it.”

Today, about 70 percent of her firm’s clients are female. Bourdo doesn’t buy into the idea that women are to blame if they are less-confident investors. “Maybe men are the ones who we should be asking, ‘Why do men have so much confidence and how has that gotten us into trouble?’” she says.

Sallie Krawcheck, founder of Ellevest, an investing firm aimed at women, likes to note the symbol of Wall Street is an intact bull. She thinks women are tired of mansplaining and being patronized about finances. And she thinks women’s distinct financial needs require different investing algorithms.

 “You’d think in a capitalist society, we would go after returns, but we don’t,” Krawcheck says. “We go after great comfort among the people we’re working with.”

That sense of comfort is based around financial planners who are often male and almost always white. If you’re a woman or a person of color, odds are your adviser will not look like you. Less than 25 percent of the 85,000 certified financial planners in the United States are women. Less than 3.5 percent are black or Latino, according to the CFP Board Center for Financial Planning, an industry group.

“I certainly want to have someone who looks like me,” says Migdalia Diaz, 43, chief of staff to Rosalin Acosta, Massachusetts’ secretary of labor and workforce development. Diaz, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was 4, served in the Army National Guard for eight years while getting an accounting degree. She also previously worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers and was chief operating officer of the Association of Latino Professionals for America. She says her financial planner, who is Latino, understands how her personal history affects how she wants to invest her money.

“I’ve had financial planners before who say, when I’m thinking about the future of my mom and my stepdad, ‘Oh, you’re really generous,’” Diaz says. “Whereas my Latino financial planner gets it, right? He’s like, this is part of our culture. We look after our elders.”

Experts say women are sometimes dismissed because they want financial decisions to be built around a narrative, not just number crunching, or because their decisions are considered emotional. Bourdo recalls working with one woman who hesitated about investing in life insurance for herself. Finally, she admitted that she felt unappreciated by her family and wasn’t particularly interested in leaving them money.

“We really think it’s a mistake to think that money has nothing to do with your emotions,” Bourdo says.

The financial cultural sands might be shifting. In October, fund guru Ken Fisher, chairman and CEO of Fisher Investments, caused a commotion at an industry gathering when he made sexist comments about attracting investors. When his remarks blew up on social media, the State of Michigan and the City of Philadelphia dropped him as a manager.

Through staff training, educational materials, special events, and “gender-lens” investing that looks for companies empowering women, companies say they want to change culture in a way that benefits all investors.

UBS, for example, has changed the way it talks to clients and now focuses on three categories: liquidity (current needs), longevity (retirement), and legacy (estate planning).

But one stubborn fact about women and money persists: No matter their age, education level, or income, women are more likely than men to abdicate financial planning to their spouses, according to UBS research. That trend holds steady even among millennials.

 “In terms of long-term investing, 83 percent of single millennial women expect to participate in long-term decision-making processes. But when they get married, only 39 percent of married millennial women actually participate in [investing],” says Clare Kiesel, branch manager of UBS’s Wellesley office.

Maybe women abdicate because they want to divide tasks in the household, or because they feel disrespected or ignored by the financial services industry, or because they just don’t think they have the time. But, whatever the reason, Kiesel says, “You would never have your spouse not be able to know how to change [a] diaper, how to feed a baby. You need that duplication.”

DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGES mean women can no longer afford to take a backseat to their financial planning. Women spend more time single than they used to — probably about half of their adult lives, says Geoff Sanzenbacher, associate professor at Boston College and a fellow at the school’s Center for Retirement Research. The percentage of women in their 50s who report being married has been declining steadily over the last 50 years.

Even if a woman has a partner, she may not have enough long-term income, Sanzenbacher says. Although married women have better standards of living during couples’ earning years, research by the retirement center shows that married couples often fail to put aside enough savings to cover health care and other expenses for two.

Sarah Bauer, 56, of Boston, worries about how much she’s contributed to her and her husband’s retirement savings. Three years ago, then a single mother of two kids, she took a job with Amazon as a principal technical program manager, in part because she hoped the stock options would bolster her retirement fund. In the past, she has withdrawn money from her 401(k) to pay for school tuition and buy a house, which she describes as “a really dumb thing to do.” Though she’s now remarried and financially secure, she still harbors regrets.

“I worry that I don’t carry — I don’t pull — my own weight,” she says. “I’m used to being extremely independent.”

Statistics show women live about five years longer than men, meaning our retirement dollars have to stretch further, whether it’s paying for more trips to the supermarket or the doctor. But we are more likely than men to become disabled — 73.8 percent of us by age 80, compared with 65 percent of men, according to the census. A study found that lifetime health care costs for women were nearly $100,000 higher — or a third more — than for men, and that was published back in 2004.

One thing holds true no matter our income or education: Two-thirds of caretakers are women, according to research from the Bank of Montreal. And that means women are more likely to take time off from work or choose flexibility over salary. Bauer’s career took a hit years ago when her brother got amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and she cut back to part time to care for him and her children.

The financial deck has been stacked against us for a long time. Thanks to sexist financial laws, it’s only been about 50 years since women have had sufficient opportunities to earn and the unfettered right to manage their own money, says Kelly Gushue, owner of the Boston-based financial coaching service Personal Finance Warrior. One example: Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974, women had to have a male cosigner on a mortgage.

“The reason I stepped forward with my business is that when I was 3 years old, my mom needed to leave my dad. And, as a result, she was frozen out of the bank account,” says Gushue, who is not a certified financial planner but offers personal money coaching and online financial courses aimed at women. In most families, she says, there has only been one or two generations of women earning enough money to think about the long-term planning. And we’re still not on equal footing.

Women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of US households, own 30 percent of all private businesses in the United States, and hold the majority of management, professional, and related positions. But we still earn about 81 cents on the dollar compared to white men. The gap is even worse for women of color: the median earnings of black women equals 65.3 cents compared with white men; for Hispanic women, it’s just 61.6 cents.

And, just like men’s earnings, our salaries have pretty much stagnated since the early 2000s, including for women earning more than $120,000 a year. Many relatively high-earning women who entered the workforce in the years after the 2008 recession may have accepted comparatively low salaries and never really caught up, says Victoria Pynchon, an attorney and owner of She Negotiates Consulting in Los Angeles.

The details might feel overwhelming. But women have been led to believe the investing process is more complicated than it is, and want an approach that builds on the knowledge they have from jobs, running households, or volunteering, Bourdo says.

“So many women think they need to know about stocks before they start investing,” she says. “And that’s just not the case. . . . When we get a new client, I often say, ‘Let me tell you a little secret: This isn’t hard,’” she says. “ ‘It’s not complicated. No advanced math. And it’s within your capacity to understand this.’”

Justine Schultz, a 26-year-old aerospace engineer who lives in the Boston area, was tired of feeling left out of the mostly male conversations at work that centered around investing. So she tried to start a women’s Meetup group that would be an investment club, with members all pitching in some money each month to experiment in the markets. She had to put the idea aside when she went back to graduate school at MIT but hopes to return to it.

“I don’t want to be mansplained to,” she says. “I wanted to have a safe environment with other people who were kind of going through the same thing.  . . . So, what do we need to know?”

There are steps women can take right now to boost their financial literacy. And now is a good time, Bourdo says, since so many companies are chasing the women’s market. She and other experts suggested several steps to get started.

1. Think about a financial plan, not an investment plan.

As several planners said, this isn’t about number crunching or beating a target, it’s about a long-term plan for financial sustainability and legacy.

2. Talk about money with your friends and family.

Women tend not to talk about money or salaries but brainstorming with friends can help you feel supported and on track.

3. Understand your emotions about money and what’s important to you.

Beth Benatti Kennedy, a Boston-based leadership coach, only invests in companies she sees as socially responsible or having a positive effect on society. Understand what’s driving your financial decisions.

4. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, even if they might seem off-target.

Ellevest has a list that includes making sure your investment advising firm is acting responsibly and fairly toward women.

5. Don’t abdicate power to a spouse or partner.

Keep your financial independence, whether that means separate checking accounts or a prenuptial agreement or your own retirement or investment account.

6. Make sure you and your partner are saving enough for two.

For a couple, living costs in retirement are 1.7 times what they are for one person, according to the retirement research center. Don’t short yourself.

7. Learn to negotiate.

The first step to financial independence is being paid your worth, so you can make enough to invest in your future, says Pynchon of She Negotiates Consulting.

8. Make your future a priority.

Only about 40 percent of women work at companies that offer retirement plans and, among working women with access to 401(k) plans, just 58 percent of single women and 67 percent of married ones contribute, according to the retirement research center. Do your best to contribute even small amounts. If your company doesn’t offer a plan, consider setting up your own, such as a Roth IRA, that doesn’t have penalties for early withdrawal in case of an emergency.

9. Help others, but look after yourself first.

Or, as Krawcheck of Ellevest says, put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.