If you’re a woman worried about finances in light of the pandemic, you have plenty of company.

Only 41% of women rate their financial wellness as good or excellent, compared to 58% of men, according to Bank of America’s Workplace Benefits Report

Combine that with the fact that women are more likely to take time out of the workforce to shoulder caregiver responsibilities — plus that little matter of equal pay — and it’s clear why your personal money struggles as a woman may seem more daunting. 

The fact is, taking care of your own financial house can end up on the bottom of your multiple to-do lists. And the consequences become apparent at stressful times — if you’re about to have a child, you’re getting a divorce or you’re ready to retire.

“It’s one of those things that we say, ‘Oh, I’ll get around to doing it,’ but the impetus for us to do it is often too late,” said Certified Financial Planner Hali Browne London, lead planner at Facet Wealth.

But today is going to be different — we’re going to set our course and take control of our financial destiny. Here’s how to get started.

Women and Money: Four Smart Moves to Make Today

Regardless of your age, employment or relationship status, making time to prioritize your own finances is essential to your future. Here are four smart money moves you can make today.

1. Know Your Credit Score (or How to Get One)

Knowledge is power, right? So finding out your credit score can strengthen your ability to take control of your finances.

Why is a credit score so important? The score is an indicator of how good you are at managing money and repaying debt. If your score is low, you’ll pay higher interest rates and may have difficulty obtaining credit and loans.

Your credit score is based on credit bureau reports, so you should check yours for errors — you can get the reports for free once a year at annualcreditreport.com. Ordinarily, you’re only entitled to one free report per year from each bureau, but due to the pandemic, you can receive a free report every week

There are actually a few credit score models. FICO is the most common and you can get a free FICO Score at freecreditscore.com.

Pro Tip

To learn more about how credit scores work — including how they’re calculated — check out our Academy course: Credit Scores 101.

If your score is lower than you’d like it to be, we have plenty of ways for improving your credit score

But if you’ve never opened a line of credit — or let your better half open all accounts in their name — you may have no credit score at all. 

Even if you’ve never considered yourself “good with money,” London emphasized that it’s time to start establishing your own credit history. 

“Sometimes people say, ‘I don’t have a credit card because I don’t want to put myself in that situation’,” London said. “And while that’s a very admirable approach to it, it can come back to bite you because having a credit history is important.” 

Establishing a credit history doesn’t necessarily take big changes in your life. London suggested taking the following first steps if you don’t have a credit score:

  1. Apply for a secured credit card in your name — you’ll need to put a cash deposit down, which will essentially act as your credit limit.
  2. Put one monthly subscription service, like Netflix, on the card that you know you can cover every month.
  3. Set yourself a reminder to pay off the balance in full every month.

If you’re part of a couple, London suggested also transferring at least one monthly bill — such as the electricity or internet — to your name to further establish a history of on-time payments.

2. Negotiate Your Salary and Your Benefits

If you heard anything in the news about women and money, it’s probably that we don’t earn as much as our male counterparts.

In fact, for every dollar a male full-time wage or salary worker earned in 2018, women made 81 cents, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are plenty of contributing factors to this phenomenon, but don’t let one of them be that you never asked.

Negotiating your salary can feel intimidating if you’ve never done it. Following these four steps will be a good start:

  1. Research salaries for your role. You can look up salary information on websites like Dice, Robert Half and Payscale.
  2. Know your work’s worth. To figure this number, keep an ongoing list of your accomplishments and contributions, then quantify them.
  3. Plan your thresholds. Set your aspirational salary, the amount you foresee agreeing to and the minimum amount you’ll accept.
  4. Practice the negotiation conversation. Ask a trusted friend or family member to rehearse the conversation, and let them make it difficult by challenging your assertions.

Check out more tips and tricks for how to negotiate your salary and how to get a raise.

Sometimes, though, it’s about more than money. If you’re a young professional who’s interested in professional development opportunities or a mom who needs a flexible schedule, you can negotiate benefits, too.

Benefits are more than just add-ons and fun perks — they account for 31.5% of an employee’s total compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Negotiating benefits includes a lot of the same tactics that are required for salary, so go in armed with facts. That’s what this woman did when she negotiated for nine additional vacation days, plus her birthday off, plus work-from-home flexibility.  

3. Tackle Your Student Loans

If you’ve enjoyed the break from student loan payments thanks to the CARES Act, reconsider this as a chance to get ahead on your loans instead.

The administrative forbearance period is set to end at the end of the year, but you can still take advantage of this 0% interest payment suspension to put a dent in your student loan balance.

Women hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in the United States — almost $929 billion in 2020, according to the American Association of University Women. And it takes women about two years longer to repay their student loans. 

Why? For one, see that whole gender pay gap in the previous section. But there’s also the fact that women often take on caregiver roles — whether it’s for a baby or an elderly family member. 

Pro Tip

If you have kids, don’t go into debt to pay for their college — remember, they can take out loans for education, but you can’t do the same for your retirement.

The lack of affordable daycare can force those women to cut back to part time at work or drop out of college with no degree but a lot of debt.

You can’t start paying until you have a plan, so if the issue is affordable childcare, consider one of these child care assistance options to help. 

And if you’re prepared to start tackling your debt, we have strategies for paying off student loans this year.

4. Save for Your Retirement 

Want to know one area where women have an advantage over men? Life expectancy. 

Don’t break out the champagne just yet — that means we also need more money to cover those additional years of retirement.

Unfortunately, we aren’t saving nearly enough.

Women currently in the workforce reported saving a median average of $23,000 for retirement compared to men, who’d socked away $76,000, according to a survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. And men were nearly twice as likely as women to say they’d saved $250,000 or more for their retirement.

That discrepancy, again, is partially attributable to the pay gap, but women who are out of the workforce or only working part time to care for family members typically lose out on benefits like investing in an employee-sponsored 401(k).

If you do work for an employer who offers a 401(k), now would be a good time to check if you could start contributing more to the account — even a percentage or two can make a big difference when you figure the compound interest you’ll earn on those savings.

Don’t have an employer-sponsored plan? Take control of your retirement planning by opening an Individual Retirement Account or IRA. The most popular types are the traditional IRA and Roth IRA — both shelter you from certain kinds of taxes to help you hold onto more of your money for retirement. 

Additionally, if you’re on a high-deductible health care plan with a Health Savings Account, consider upping your pre-tax contribution. The money you invest in an HSA can be used to cover medical expenses even if you switch to another health care plan later — and throughout your retirement.

Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer/editor at The Penny Hoarder. Read her bio and other work here, then catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.

This was originally published on The Penny Hoarder, which helps millions of readers worldwide earn and save money by sharing unique job opportunities, personal stories, freebies and more. The Inc. 5000 ranked The Penny Hoarder as the fastest-growing private media company in the U.S. in 2017.

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