Young women: You can master retirement planning in 3 simple steps

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Women under 35 may be savvier on financial issues than their male counterparts, but there are still significant headwinds facing women that need to be overcome to ensure security in retirement.

Female investors under the age of 55 are 4.5-times as likely as older women to consider themselves very knowledgeable about financial topics, according to recent research by Merrill Lynch. What’s even more promising is the youngest group of women investors surveyed—those under 35—scored better than their male counterparts on financial-literacy questions. 

While this puts younger women on better footing for financial success, women still face threats to their finances because they tend to live longer than men, earn less than men during their careers, are usually the ones taking time out of their careers for family caretaking, and end up retiring earlier—often not by choice.

“Men are typically more comfortable talking about money. For women, it’s almost a taboo subject,” said Megan Kowalski, partner and managing director at The Lerner Group. “Women inherently want to understand something before we get involved. Men have more of a natural confidence. Women want to know how the wheel is made before they get in the car.”

Here’s three moves women should do to make their retirement more secure. 

Automate your savings and investment contributions

“Get in the habit of having money automatically diverted out of your paycheck before you get used to having that money in hand. Start small and slowly build up how much is being taken out. Just start somewhere,” Kowalski said. 

Invest in your employer’s 401(k) if there’s one available, at least to the point you get the company match. Max out your contribution, if possible. (For 2023, the maximum 401(k) contributions limit for individuals is $22,500, or $30,000 if you’re 50 or older.)

Of course, not everyone works for a company that offers a 401(k) plan. The recent Secure 2.0 legislation expands investing options for people who work for small companies or gig workers who are self-employed. Spousal IRAs also are an option for some women who may be home dealing with child care, for example, said Maria Bruno, head of U.S. wealth planning research at Vanguard. 

Lena Haas, a principal and head of wealth management advice and solutions at Edward Jones, urged women to open an IRA or Roth IRA before April 15, because you can contribute for 2022 by that deadline, and still have the rest of the year to contribute for 2023.

Haas also underscored the need for automating contributions, saying “set up auto-contributions and put $200 a month directly into a Roth IRA and that money will be out of sight, out of mind and growing on your behalf.” 

You can’t tap into the money in an individual retirement accounts (IRAs) until you’re 59-½ and have owned the account for at least five years or you’ll face a penalty of 10%. You can withdraw contributions you made to your Roth IRA anytime, tax- and penalty-free. However, you may have to pay taxes and penalties on earnings in your Roth IRA. (Note: Roth IRAs have income limits.)

“What women need is flexibility. They may take time away from the workforce and may need to access funds at different times. Women don’t follow the traditional path, so not being able to touch funds in an account until a certain age doesn’t work for them,” said Hannah Wardenburg, associate wealth adviser at Hightower Wealth Advisors. 

After maxing out your 401(k) and setting up a Roth IRA, Bruno recommends a general brokerage account with a balance fund or index fund that has broad diversification.

For International Women’s Day, MarketWatch Editor Leslie Albrecht talked to Catherine Valega, a certified financial planner and founder of Green Bee Advisory, about the unique financial challenges women face and how to address them.

Talk to an adviser

“Unfortunately a lot of financial information stops at ‘invest in your employer-sponsored plan.’ But you have to grow in your understanding and do research. It helps to talk with an adviser now because you don’t know what you don’t know and it’s harder to get going later. Make sure you’re comfortable with them—it should feel like there are no dumb questions,” Kowalski said. 

“Every woman needs a good financial plan. Not just an investing plan. Start with what matters to you, talk about your goals, when you want to retire and then create behaviors and stick to that plan. Revisit it once a year and after every major life event, such as getting married or divorced or having a child,” Haas said.

“There’s also a gap on protecting wealth. Women live longer, on average and issues such as life insurance and long-term-care insurance often get neglected,” Haas said.

Start earlier rather than waiting for the “right time” to talk with an adviser, Wardenburg said.

“It’s essential not to wait too long. The earlier you establish what your goals are and the earlier you act on the plan, the better,” Wardenburg. “If the work isn’t done today, your lifestyle will be dramatically different in the future.” 

It’s important to pick the right adviser, of course, and find one who understands the nuances of investing for a women’s unique career path. 

“Financial advisers assume—often incorrectly—that in an older investor couple, traditional gender roles are more likely to be the norm. Financial advisers seem to know that among younger investors, these roles have shifted, and women take on as much or more decision-making power in families,” the Merrill Lynch research said. 

“But we observed evidence that financial advisers are not totally tracking just how far-reaching these changes already are in the younger set. Ultimately, with both older and younger women investors, we saw some signs that financial advisers aren’t always keeping up with the pace of change,” Merrill Lynch said. 

Still, Haas said working with an adviser can benefit the returns on investment by 2% to 7% a year.

Control your debt and protect your savings

“Focus on the things you can control—your spending and savings rate,” said Bruno.  

Have a disciplined approach to debt, said Haas. 

“There’s good debt, like a mortgage that you pay off over time, and bad debt, like credit cards with high interest rates that keep going up and up. You have to have a disciplined approach to paying that off. Concentrate on your high interest debt and be strict about paying that off,” Haas said. 

Women also need an emergency fund to protect them in case of job interruptions or unexpected life events. Haas recommends bulking up a cache of six months of expenses, or six months of salary, to set aside for emergencies. These funds should not be invested, but should sit in a high-interest savings account or CD.

Basically, protect your money and yourself with knowledge, Bruno said.

“There are more sources for news nowadays—which is good and bad—that may not have been there for other generations. More women are becoming more confident about talking about money and that’s tremendous,” Bruno said.

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