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A 2023 Financial Toolkit for Women

Women face some unique challenges in this environment, but also have some unique opportunities.

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Women face enormous financial challenges right now. The current headwinds include salaries depressed by inflation, prohibitive interest rates for loans, a bear market that has sapped 20 percent or more of their retirement portfolios, and the looming specter of a recession that has already led to thousands of layoffs. Add the stress of balancing work and family obligations to the equation, and it’s easy to see why women may feel overwhelmed. 

After stepping away to take care of their families during the pandemic, many women re-entering their workplace find they’re still getting paid far less than men with similar experience. Women are also trying to get their retirement savings strategy back on track after missing out on a year or more of participating in a 401(k) plan. 

As daunting as these challenges may seem, they’re not insurmountable. With a bit of time and the right approach, you can take the wheel and steer your professional and financial life in the right direction.  

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Whether you’re looking to change companies or re-start your career, this is still a tight job market but one with plenty of opportunities for women with the right combination of experience and skills. 

It may help to know that if you temporarily left the workforce during the pandemic, either by choice or because of a layoff, you’re in good company. According to research from McKinsey, a whopping 2.3 million women dropped out of the job market when COVID struck, compared to 1.8 million men.

The good news is that most women who want to return to work can. According to the Department of Labor, as of August 2022, more than 49 million women aged 25 to 54 were working. That’s higher than right before the pandemic struck in early 2020. 

However, one systemic issue that existed long before the pandemic still exists today: gender pay and advancement inequity.

Only 1 in 4 women hold C-level roles in corporate America, according to research from Lean In. Within America’s largest companies, the inequity gap is even more pronounced. According to research from Catalyst, only 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies had a woman CEO in 2021.

And despite rising wage growth over the past two years, women still earn, on average, 17 percent less than men, according to research from the Harvard Business Review.

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The Ever-Widening Wealth Gap Exists

Despite income gains in recent years, women still trail men in terms of building wealth. According to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the raw median wealth of women in 2020 was just 55 cents for every dollar of men.

Women are also behind when it comes to saving for retirement. According to research from Penny Hoarder, during the pandemic, only 41 percent of women were able to save more for retirement, compared to 59 percent of men. Not being able to participate in a 401(k) plan kept them from investing their own money and benefiting from their employer’s matching and profit-sharing contributions. That’s why it should be no surprise that women have much smaller retirement nest eggs than men. Research from Bank of America disclosed that, on average, retirement plan balances for men were $98,000, compared to $62,000 for women.

This gap doesn’t shrink as women approach retirement. According to TIAA, median retirement account balances at TIAA for men aged 65 or older were $491,621 compared with $204,304 for women.

How to Get Ahead 

Even with these headwinds, there’s still plenty that women can do–and are doing–to rebuild their careers and fortify their finances. 

With more than 10 million unfilled jobs available, genuine opportunities are open for talented and experienced women. 

If you make your move today, you probably won’t have to settle for the first job you’re offered. And you may be able to negotiate better pay, benefits, and working arrangements than before the pandemic started.

Once you land that position, one of your priorities is to enroll in your company’s 401(k) plan as soon as you’re eligible to get your retirement savings to plan back on track. Once you do, make it a priority to contribute as much as possible to compensate for lost time and take advantage of today’s stock market values. In 2023, you can contribute up to $22,500 with an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions if you’re over age 50. 

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How to Build Your Wealth With the Right Strategy 

In a time when even investment professionals are struggling to figure out what to do in today’s topsy-turvy market, it isn’t surprising that only 53 percent of women feel confident making investment decisions. And only 44 percent believe that they have the skill set to create and manage a diversified portfolio that reflects their investment objectives, according to research from Bank of America.

Because of this lack of confidence, some women rely on their spouses or partners to manage their investments. But this is a mistake. Countless studies have shown that, with the proper knowledge, women become better investors than men and can manage all aspects of their family’s financial life.

The first step is to assert control over the retirement and taxable investment accounts you fund with your own money. Understand whether your current allocation of stocks and bonds helps or hinders your chance of achieving your investment goals. Look at how much you pay in account servicing fees and how to reduce taxes.

Fortunately, numerous educational resources and tools are available to help you increase your investment knowledge. Or, if you’d prefer to let a professional help you handle these responsibilities, consider partnering with an experienced, fee-only fiduciary investment adviser like those available through Wealthramp.

So, what recommendations are investment advisers making for their clients right now?

In conversations with Wealthramp network advisers, we’ve found that most recommend that investors adopt a more defensive stance, opting for high-quality investments that are more likely to hold their own during a significant market and economic downturn. “High quality” means owning stocks or bonds of profitable and financially stable companies. 

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Of course, there’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” portfolio, which is why advisers’ recommendations are designed to align with their clients’ answers to questions such as:  

  • Are you taking advantage of higher interest rates? One side effect of the Fed’s relentless interest-rate-raising policy is that after years of paying less than half a percent, even short-term Treasury securities are offering attractive interest rates of 4 percent or more and will probably rise as the Fed continues to raise rates. This means higher passive income for investors. And for those who believe inflation will continue to be high next year, I-Bonds, whose interest rates rise and fall with inflation, have become so popular that the U.S. Treasury’s auction site has crashed several times over the past few months due to unprecedented traffic.  
  • Are you trying to improve stock returns? As interest rates have increased, many financial advisors recommend that investors increase allocations to high-quality, recession-resistant growth and dividend-paying stocks and reduce exposure to the giant technology stocks that are more impacted by higher borrowing costs. This could mean moving some money from your S&P 500 index fund into dividend-income and sector-specific funds that invest in utilities established energy producers and agricultural conglomerates.
  • Are you making use of lower stock prices? If you’ve been thinking about moving the money in your traditional individual retirement account to a Roth IRA, this is a good time to consider making that conversion, and especially if you’re in your peak earning years. While you will have to pay taxes upfront on contributions and earnings – which means you’ll have to find the money to cover the tax bill – you will be able to enjoy tax-deferred growth with free withdrawals later. Plus, your Roth withdrawals won’t be subject to the required minimum withdrawals after you retire. While the stock market is down, doing this now lets you convert a bigger portion of your retirement account for the same cost.
  • Are you willing to consider opportunities outside the U.S.? While Russia’s war in Ukraine is likely to drive western Europe into a major recession, many companies in developing countries, particularly commodities and energy producers that don’t depend on Russian oil and natural gas, are likely to do well as these nations emerge from the pandemic and focus on building their infrastructure and expanding trade. 
  • Are you looking for non-traditional investments? In uncertain times, many investors turn to gold and other precious metals, whose prices often rise when stock markets fall, although this has not been the case in 2022. Other investors are looking to alternative investments such as Master Limited Partnerships, commodities, real estate investment trusts, and even hedge funds and private equity funds. It’s good to know that many advisers recommend considering alternatives for only a tiny percentage of your overall portfolio. And to qualify to invest in privately owned alternative investment funds, investors must meet certain minimum income or wealth requirements. Fortunately, many alternative investments are available through lower-cost ETFs and mutual funds. Keep in mind, however, that alternative investments may not generate returns that are uncorrelated with swings in the stock market. Alternative private investments are also often illiquid, and current information about prices is sometimes impossible. 
  • Do you want to help women entrepreneurs succeed? According to research from Gusto, 49 percent of start-ups in 2021 were formed by women, compared to 28 percent in 2019. Many of these early-stage technology and biotech companies are receiving funding from angel investor networks like Golden Seeds, a community of individual investors who commit their capital and expertise to helping women entrepreneurs succeed. As with other alternatives, investors must qualify to participate by meeting certain income and wealth requirements. 

Whether any of these strategies are appropriate depends on your financial circumstances. That’s where the value of collaborating with a carefully selected, a reputable fiduciary financial advisor may come in. The right adviser won’t make any recommendations until they’ve had an opportunity to get to know you fully to understand your short- and long-term financial and investment objectives, your biggest financial concerns, your time horizon, and your comfort level for taking risks, particularly during volatile markets. 

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Everyone is struggling to find the right path through the current economic and business environment. One thing that women have in their favor is they’ve always faced adversity with greater resilience and fortitude than men. And while 2023 will present plenty of challenges, those who proactively plan will be better prepared to weather any storms that come their way. 

Pam Krueger is the founder and CEO of Wealthramp, an advisor matching platform that connects consumers with vetted and qualified fee-only financial advisors. She is also the creator and co-host of the award-winning MoneyTrack investor education TV series seen nationally on PBS. 

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