It’s a common fear. Women are masters of organizing their homes, multi-tasking with families and juggling multiple responsibilities, but we are notoriously frightened of personal finance.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We spoke with Kelley Long, CPA and member of the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission, to get her take on what women should do to get their financial house in order. And just in case you think this is all just a little too abstract, we’ve broken down the particulars based on the American median household income of $51,000 per year.
How to spend like a superstar
1. Set financial goals. “The first step to financial fitness is goal-setting, so that you’ll have a reason to achieve fitness,” said Long. Outline your noblest financial goals, so you’ll have a baseline for your budget and planning.
Example: A household making $51,000 per year has to be careful about how they spend on daily expenses. Their goal might be, “We want to reduce our monthly entertainment costs, so we’ll be able to set aside more money for a down payment on a home in two years.”
2. Figure out where your money goes. “How can you find ways to cut back to save for your goals if you don’t even know where your money goes?” asked Long. Dive into your bank statements to determine how much you’re spending on the variable stuff. You might be surprised by where it goes.
Example: Since our family pinpointed in their goals that they wanted to curb entertainment costs to save for a house, they need to look closely at how they spend money on entertainment. If they see that they spend $250 per month on cable, movies and shows, they have a starting point from which to make adjustments.
3. Create a spending plan. “Not only should you know where your money goes, you should also know where it’s going to go in the future,” explained Long. This is what a spending plan does. It sets a precedent for where and how you want to spend your income.
Example: After diving into the numbers, our example family realized that they could save an additional $3,600 towards their house down payment over two years if they change their monthly spending on entertainment from $250 to $100 per month. They can track this spending by taking out $100 at the beginning of the month for entertainment, and spending no more than that amount on “extras” like movies.
Saving for a rainy day
1. Establish an emergency fund. Long stated that every woman should have three to 12 months’ savings set aside should an emergency occur — like job loss or severe illness.
Example: A household making $51,000 per year brings in $4,250 per month before taxes. This family, therefore, should work towards putting at least $12,750 in a savings account for emergencies only, separate from their house down payment savings or savings towards a vacation.
2. Create a slush fund. “The biggest mistake I see women make is that they forget about occasional but necessary life events when they budget, like weddings or car maintenance,” cautioned Long.
Example: Once a family is comfortable with their emergency fund, they can create a separate “slush” fund for extra expenses that are hard to remember or anticipate. It’s a good idea to set aside $1,000 for the oddball things that come up from time to time.
3. Choose to live debt-free. If it sounds crazy to save this much money, it’s likely because a lot of your income is going towards debt payments. “Start by paying off your credit cards,” said Long. “Then you can work on debts like student or auto loans.” Once you’re done paying down your debt, you’ll have a lot more money to allocate toward your emergency and slush fund.
Example: Let’s say our example family has a $250 credit card bill, $300 car payment and $300 student loan payment every month. That’s $850 each month, just for debt. If this family scrambles to pay down these debts quickly, they’ll be able to put $850 towards savings until the emergency and slush funds are complete.
Investing like a champ
1. Save 10 percent. Once your emergency and slush fund are set, push your future savings into investments instead of your local bank (but keep your slush and emergency funds readily available to you). If you have a 401K available, that’s the best place to start so you can take advantage of employer matching, Long said.
Example: A family making $51,000 per year needs to set aside at least $5,100 per year for retirement. This may sound like a lot, but it’s only $425 per month, which is actually a drop in savings from when our example family was paying $850 towards credit cards and emergency funds. Better yet, if the family has employer matching at work, they could put $212 each month into a 401K and count on the employer match to turn that into $425.
2. Diversify your assets. “Just like the grocery store has different categories of food, the stock market has different categories — called sectors — and it’s important to spread your investments throughout the sectors to insulate your portfolio against changes in the market,” said Long.
Example: By this point, our family has already started diversifying. They have a $12,750 emergency fund at the local bank, a $1,000 slush fund set aside and even an extra $3,600 that they’ll use to invest in a property. Each month, they put $425 into a 401K, which will be worth more than $5,100 within a year, particularly if they invest it in a variety of high-performing investments within their 401K.