By Jason Alderman
By many measures, women's lives have changed substantially in recent decades. According to a comprehensive government report called "Women in America" (www.whitehouse.gov/data-on-women), although certain social and economic situations for women have improved, when it comes to personal finances, many women still face challenging hurdles.
Key report findings include:
Women live longer than men but are much more likely to experience critical health problems that hamper their ability to work – and to pass up needed care due to cost.
Although the earnings gap between women and men continues to narrow, it's still significant: Among full-time workers, women's weekly earnings as a percentage of men's have increased from 62 percent in 1979 to 80 percent in 2009.
More women than men now graduate high school and college, but far fewer earn degrees in engineering, computer sciences and other higher-paying fields.
Women increasingly marry later, have fewer children or remain childless, yet still are more likely to live in poverty, particularly single-mother families.
Women are less likely than men to work outside the home (61 percent vs. 75 percent in 2009) and are much more likely to work part-time and to take time off to raise children or care for aging relatives.
In a nutshell: Women generally earn less and live longer than men, so at retirement they often have less in savings, receive smaller retirement and Social Security benefits and must spread out their money longer. Clearly, women need to take charge of their financial wellbeing. Here are a few places to start:
Develop a budget to track income and expenses. Either download a budget spreadsheet template or investigate software packages and online account management services like Quicken (www.quicken.com), Mint.com (www.mint.com), Yodlee (www.yodlee.com) and Mvlopes (www.mvlopes.com).
Plan for retirement. Time is your biggest ally when it comes to retirement savings, so get cracking. Start estimating your retirement needs:
Social Security's Retirement Estimator (www.ssa.gov/estimator), which automatically enters your earnings information from its records to estimate your projected Social Security benefits under different scenarios, such as age at retirement, future earnings projections, etc.
Check whether your 401(k) plan administrator's website has a calculator to estimate how much you will accumulate under various contribution and investment scenarios. If not, try the retirement calculators at Bankrate.com and AARP to determine your current financial status and what you'll need to save to meet your retirement needs.
Do your research. Many helpful personal financial education and management tools are available online, including:
The National Foundation of Credit Counseling's MyMoneyCheckUp™ program offers a step-by-step assessment of your overall financial health and behavior in four personal finance areas: budgeting and credit management, saving and investing, planning for retirement and managing home equity (www.mymoneycheckup.org).
Social Security's Website for Women provides information on retirement, disability and other issues. You can also order or download their informative, free publication, "What Every Woman Should Know" (www.ssa.gov/women).
The Women's Savings Initiative, a program jointly developed by Heinz Family Philanthropies, the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) and Visa Inc. (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/womensave). This free program features an audio- and e-book called "What Women Need to Know About Retirement," which you can order on CD or download as a PDF or audio file from Practical Money Skills for Life, a free personal financial management program run by Visa (www.practicalmoneyskills.com/resources).