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Girls Can't Afford to Have Fun

It's great being a girl. But being a woman is another story.

On average, we earn less than men do and end up spending more time out of the workforce caring for children, grandkids, and elderly parents. And that means we shortchange our pensions, career prospects, and financial autonomy. Sure, the fairer sex lives longer. But all that does is guarantee that 90% of us will at some point be solely responsible for the family finances.

All of this adds up to a tougher long-term financial life for women. Here are five financial fixes that can help women make up for the financial shortfalls they face.

Get more out of your job
On average, women spend 15% of their career years outside the workforce (caring for children, looking after parents, saving the world). This time off for humanitarian endeavors takes a toll on your career. For every year she spends out of the workforce, a woman has to work five years to recover the lost income, pension coverage, and career promotion.

Don't leave free money on the table when you're on the job. Employee benefits can help you stretch each paycheck further. Flexible-spending plans let you pay for medical, elder-care, and child-care costs with pre-tax dollars. Employer-sponsored retirement plans often offer to match the funds you invest.

If you're currently employed, make the most of it -- your contacts, your bonuses, your benefits, your chutzpah when it's salary review time. It'll pay off down the road when, if you're like most women, you need to make up some ground.

Pamper your credit
Your credit score is the central nervous system of your finances. It's what bankers, landlords, utility companies, employers, and insurers use to size you up. Get regular checkups by logging onto www.annualcreditreport.com for the full-credit MRI. (Here's a rundown of what you'll see.)

Simply pay your bills on time, and you're 35% of the way to a good review. Amounts owed (30%), length of credit history (15%), amount of new credit you've applied for/gotten (10%), and the types of credit you've gotten, such as car loans, credit cards, and mortgages (10%), are the other components that factor into your overall credit score.

If you're married, keeping up with your personal credit health is particularly important. Though you may have merged mind, body, and spirit with your beloved, it's important to keep some accounts in your name only -- and to use (not abuse) them to keep the reporting active. Too many women have discovered that their ex is wrecking their credit long after the divorce has been finalized.

Slather on some savings
Women with families naturally put the well-being of their offspring first. But doing so blindly puts Mom at a huge deficit by the time she's cleared out the nest.

Don't feel guilty about socking away a little something for yourself. A recent survey at Salary.com found that all of the duties performed by stay-at-home moms would amount to a $131,471-per-year salary. That figure is based on a 100-hour workweek and assumes that the mother has at least two children of school age.

Unfortunately, you can't cash that theoretical paycheck. But you can use it to justify setting aside money for your family and yourself. It's so important to have this cash cushion in place that you should put off contributing to the kids' college fund until this "to do" item is done. There are scholarships and loans for college. But there's no such thing as a "oopsy, the car needs a new transmission" loan or an "oh, no, I'm suddenly a single mom and haven't a dime to my name" fund. Sure, in a pinch, a credit card can cover unexpected expenses. But the cycle of debt often starts innocently enough with a "just this once to tide us over" charge.

Having cash on hand is an investment in your sanity, safety, and peace of mind.

Form one good money habit
Forget clipping coupons. Your time is better spent getting online with your bank or discount broker (or going to a local branch) to set up an automated savings plan, whether it's to fund your emergency account or contribute to your retirement.

The key to amassing wealth is consistent savings. Employers know that with automated payroll deductions into the work-sponsored retirement plans, out of sight equals out of mind. Yet fewer than half of wage-earning women in the U.S. contribute to a retirement plan, even when they have access to it.

Get into the habit of saving -- even if it's just a few five-spots when money's tight. Ask your HR department for the retirement plan enrollment forms if you aren't already participating. If you're not currently eligible to participate, set up your own auto-pilot plan to fully fund an IRA. You don't need thousands of dollars to begin investing. Direct investing plans or dividend reinvestment plans (Drips) let you sock away sums as little as $10 in major companies like Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) , Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) , and General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) .

Pay your future self at least 10% of each paycheck -- and let her have all your bonuses and raises, too. She'll thank you for it later.

Flirt shamelessly with stocks
Women don't just need more closet space than men do -- we need more retirement savings, too. Female retirees receive about half the pension benefits that men get, and Social Security certainly isn't picking up all of the slack.

Those of us who do invest for our futures tend to do so more conservatively than our male counterparts do. We sacrifice long-term returns for a feeling of safety. But playing it too safe is the most dangerous financial move a woman can make. Don't overcommit your retirement money to CDs or money market funds. Over the long term, the stock market will deliver superior investment returns -- an annual average of about 10% over the past century.

Go ahead, act like a man. This is one time when it makes sense to be a more aggressive investor than human nature might allow. In fact, the majority of your long-term savings should be in stocks until five or 10 years before you need it. Sure, short-term blips may make you rethink this approach. But stay strong and think long-term.

The worst thing a woman can do is to rely on anyone else to make sure we have a secure financial future. We've come a long way, ladies. Let's take it one step further today.

A helping hand
Retirement planning isn't just for boys. It's your future, too. Each month in our Rule Your Retirement newsletter (which you can get in paper or e-mail form), we dispel the old-school retirement myths and show you how to make sure your golden years are the spa-like experience they should be. We cover everything from asset allocation (hey, it's not that boring) to picking a place to retire to tips for shaving years off your working life. With unlimited access to the subscriber-only discussion boards, you get answers to your questions from guys and gals who know the retirement ropes. Take a free 30-day trial. You don't even have to go to the mall to return it if it's not the perfect fit!

Coca-Cola is aMotley Fool Inside Valuerecommendation.

Dayana Yochimis the author ofCouples & Cash: How to Handle Money With Your Honey. The Motley Fool is girl and boy investors writing for other girl and boy investors.


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