Women and men are different -- not only physically, but also fiscally. But I confess to having once scoffed at some financial books targeted at women. I believed that the importance of saving and investing was the same for both sexes. After all, a stock or an index fund doesn't know or care whether a man or a woman buys into it -- and both can profit from it. Similarly, it's critical for both women and men to take advantage of 401(k) funds and IRAs and other investment vehicles.

But I must concede that there is a case to be made for financial guidance targeted at women. Women's financial needs are, indeed, a bit different from those of men.

The bad news
Knowing that there's good news, too, let's get the bad news out of the way first. Here are some sobering statistics from the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement and the National Center for Women's Retirement Research:

  • The average woman spends 15% of her career out of the workforce caring for her children and elderly parents. For every year out of the workforce, a woman has to work five years to recover the lost income, pension coverage, and career promotion.

  • Female retirees receive about half the average pension benefits that men receive. This is partly because women change jobs more often than men do and because many women have jobs that offer no pensions. In addition, women stay in jobs for an average of 4.8 years, and the typical pension plan doesn't start vesting until after five years.

  • Women, on average, live longer than men, and at some point in their lives, about 90% of women will be solely responsible for their finances. (The average age when women are widowed is reportedly just 56.)

Too many women end up widowed or divorced and suddenly find themselves on shaky financial ground. Too many women also ignore financial matters, either preferring to let someone else tend to them or simply putting off the need to deal with them. (Of course, many men are guilty of the same thing.) Don't let this happen to you or to anyone you care about. (In fact, I invite you to forward this article to any women in your life -- just click on the "Email this page" link at the bottom of this page.)

The good news
Here's some encouraging news, though, showing that women are far from sitting on the sidelines:

  • According to the National Foundation of Women Business Owners, about 38% of all businesses in America are owned by women. The big ones, with 100 or more employees, are growing about six times faster than our economy is!

  • About 54% of all professional positions are held by women, according to a Bloomberg Personal Finance article cited by financial advisor Yvonne Hall.

  • According to 1999 statistics from the Department of Labor, women are the primary wage earners in 42% of American households.

  • More women are investing today than in the past. According to a survey by Money magazine and OppenheimerFunds, 63% of women participated in buying and selling stocks, bonds, and mutual funds for their families in 2002, up from 53% in 1992.

  • When women invest, they can do very well. In Bloomberg Personal Finance, business professors Terrance Odean and Brad Barber noted that men tend to be more overconfident investors than women are -- they trade more actively and rack up more trading costs. "While both men and women reduce their returns by trading," the article notes, "men reduce theirs by an additional 1%, and single men by an additional 1.4%. If 1% compounded year after year strikes you as an inconsiderable amount, consider the effort you would expend to save 1% on a home mortgage."

What to do
The best news of all is that women can take control of their financial futures and make them better. Here are 10 steps you might take, some adapted from It's More Than Money -- It's Your Life, by Candace Bahr and Ginita Wall. Don't let the tips overwhelm you. Perhaps choose one or two to work on first.

  • Consider consulting a professional. There's no shame in asking for help and no need to go it alone. Take the time to find a trustworthy financial advisor with whom you're comfortable, and you may feel a surge of relief as your financial ducks get placed in a row. We offer some guidance on finding a good pro -- and we even have an affordable personal financial advisor service, too (which you can try for free, if you're interested).

  • Check out our Rule Your Retirement newsletter service, which can help you set up a comfy retirement. Each month, the service offers practical guidance on topics from asset allocation to picking a place to retire to tips for shaving years off your working life, along with inspirational case studies of successful retirees and even some stock and fund recommendations. With unlimited access to the subscriber-only discussion boards, you can get answers to your questions in short order. (Try the newsletter for free!)

  • Understand that you don't need a stash of several thousand dollars to begin investing. There are options such as direct investing plans or dividend reinvestment plans (called "Drips"), which permit you to invest in major companies with as little as $10 per month. The last time I checked, the minimum investment amount for Coca-Cola's (NYSE:KO) Drip was $10. It was also $10 for Avon (NYSE:AVP) and General Electric (NYSE:GE), $25 for Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), $50 for Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), and $100 for Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG).

  • Be properly insured. This means avoiding insurance you don't need, such as life insurance if no one depends on your income. It also means looking into insurance that you do have a good chance of needing one day, such as disability insurance, long-term care insurance, or renter's insurance. (Learn more in our Insurance Center.)

  • Take advantage of your 401(k) plan at work, if one is available. (Those toiling in schools and non-profits should maximize their 403(b)s.) If your employer offers to match money that you sock away, then grab as much of those matching dollars as possible. That's free money.

  • Tend to your credit rating. Some married women have few financial accounts in their name -- and that can hurt you, should you suddenly become single. Establish a good credit rating by using charge cards (in your name) responsibly and paying off debts on time. Here are more credit tips.

  • Have an emergency fund, with three to six months' worth of living expenses tucked away in an accessible short-term savings account. Note, though, that for some people, even six months' worth isn't enough. If you generally take a long time to find a new job, or if you have major expenses coming up, such as a down payment on a car, or if several people depend on you and your income, then you might want to have even more money than six month's worth stashed in an emergency fund.

  • Jump in! Don't invest any significant amount of money in individual stocks until you're comfortable that you know what you're doing, but it can be a good motivator to plunk a little money into one or two well-regarded companies that interest you -- or into an index fund. If you're looking for some recommendations, leaf through some financial magazines or take advantage of a free trial of one or more of our stock newsletters, which have pretty good track records so far.

Learn more in these articles:

And finally, here's a little more encouragement, from Money magazine in June 1992:

Women are often smarter than men about money:
They admit it when they don't know something.
They seek help.
They avoid risk.
They do their homework.
They set goals.

Coca-Cola and Pfizer are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Want to find more of the market's bargains? Click here for a free, no-risk trial.

Selena Maranjian 's favorite discussion boards include Book Club , Eclectic Library, and Card & Board Games. She owns shares of Coca-Cola, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson. For more about Selena, viewher bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written:The Motley Fool Money GuideandThe Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.