What’s different financially for women?

Tips for powering through obstacles on your road to financial freedom


By Kerry Hannon

CHRISTI WARREN IS NOT ANXIOUS ABOUT INVESTING, or uncomfortable talking about it. “I’m just super busy,” says Warren, 63, a resident of Naples, Florida. “It’s not ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m a woman; I’m not very good at math.’ The fact is, I’m quite good at math. It’s that I work 11- to 12-hour days running my own practice as a veterinary ophthalmologist. I have enough on my plate.”

Photo of Christi Warren, veterinary ophthalmologist, holding a dog.One of the biggest hurdles many women face when it comes to money: “I’m just super busy. I work 11- to 12-hour days. I have enough on my plate.”

—Christi Warren, veterinary ophthalmologist

Warren is describing one of the biggest hurdles many women face when it comes to money. There’s a lot to juggle between work, caring for kids and relatives, and managing the household budget, among other demands. Thinking about investing, saving for retirement and other financial goals often gets lost in the shuffle.

Women can’t afford to ignore these issues, says Lorna Sabbia, head of Retirement & Personal Wealth Solutions at Bank of America. “There’s a huge wealth gap between men and women, caused by such things as the pay gap and the fact that women tend to spend more time out of the workforce caring for family. Our saving and investing are impacted by these things, which makes it all the more important for us to take control of our finances early on.”

Warren saw that she needed to pay closer attention to her finances when, after a number of years of investing, she realized, “I wasn’t really making money. I would have done as well if I had just put cash under my mattress.” It turns out Warren had been paying almost as much in fees as she’d been making on her investments.

A cross-country move from Arizona to Florida provided her with a fresh start. Working with a new financial advisor, she shifted her investments into a range of low-fee options, and she’s now much more comfortable with her returns.

That new advisor, Merrill Wealth Management Advisor Mitch McLendon, has been a valuable sounding board for Warren’s business decisions as well as her more personal long-term goals. He has regularly offered advice on everything from setting up loan financing to talking through the various choices she might have as she phases into retirement and can focus on giving back as a volunteer to various animal charities close to her heart.

Saving and investing more

Time crunch aside, all too often the financial deck is stacked against women of all ages. For starters, the pay gap remains a stubborn stumbling block. In 2020, women earned 82.3% of what men earned, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.1 “Very few women push back on salary offers compared to men,” Sabbia says. “That has huge implications when it comes to your ability to save.” Boning up on negotiating skills can help turn the tables.

Lindsay Hans Headshot“Make longevity an asset. Invest early and make your money work for you.”

— Lindsay Hans, president and co-head, Merrill Wealth Management

Complicating matters, the career breaks many women take to care for family give them fewer years to fund a retirement plan. Career interruptions also can cause women to lose out on potential raises and reduce how much they’ll collect from Social Security. When you earn less, you have less to save—and the natural inclination is to guard it by choosing investments that are more conservative. Over the long haul, conservative investments tend to have lower growth potential.

“Make longevity an asset. Invest early and make your money work for you,” Lindsay Hans, president and co-head of Merrill Wealth Management. “Something as simple as making sure we take advantage of critical wealth escalators like company matches in our 401(k)s, in the same way that men do, can help us become more financially secure.

“So can working with an advisor who understands women’s different financial journeys and can help you create a portfolio that has the potential to last your lifetime. With all the change happening in our world, taking control of your financial future starts with a conversation,” she adds. “Financial independence is a goal worth pursuing. It can unlock doors for us to achieve all of our aspirations, as professionals, as entrepreneurs, as policy influencers, as single women, as mothers, as partners and spouses.”

Lorna Sabbia headshot“Very few women push back on salary offers compared to men. That has huge implications when it comes to the wage gap and your ability to save.”

—Lorna Sabbia, head of Retirement & Personal Wealth Solutions, Bank of America

Juggling work and family

For many women, becoming a mother can trigger the need to hit the pause button on their careers. Not every mother chooses to take a full break—some decide to start their own full-time or part-time at-home businesses. Of course, becoming an entrepreneur isn’t an option for everyone. But there are other ways to compensate for the financial impact of taking a time-out for family. “Familiarize yourself with resources, such as 401(k)s and health savings accounts, that can offer tax advantages as you work toward building a more secure future. And develop a smart strategy for maximizing your income when you claim Social Security,” recommends Sabbia.

It also helps to find an advisor who understands women’s different life journeys—“someone who really gets how things like the wage gap and career breaks can impact your progress toward your goals and who can suggest ways to compensate for those challenges,” she suggests.

The costs of caregiving

Early retirement is once again a priority for Wyletter Whaley, 61, an attorney based in Dallas, Texas. When her mother was diagnosed with congestive heart failure 10 years ago, Whaley became actively involved in her mother’s caregiving. A year later, her mom’s growing care needs required Wyletter to move her mom to a nearby assisted living community. It came with a hefty price tag. Whaley’s outlay for her mother’s care ran between $3,500 and $4,200 each month.

Photo of Wyletter Whaley, attorneyFor women who don’t have children, it’s especially important to have a plan in place for future health care. “My mom had me to look after her, but I don’t have a me.”

—Wyletter Whaley, attorney

That unexpected responsibility, plus her marriage shortly before, had a seismic impact on her financial footing. “I went from being a single professional with no one to consider but myself and a lot of disposable cash, to supporting Mom and then becoming the primary breadwinner in my marriage when my husband and I decided it was time for him to start his own general contractor company,” Whaley says.

Like Warren, Whaley doesn’t go it alone. For more than a dozen years, Patricia Barksdale, her Merrill Lynch Wealth Management advisor, has played a role in helping her navigate the financial aspect of caregiving and more. Barksdale has subtly boosted Whaley’s investing swagger by encouraging her to ask questions and push to learn more. “Today, I’m confident when it comes to investing, but I’m not a risk taker,” Whaley says.

Not surprisingly, she’s also been taking stock of her own future health-care expenditures. Her mother passed away three-and-a-half years ago, but Whaley’s firsthand experience paying for her mother’s care has pushed her to shop for her own long-term-care insurance. “I had planned to self-fund, but I know now that I’d like to have a safety blanket,” she says. “I don’t have any children. My mom had me to look after her, but I don’t have a me.”

Taking charge

Whaley and Warren have never let the financial obstacles they faced stop them from pursuing their goals. Understanding the nature of those obstacles was the first step in finding ways to overcome them.

What’s the key takeaway from all their stories—the one thing that empowered them to reach for their success? “It’s soul-searching,” says Sabbia. “Ask yourself: What’s your money for? What are your priorities? Figure out how much you might need in order to retire early or to pay for your kids’ college tuition, and start working toward those goals. And don’t feel you have to go it alone,” she adds. “Talk about money with your friends and family. Maybe even consult a financial advisor. You don’t have to be perfect or know everything before you begin investing,” she says. “Just start.”

There’s too much at stake not to.

Kerry Hannon is the best-selling and award-winning author of a dozen books, including Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women and Never Too Old to Get Rich: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Starting a Business Mid-Life. Her latest book, Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working from Home, was published by John Wiley & Sons in 2020.

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1 U.S. Department of Labor, 2021, https://blog.dol.gov/2021/03/19/5-facts-about-the-state-of-the-gender-pay-gap#

These case studies are intended to illustrate products and services available through Merrill. Case studies do not necessarily represent the experiences of other clients, nor do they indicate future performance. Investment results may vary. The investment strategies discussed are not appropriate for every investor and should be considered given a person’s investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs.