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Money

Here's What Women Worry About Most

And the steps to take to stop the anxiety.

Think fast: When was the last time you worried about your money? If you’re like most women, you didn’t have to reach back all that far into the past. 

According to The State of Women 2022, a new survey of more than 1,000 women from HerMoney and The Alliance for Lifetime Income, 64 percent of millennials and 60 percent of Gen Xers worry at least several times a month. 

Of them, 27 percent of millennials and 32 percent of Gen Xers worry several times a week. And, 12 percent of millennials and 17 percent of Gen Xers worry every single day (we blame paying for college for that latter difference!). But, what specifically are we worrying about? 

And, more importantly, how can we take some steps to stop that anxiety in a meaningful and lasting way? 

One of the most important insights from the research was that knowledge is key in reducing those sleepless nights. Specifically, knowing “the next step to take” in a particular situation worked measurably to shrink the number of times each month the worry-meter will register.    

Additionally, having a roadmap to specific goals was a big worry-reducer across the board.

So, with that in mind, here are the top five line items women like us are worrying about — along with what you need to know about the best next step to take to solve these particular issues.

No. 1: Competing financial priorities

No matter how old you are, it seems, you always have multiple items on your financial to-do list. But as you hit your 40s and both college and retirement seem to be barreling toward you faster than ever before, the pressure starts to mount. Remember: When it comes to achieving any goal — and really, “priority” is just another word for goal — it helps to follow the SMART methodology. S = Specific. It’s not enough to know that you want to help pay for college; you need to know how much you want to contribute. M = Measurable. You’ll need a way to mark your progress from today forward. When it comes to financial goals, this is actually the easy part. Your monthly statements serve as a nice measuring stick. A = Achievable. Don’t set the bar too high to begin with. Come up with a number you can save on a monthly basis toward each goal that you know you can meet. If it starts to feel too easy, adjust. R = Relevant. Make sure this particular goal deserves its place in your hierarchy. And T = Time-bound. When is the date you’re aiming to have this done? Again, for college and retirement the date is easy; for shorter-term, more flexible goals you’ll still want to give yourself some parameters.

The next step to take: Sit down and make a list of your short-, medium- and long-term priorities and decide — with your partner if you have one — which are the top two (or three, if you want to swing for the fences) on your list. Then, follow the SMART methodology outlined here to give you a start date, an end date, and benchmarks to help you track your way to each.

No. 2: Not having enough saved

This is a particular worry when it comes to retirement. I know this because whenever I publish my favorite formula for retirement savings success on Twitter (I’m @JeanChatzky, by the way) or in an article, I get grumbling remarks from people who don’t feel they’re on track. This is how the formula (which was developed by Fidelity Investments) goes: By the time you’re 30 you should have 1x your annual income put away for retirement. By 40, 3x. By 50, 6x. By 60, 8x. And by the time you actually retire, 10x. If you’re not even close, these numbers probably sound overwhelmingly large. But here’s the magic truth behind them. If you can get yourself to the point where you are saving 15 percent of whatever you earn each year — and that 15 percent can include matching dollars from an employer — you’ll hit the marks. That’s a big win. Having 10 times your income socked away by the time you retire is generally enough, when coupled with Social Security, to replace about 80 percent of your preretirement income for the next 30 years.

The next step to take: Nudge your current retirement savings rate up by 2 percent. Why 2 percent? Experts say that’s an amount you’re not likely to miss. So, if you have a work-based retirement savings plan like a 401(k), sign onto your account and increase the amount you’re having pulled from each paycheck. And, if you don’t have an account at work, schedule an automatic transfer out of your checking account and into an IRA or Roth IRA each time you get paid. Automation is the key here. The reason 401(k)s are so powerful is that you don’t have to think about doing the right thing with each paycheck. It just happens. You’ll want to replicate that.

No. 3: Not earning enough

I’m sure you’re more than familiar with the gender pay gap: The fact that women still — still!— earn just 82 cents for every dollar that a white man earns.  Black women and Latinas earn even less. No surprise then, that 53 percent of millennials and 42 percent of Gen Xers we surveyed said a 20 percent bump in pay would do more to reduce the amount of time they spent worrying than almost anything else. (For Gen Xers, hitting a milestone investment amount had a very slight edge, perhaps explainable because of their relative closeness to retirement.) The good news is we currently are living in an excellent environment when it comes to earning more money. Employers are finding hiring hard; they not only are having to pay up to recruit talent, but many also are putting money on the line to keep the talent that they have. The only hitch: You have to ask for it.

The next step to take: Before you schedule an appointment to talk about your compensation with your boss, you need to know what you’re asking for. That means doing some research. There are three specific places to look.  First, the internet. Websites including Payscale.com, Glassdoor.com and Salary.com publish reams of information on pay by career and location. Second, the want ads. If you were out looking for a new job, what would an employer have to pay today to hire you?  The pay ranges in job ads are an important touchstone in any future negotiation with your current employer. Third, particularly if you work for a large company, HR. Your human resources department may have specific pay ranges by position and job title. Finding out what they are — and where you fit within them — is often a matter of simply asking.

No. 4: Not knowing how to invest

These days it seems like knowing how to invest requires learning an additional language along the lines of Urdu or Mandarin. I get it. It’s really disconcerting to feel as if you don’t know how to put your money to work so that it has a shot at growing to support you in retirement. One thing you can relax about, though, is that the basic market mechanisms we have to grow wealth are still the same ones we’ve had for years — stocks and bonds. That doesn’t require you to be a stock or bond picker, by the way, it means figuring out what mix of stocks, bonds and cash (your so-called asset allocation) is right for your age and risk tolerance — and then purchasing the right investments to fill those buckets. This is something you can do with large, diversified, low-cost index funds or ETFs (exchange traded funds, which are index-funds that trade like stocks). Or, you can pick a single target-date fund that will keep your mix in balance with your estimated retirement year in mind.

The next step to take: Sign on to your retirement or brokerage account and take a look at how your money is invested. Does it make sense to you? If not, pick up the phone and talk to a financial adviser at the firm that administers your account (it should be free) about how and why you landed in your current portfolio. In many cases, if you made no decision, you’ll have been automatically defaulted into a target-date fund based on your age. And, if you want to learn more about the ins and outs of investing, check out my InvestingFixx program. Together with Karen Finerman of CNBC, we are teaching an interactive, biweekly class in how to invest — investment-club style, and BTW having a lot of fun.

No. 5: Having too much debt

This is a worry that will likely impact more of you as interest rates rise and federal student loans (eventually) come off pause. But, as always, it’s key to keep in mind that there’s a difference between good debt and bad debt. Good debt is the debt that gets you somewhere. It’s the mortgage that puts a roof over your head, the auto loan that keeps a car in your garage, the student loan that funded your education. All in moderation, of course. But as the interest rates on these debts are generally lower than, say, credit cards, they’re less worrisome overall. Bad debt? Yep, it’s those credit cards, personal loans and other higher interest-rate debts that have the potential to sabotage both your budget and your savings.

The next step to take: Set up an avalanche for that bad debt. Line up all your debts in order of interest rate from highest to lowest. Figure out how much, in total, you can muster to throw against all of those debts combined every month. Then, after you make the minimum payments on all your cards, use every bit of what’s left over to reduce that highest interest-rate debt. Once that debt has been satisfied, move onto the next highest interest rate, and so on. This is your fastest, cheapest road to becoming debt free.

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