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Women need to think single when it comes to money

Most women have something in common when it comes to their money: At some point in their lives, they will need to learn how to manage it themselves.

Women are marrying later, or never marrying, at a higher rate than ever, with marriages down 60 percent from 1970, according to a 2013 study by Bowling Green State University's National Center for Marriage and Family Research.

The divorce rate in the U.S. remains high, at 40 percent to 50 percent, and women still outlive men by about five years. Yet many women are unprepared to be effective stewards of their financial destinies.

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As an advisor focused on women clients, I often hear statements such as:

  • "My dad told me where to invest my money, and I haven't looked at my accounts since he died."
  • "My brother is managing my money, and I'm not sure how it is invested."
  • "I handled the bills, and my husband took care of everything else."
  • "I'm embarrassed about my finances and how clueless I feel about my money."

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By seeking out an advisor, these women acknowledged they needed help, but there are many who don't and therefore miss out on opportunities to save and invest wisely—possibly undermining their financial health.

Because of these realities, I believe it is crucial that women take on a "single" mind-set about money. In other words, making financial decisions as if they were the sole keeper of their personal finances in all phases of their lives.

Here are some examples based on real-life women.

Single, urban and underpaid

Mary is a single woman living in an expensive urban area. She is 35 years old and has a job that she loves.

However, her pay covers her living expenses—and that's about it. She isn't saving for retirement and has $15,000 in a savings account. She knows she is underpaid, but she is very loyal to her employer and is always willing to take on extra work for no extra pay. She hopes to get married one day, but right now there are no significant prospects.

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Advice: As the sole steward of her finances, Mary owes it to herself to ask for a raise—at least enough to contribute to an individual retirement account so that she can start building her retirement savings.

If she can't get an increase in pay from her current employer, then her only option is to find other employment at higher pay or change her circumstances in some other way so she can afford to save for retirement and other financial goals.

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Middle-aged and widowed

Sally is 57 years old, has a teenage daughter and was widowed unexpectedly. She gave up her career to raise her daughter and now works part-time for very little money.

For the first time, she is forced to handle the finances: transferring and closing accounts, understanding her investments and figuring out whether there is enough money to last through retirement. As she gets herself more educated, she realizes that her husband wasn't taking full advantage of his company benefits.

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For example, he wasn't contributing the maximum to his 401(k) plan or contributing enough to get the full employer match. In addition, he invested his 401(k) savings only in stable value funds, as he was extremely risk-averse. Given the number of years he worked, the 401(k) balance is disappointing.

Fortunately, he worked for a large corporation, and there were other retirement income benefits. Sally and her husband were frugal, and she thinks she will be able to get by, but she is actively looking for full-time work.

Lesson: Women who disrupt their careers to raise children also disrupt their ability to save for their retirement. However, there are several things that wives can do even if they aren't earning money:

  1. Get educated about basic investments, and understand how their spouse's money is invested.
  2. Make sure their spouse is fully maximizing employee benefits, especially any employer match to a retirement plan, life insurance and disability benefits.
  3. If eligible to contribute to IRAs, learn about and take advantage of the spousal IRA.
  4. Have jointly owned, as well as individual, bank and credit card accounts.
  5. Know where all the money is, and keep log-in credentials for all accounts stored safely.
  6. Open a Roth IRA and contribute any earned income from part-time work.

Successful and divorced

Jane has a lucrative corporate career in technology. She is 45 and has made six figures since her late 30s, gets stock options and has generous company benefits. She has a large balance in her 401(k) plan and substantial investments outside of her 401(k), as she was a saver before she got married and also inherited money from a relative when she was 35.

Her husband, who is a writer and stayed at home to raise their 7-year-old son, announced unexpectedly that he wanted a divorce. Jane, focused on her work, did not expect this and realized too late that she did not prepare for this possibility. She has hired a lawyer to help with a property settlement.

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Lesson: If a woman is coming into a marriage with wealth, it pays to consider executing a prenuptial agreement beforehand. Prenups are not a romantic proposition, and it might seem like they're meant only for the super-rich, but that isn't the case.

In Jane's case, she, as the high earner throughout the marriage, will have to give up a substantial amount of her savings to her ex-husband. At a highly emotional time, she will be required to make decisions that will affect the rest of her life, as well as that of her child. A prenuptial agreement would have made this process a lot less stressful and ensure a fairer outcome.

"As women enter each new phase of their lives and are required to deal with different realities, it is critical to their financial health that they look out for themselves."

These three scenarios are just a few examples of ways that women sabotage themselves financially by relying on others to do the right thing or take care of them. This is not to say that spouses, partners or bosses are bad people; it's just the reality of life.

As women enter each new phase of their lives and are required to deal with different realities, it is critical to their financial health that they look out for themselves.

The choices are clear: Get educated about finances and take action, and seek out help from trusted advisors—or leave things to chance and hope that they work out. What seems like a better choice to you?

—By Cathy Curtis, special to CNBC.com. Curtis is an independent certified financial planner and founder and owner of fee-only investment advisory firm Curtis Financial Planning.