Managing personal finances and preparing for retirement isn't easy for anyone, but the challenges are particularly difficult for women.
The latest results of an annual survey of financial literacy and wellness showed that women continue to feel less confident than men about their ability to manage their cash flow and debt, allocate their investments and prepare for their retirement.
The "wellness" gaps in most areas of financial planning and investing remain significant between men and women. The good news, said Liz Davidson, CEO and founder of Financial Finesse—which conducted the survey—is that those gaps narrowed in some areas last year. And more importantly, women appear increasingly intent on actively addressing their financial challenges.
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"The improvements are somewhat marginal, but they should increase if women remain engaged in the process," said Davidson, who noted that last year women accounted for 60 percent of the users of the financial education programs her firm administers for corporations and other employers. "They have to do more with the resources they have, so the increased engagement is very positive."
A number of factors put women at a significant disadvantage to men from a financial-planning perspective. On average, women still make less money than men in similar occupations (23 percent less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). They take more time off from their careers to raise children and care for parents than men do—the results being lower lifetime income, less personal savings and lower Social Security benefits. They have higher health-care expenses than men. And they live longer.
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"The dominoes are stacked up against women," said Stacy Francis, CEO of Francis Financial and a certified financial planner specializing in divorce. Given the high rate of divorce and the fact that married women tend to outlive their husbands, it's crucial that women develop a higher level of comfort with personal financial matters.
"At some point in their lives, most women are going to end up having to deal with their finances," Francis said.
The Financial Finesse study suggested that a high percentage of women don't have that comfort level, particularly in key aspects of financial planning. "The areas where women are furthest behind are arguably the most important," Davidson said.
The two most significant are money management and investment planning. On both fronts, results were marginally better than last year but still indicate a need for major improvement.
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Only 63 percent of the women surveyed in the study said they were spending less money than they were making, meaning they were likely depleting their savings or taking on debt. The figure for men was 78 percent. Just 47 percent of women maintained an emergency fund for unexpected expenses, compared to 62 percent of men. And 49 percent of women regularly paid off their credit card balances in full versus 66 percent of men.
The upshot is that despite the likely need of a bigger nest egg to sustain them in retirement, women are saving less than men.
On the investment front, the study also suggested that women lack confidence with investing and are consequently more conservative than men are. That's not always a bad thing, but ultimately, lower investment returns will translate into less money in retirement. "We're all subject to greed and fear when it comes to investing," Davidson said. "I think women are a little more influenced by fear."
Per the study, only 66 percent of women said they had general knowledge regarding stocks, bonds and mutual funds, compared to 85 percent of the men surveyed. More telling still, just 34 percent of women surveyed said they felt confident that their investments were allocated appropriately between stocks, bonds and cash. The figure for men was 49 percent. The result is often an overly conservative investing strategy that can hurt the growth of retirement savings.
"Women may be more conservative because they consider how investment losses can change their life," said certified financial planner Lazetta Braxton, CEO of fee-only wealth management firm Financial Fountains. "Some may just have a lack of exposure to investments and markets, and when you're not sure about something, you'll be more conservative."
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Cathy Curtis, a certified financial planner who focuses on "savvy women and their families," said most of the women she works with have taken the lead on finances for themselves and their families and are ready for the financial-planning process.
Nevertheless, she, too, sees a conservative bent in many of her clients.
"The women who hire me aren't ignorant of investing principles, but I do see a conservative streak in many of them," said Curtis, founder and owner of Curtis Financial Planning. "I need to help make sure they get invested into stocks."
As far as sophistication about finances goes, Curtis suggests that women have the advantage over men in that they don't overestimate their level of knowledge. "Most women are willing to admit they don't know a lot about [financial planning]," she said. "It frustrates them, but they know enough that they need help."
Indeed, the most encouraging result of the Financial Finesse survey was the extent to which women are accessing services to help them with their personal finances. It bodes well for the future.
"Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to this situation," said Francis, who runs a nonprofit organization called Savvy Ladies that helps empower women to make better financial decisions. "We tell women to give themselves a year participating in the program. It's not one seminar; it's a process."
—By Andrew Osterland, special to CNBC.com