While the coronavirus pandemic has significantly upended daily life for millions of Americans, it's had an outsized effect on women when compared to men, both at their jobs and at home.
Of the over 20 million jobs lost in April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 55% of those cuts affected women. While women had actually surpassed men in the workplace earlier this year, the BLS reported that as of May, women now make up only 49.2% of the workforce, the lowest female employment rate since 2008.
Meanwhile at home, women are still bearing more of the burden when it comes to child care and homeschooling during the pandemic, according to a recent report from the Boston Consulting Group. Just over a third of parents say women are the primary caregiver, while only 14% agree that it's men. In fact, women are spending an average of 15 hours more per week than men on domestic labor during the pandemic.
"I think more than anything, the pandemic has just exacerbated and shone another bright light on the challenges that women face, the inequalities," says Evelyn Zohlen, a certified financial planner and founder of California-based Inspired Financial.
But when it comes to their financial future, women tend to start at a disadvantage because they typically earn less than men and spend less time in the workforce. Yet women generally live longer and therefore need to save more. So the effects of the current pandemic can have long-term consequences. Women, for example who leave the workforce for more than a year typically pay a penalty for their absence, earning about 7% less on average when they do return to a similar position, according to 2018 research from PayScale.
But experts say there are five general strategies women can employ right now that may help mitigate some of the financial fallout.
Over the past few months, many Americans have spent less because they have not been able dine out or shop normally. That can make it easier to analyze what is essential and nonessential. "This is a moment to really take a hard look at that. How painful is it for me to have made the changes that I did?" Zohlen says.
A good strategy is to evaluate your spending by looking at the months of March and April and break down what purchases were critical and which were less so, says Alexandria Cole-Davis, a financial planner with Maryland-based Facet Wealth. "Everybody is different in the sense of their budgeting," she says, adding that for women who have lost their jobs, it can be especially challenging. But take the time to work through it, Cole-Davis says, adding that being able to track and budget your money will help you get on the right financial footing long term.
In addition to spending on dining, food and entertainment, take a look at recurring expenses like gym memberships, streaming services and monthly subscriptions for food, clothing and beauty products, Zohlen says. Decide what's essential and what can you live without, perhaps even just temporarily until you're back on your feet financially.
It's also a good time to look at your bills, such as the Internet, cable, cell phone service and even insurance. For most of us, you set up these services when you move or when you first buy a new phone and then go years without analyzing the bills. Now is the time to do just that and see if there are lower-priced options.
Do some research on the alternatives. If you currently have an unlimited plan with Verizon or AT&T and your phone is paid off, consider switching to a budget carrier such as Visible or Cricket. Both companies, which run on Verizon and AT&T networks, offer plans that could save you as much as half of your current cell phone bill.
And take time to review your insurance. "Nobody wants to review their insurance," Zohlen says, but now may be a good time to look over your renter's, car and home insurance. It could provide you with an opportunity to "squeeze a little more money out of the budget," she says.
While it's important to make sure that your coverage and liability limits are appropriate for your current situation, it's also good to critically look at your deductible. If you have a really expensive homeowner's insurance with a low deductible, ask yourself how often you make a claim on the policy? Probably not that often, Zohlen says. So it could make sense to make some changes.
Once you've analyzed and perhaps trimmed some of your reoccurring expenses, put that extra money into savings, Cole-Davis says. "If you have a little bit of excess cash, you still want to be mindful that you're using that as savings because we don't know what's going to happen next," she adds.
Experts recommend putting three to six months of living expenses in savings. While that may sound like a big number, you can start small and gradually build up a savings cushion to help you weather life's unexpected costs.
And make it as easy as possible: Set up a regular, automatic transfer from your checking account to a savings account, preferably a high-yield option that will pay you a slightly better interest rate than your typical brick-and-mortar savings option.
Having a robust emergency savings fund "can be the difference between making rent that month or not," Zohlen says.
Not only have spending habits changed, for those still employed, the workplace has likely dramatically shifted as well. Nearly half, 42%, of Americans polled in a joint CNBC/Change Research survey conducted in April reported they were working from home.
But working from home brings its own challenges, including making sure that your managers know you're keeping on top of your responsibilities. Make it easy on them, Cole-Davis says. "Be proactive," she says, by telling your manager what you're doing and sending updates as much as possible. More communication is better right now, especially if you're concerned that your company may be considering layoffs.
It's all about "staying top of mind," Cole-Davis says. Even if you're not adding more work, just showing off your work and showing managers what you're doing can really separate you from the pack and perhaps help you retain your job.
It's also important to be flexible. Managers are just as overwhelmed as you are, Cole-Davis says, so make sure you're considering ways that you can support them. "There's so much that's changed, so being very open to other ways of working and helping people is going to really just benefit you during this time."
When it comes to work-life balance, women can be their own worst enemy in attempting to do it all and be available for everyone. That can lead to burnout, Zohlen says. To avoid losing steam, she says "there have to be some boundaries." And that goes for both family and work.
It starts by setting expectations with your employer. There's a nice way to set these boundaries without it sounding threatening or like you're issuing ultimatums or anything like that, Zohlen says. For example, she suggests saying something like, I generally will not be available after 5:30 because we have some virtual things that we're doing with our kids. "Help set those boundaries. I know it's hard."
"We have to do some self-policing to make sure that we are carving out the time that we need to recharge our batteries," Zohlen says. "So much rests on the shoulders of the women who are all working from home and caring for family right now. And if we aren't careful and diligent about self care, we will deplete and not have enough to share with family and community."
At home, Zohlen says it's about not letting "the men in the house get a pass," Zohlen says. But it's not just men, it's roommates, spouses, partners, kids. Make sure that household chores and duties are being done evenly, even if that's tough to enforce.
"Who wants to listen to their 11-year-old son whine about not wanting to do dishes or whatever? I mean, we're exhausted. Who wants to hear that?" Zohlen says. But on the other hand, if you don't, she says you're missing out on an opportunity to provide some equality within your own family.
Whether you're working or unemployed, it may make sense to consider boosting your skill set. For some, it may be that they now have more downtime to go back to school, for others, it may be about wanting to add more skills or a certification to make them a bit more invaluable or even snag a promotion.
Going back to school may also be worth exploring, especially for anyone without a bachelor's degree. Those who graduate college tend to earn 80% more on average than Americans who only hold a high school diploma. That said, it may not be worth it if you have to take on massive amounts of student loan debt. Over a third, 36%, of college graduates paying off student loans say that taking on that debt wasn't worth it, according to a 2019 report by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, which surveyed over 2,700 early adults (defined here as those ages 18 to 34)
If you're interested in boosting specific skills, rather than obtaining an entire degree, you can sign up for popular platforms such as LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda), Coursera or Udemy, which is currently offering some courses for free. A subscription to LinkedIn's catalog of online courses is $29.99 a month after a free 30-day trial. Or you can learn a specific specialization through Coursera for around $39 a month, although some may be free.
"I could see a lot of women going back to school during this time," Cole-Davis says.