While equality for women has come a long way, there’s still work to do when it comes to finances. The American Association of University Women highlights some of the grimmest statistics in their fall 2015 study of the “gender wage gap,” meaning that, on average, women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns.

Lifelong consequences come into play when women earn less over time, creating an adverse effect on their financial lives in retirement. According to the National Women’s Law Center, 2.9 million women lived in poverty in 2013, which is twice the number of men. Further, women’s IRA balances are just 71 percent as big as men’s on average, which spells trouble for the millions who may not have enough money to retire.

While these statistics may appear troubling from the outset, women should see them as a call to action instead of a life sentence. The reality is, the decisions women make today can drastically transform their financial futures – one day and one dollar at a time.

This guide aims to explore issues surrounding financial literacy and financial independence for women, while offering actionable advice anyone can use to improve their financial lives.

Smart Money Moves for Any Stage

While there are plenty of ways to get ahead financially, and this chart offers women of all ages practical advice on the best financial moves for each decade of their lives:

Top Financial Moves to Make If You’re In…

For the vast majority of women, their 20s are the perfect time to get on solid financial footing.

Personal finance experts suggest:

  • Paying down any existing debts, including student loans
  • Learning to live below your means so you can save more
  • Contributing at least 10 percent of your pre-tax income to your work-sponsored retirement account
  • Saving in a traditional or Roth IRA in addition to any work-sponsored retirement savings
  • Building an emergency fund that include 3-6 months of expenses
  • Opening targeted savings accounts for various adult milestones such as a new home or children
  • If you have a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP), open a Health Savings Account, or HSA, and begin saving for future healthcare expenses

Your 30s are a time when wishful thinking is often replaced with panic. If you didn’t start saving in your 20s, you’ll wish you had by now. But it’s not too late.

Experts interviewed for this article suggest the following moves for your 30s:

  • Meeting with a financial advisor to see if you’re on track with retirement savings
  • Adjusting your savings rate to meet long-term savings goals, such as retirement
  • Continuing to live below your means so you can stave off debt
  • Deciding whether a home purchase is a smart move given your current financial situation
  • Starting a college fund for your children if you have them
  • Continuing to contribute to a general savings account to save for unknown and unplanned expenses
  • Create a living will, either on your own or with the help of a lawyer
  • Continue saving for future healthcare savings in your HSA

While your 30s are a time to get serious about your financial future, your 40s are when you begin to regret any moves you didn’t make.

Whether you’re financially where you want to be or not, experts suggest:

  • Meeting with a financial advisor to discuss your progress and adjusting retirement savings rates and goals as needed
  • Brainstorming ways to take advantage of available tax savings since you’re likely approaching your peak earning years
  • Continuing to save for your children’s college education, taking special care to seek out any tax breaks that may be available
  • Keeping lifestyle inflation at a minimum in order to keep savings rates high
  • Assess the impact of caring for aging parents
  • Continue saving for future healthcare savings in your HSA

Your 40s are a time for getting your financial house in order, and your 50s will require more of the same.

As you approach retirement, you’ll want to:

  • Meet with your financial advisor to discuss an exit strategy from work
  • Consider downsizing your home to save on upkeep and expenses
  • Continue saving for future healthcare savings in your HSA
  • Update your will to reflect your current financial situation and status
  • Adjust your asset allocation (with the help of a financial advisor) in order to decrease risk as you approach retirement

Your 60s are a time when you either reap the benefits of your smart financial decisions – or struggle with the realities of not saving enough.

Consider these steps to ensure you’re on sound financial footing:

  • Meet with a financial advisor to discuss your current financial situation, deciding when you can retire and how long your money will last
  • Decrease your daily living expenses as much as possible, which may include downsizing again
  • Update your living will to reflect your current financial situation
  • Decide what you hope to accomplish in retirement, and how to use any excess funds to achieve those goals

Strategies for Achieving Financial Independence

While some financial moves make more sense at certain stages of life, other strategies are applicable at any time. Short-term, medium-term, and long-term savings and investments can work together to provide a lifelong safety net.

Strategy How to Make It Happen
Beef up your emergency fund:

While saving for retirement is a no-brainer, you’ll also need to save for the many unknown and unplanned expenses that will inevitably arise.

Whether it’s a new roof, surprise dental bills, or a car that finally went kaput, you’ll need cash on-hand to save the day. An emergency fund can cover those surprise expenses and more, while helping you avoid going into debt.

Most financial experts suggest keeping an emergency fund with 3-6 months of expenses. This type of savings can help you in the worst of times – during a health scare, job loss, or family emergency.

Meanwhile, a healthy emergency fund will help you cover all unexpected bills you encounter as you ride the wave of life.

Strategies to build your emergency fund can include:

  • Setting aside a certain percentage of each paycheck

  • Setting up automatic deductions from your checking account into your savings

  • Putting all “extra” money into your emergency fund – tax refunds, gift money, or an inheritance

Strategies to get the best return:

  • Seek out online savings accounts with generous interest rates to make the most out of your short-term savings

  • Consider buying Certificates of Deposit (CDs) if interest rates rise

  • Check your local bank or credit union money market rates to find the best deal

Strategize your medium-term savings:

In addition to an emergency fund, most women could benefit from creating targeted savings accounts to reach specific goals. Depending on the individual, that could include funds for a new car, an annual vacation, or that new furniture you’ve been eyeing.

In the meantime, women should take a long, hard look at how they invest for the medium-term. Recent research shows that women choose less risky investments than men, which can work out well in the long-haul but lead to paltry earnings over shorter lengths of time. Women should take special care to ensure their short-term savings are invested in sources that will help those funds grow.

Medium-term savings should be treated much like short-term and emergency savings. You’ll want to grow your dollars as much as possible but with the option to liquidate at any time.

Strategies to invest your mid-term savings include:

  • Setting up automatic withdrawals into targeted savings accounts for specific goals

  • Contribute a fixed amount to each savings account once per month or every payday

  • Open Certificates of Deposit (CDs) to earn interest on your medium-term savings

  • Consider putting excess cash into a money market account to earn interest over time

Prepare for retirement:

Women worldwide live 4.5 years longer than men on average, according to the United Nations. Since women often have less than men saved for retirement, this creates a situation where women frequently outlive their money.

Social security can sometimes fill the gap, but it’s not always enough. The National Women’s Law Center reports that, among people ages 65 and older, twice as many women live in poverty as men. This scary statistic underscores the importance of financial education for women of all ages.

Whether your retirement is enjoyable or a struggle will depend a lot on how much you save and invest for it.

Some strategies for investing throughout the years:

  • Take advantage of free money by contributing to your work-sponsored retirement account to get the full company match

  • Actively contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA – In 2016, the contribution limits for all combined Roth and traditional IRA cannot exceed $5,500 (or $6,500 for those age 50 and older)

  • Max out your work-sponsored 401(k) whenever possible – For 2016, the maximum contribution is $18,000

  • Take advantage of a Health Savings Account if you qualify – families with a qualifying High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) can contribute up to $6,750 to a tax-advantaged Health Savings Account.

Reducing Debt and Embracing Better Spending Habits

One of the biggest factors influencing women’s financial success is how they manage lifestyle inflation and treat debt. Women who are already in debt should:

  • Come to terms with their debts.

    Tally up all of the amounts you owe and create a plan to get out of debt, once and for all.

  • Consider the debt snowball or debt avalanche payoff method.

    These are two well-known methods for paying off debt. The former requires listing all your debts and attacking the smallest balance first, while the latter asks you to tackle your highest interest debt as the priority. Both strategies work, although you may end up paying more in interest with the snowball method. Many people find the psychological win of paying off one account in full to be worth it, however. It’s up to you to decide which path to take.

  • Most of all, stop digging.

    When you’re trying to get out of debt, the first thing you should do is quit making the problem worse. Closing out an account can ding your credit score, but it might be the better option compared to racking up thousands in new charges. If you decide to keep an account open, make only very, very small charges on the card to show that it’s still active, and pay them off right away. Otherwise, hands off.

Tips for Curbing Spending:

  • Be aware of places where you might be spending a premium.

    Many women’s items cost more than men’s, but you can avoid this extortion by shopping for the best deal on both men and women’s items.

  • Create a monthly budget that includes all of your needs and a few wants

    You may not be able to afford everything you want, but with a basic spending plan and some restraint, you can make strategic splurges.

  • Pay yourself first

    Make your savings automatic and learn to live a meaningful life with the money that is leftover.

Career Advice for Women

While women have come a long way in the workforce, the wage gap shows them that inequality in race and gender are still issues. That’s why women need specific advice when it comes to advancing their careers and negotiating pay. Here is some advice to consider – straight from the mouth of experts:

Research average salaries and know your worth

“Know what your current role is worth and what it takes to get to the next level in your career,” says Chantel Bonneau, a leading financial advisor for Northwestern Mutual. Sites like Payscale.com and the Bureau of Labor Statistics can help you figure out what individuals are being paid based on position and experience.

Have confidence in yourself and your abilities

“If you’re confident about your abilities and work ethic it’s much easier to ask for a raise or promotion,” says Bonneau. “Many women hold themselves back because they’re insecure about their abilities and being 100% perfect. Men don’t think this way, so change your thinking and rise to the challenge!”

Negotiate without fear

Recent studies show that women are less likely to negotiate salary when confronted with a job offer, which results in an average of half a million dollars in lost lifetime earnings. Based on the research of Linda Babcock and Sarah Lashever, the authors of “Women Don’t Ask,” job candidates should know what they’re worth, then negotiate for it with a tone that is true to you. Stay positive and don’t settle for less than you’re worth.

Plan for the impact of having children

“Many young women might struggle with clear goal-setting if they are unsure about the timeline for life choices such as getting married and having kids,” notes Bonneau. “It’s important, through times of clarity or uncertainty, that you feel confident in your trajectory to financial security.” If you want a family and a career, the best thing to do is to start planning. Figure out how much time you need off work and estimate the costs of raising a child to adulthood. You can have a family and a career, but planning ahead will make it a whole lot easier.

Get an education, and never stop learning

If you hope to excel in your career, you should pursue any educational opportunities that come your way, including a college degree. A study from Georgetown University showed that graduates with a bachelor’s degree earn as much as 84 percent more during the course of their lifetimes versus those with a high school diploma. “Begin with obtaining the best education and developing the highest skill level in your chosen line of work – whether you are a waitress in a small restaurant or CEO of an international corporation,” says lawyer, author, and business development expert Cynthia Sharp. “Find out what it takes to play an ‘A’ game and play it.”

Financial Partnership: Preparing for Marriage, Divorce, and Widowhood

The fact that women live longer means that many will spend the end of their lives alone. And up until that point, women must deal with the financial consequences – and benefits – that arise from entering into a marriage partnership, and splitting up when it doesn’t work out. The following chart offers some general guidelines for getting through each scenario:

Financial Steps to Consider Before a Life Event

  • Get on the same page financially – discuss dreams, goals, and your financial future as a couple.
  • Live well below your means to minimize arguments and disagreements over money.
  • Make sure both spouses are aware of all aspects of your financial situation.
  • “Consider whether a pre-nuptial agreement is advisable,” notes Sharp. “If your spouse wants you to sign one, make sure that you have strong independent legal representation.”
  • Both spouses should independently contribute to their own retirement accounts.
  • Consider creating a will or trust.
  • Buy life insurance to pay final expenses in the event of a death.
  • Discuss attitudes about life’s big financial moments – going into debt, saving for children’s college education, and housing.
  • Take advantage of all marriage-related tax breaks and incentives.
  • Maintain access to legal counsel that can guide you through the divorce process and ensure fair distribution of assets.
  • Create a new budget that will cover living expenses without the benefit of a second income.
  • Invest in yourself and your career to maximize your earning potential.
  • Continue saving adequately for short-term, medium-term, and retirement goals.
  • Negotiate child support or alimony, if applicable.
  • Create a new will that reflects your current financial situation.
  • Research survivor benefits, and collect on any life insurance policies.
  • Consider downsizing to save money and time on upkeep.
  • Create a new will that reflects your widowed status.
  • Define new beneficiaries on your own life insurance policy, if applicable.
  • Keep living expenses as low as possible to minimize any potential loss of income.

Expert Q&A

Cynthia Sharp Cynthia SharpExpert

To learn more about what women should do to increase their odds of financial independence, we reached out lawyer, author, and business development expert Cynthia Sharp.

What unique challenges do women face when it comes to their finances?

In 2014, women working full-time made only 79 cents for each dollar paid to men. This is true even at the professional level. For example, the February 17, 2015 issue of Inside Counsel Magazine reported that 38 percent of male chief legal officers had total compensation packages of more than $400,000 compared to 28% of women with the same jobs being compensated at that level.

Women also bear more responsibility in caring for aging parents which has an adverse effect on them financially.

Is there anything that women should do to financially prepare for marriage?

Establish open communication in all relationships. It’s difficult enough to accomplish financial success on your own without taking into account the values and expectations of a spouse or significant other. Ideally, you will be in harmony in all aspects of your relationship – including financial. However, the chances of finding a romantic partner with whom you are in complete agreement on money issues is highly unlikely if not impossible.

According to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the American Institute of Certified Professional Accountants, American couples argue about financial issues more than any other issues including child rearing and division of household chores.

While some couples opt to live separate financial lives, most are intertwined – at least to some extent. Establishing a strong communication process with respect to finances will go a long way toward prevention of relationship discord as a result of financial disagreements. While money discussions are not romantic, money disagreements are even less so.

What career advice should women follow to make sure they are maximizing the amount of money they earn?

Find out how much your male counterparts are earning. Learn strong negotiation skills. Even a two-hour workshop can be helpful.

Do you have any specific advice for women when it comes to investing? What general financial advice do you think benefits women the most?

Continue to increase your financial literacy by reading and attending financial webinars and seminars which will result in increased confidence in the investment arena.

Also, spend less and save more. People squander a lot of money that could be saved – or spent on products or services that would add real value to their lives. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “latte factor” — originally conceived of and trademarked by David Bach of Finish Rich, Inc. While an extra $5 ATM charge or $20 overnight delivery fee may seem trivial, it all adds up – over a lifetime.

What can women do to boost their savings rate?

The first step is to face reality and calculate the approximate amount that will be needed to finance retirement or any other goal, taking inflation into account. Establish a set amount that you can–and must–contribute to the “fund” every month in order to reach that goal.

Contribute consistently and stay on purpose.

More Online Resources

NWLC
Women and Social Security Resource: National Women’s Law Center

Research recent facts on women’s reliance on social security benefits and what can be done.

Salary
7 Salary Negotiation Tips for Women: Salary.com

Learn how to negotiate like a woman, but leave the table with a man’s salary.

Savings
Women and Retirement Savings: United States Department of Labor

Research current trends in the financial lives of women, especially pertaining to retirement savings.

Whitehouse
Women in America, Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being: Whitehouse.gov

Learn about the financial and societal progress women have made and what steps should be taken next.

Insurance
Women & Money, Tips for Managing Your Financial Life: Prudential Insurance

Learn key strategies for managing your money and making the most out of your financial resources.