Women’s Biggest Financial Regrets—and What to Do About Them Right Now

Failing to invest more, living beyond their means, and racking up credit card debt are just a few money regrets expressed by women.

In the not-so-distant past, American women were legally barred from owning property. Those laws weren't amended in favor of women until 1862, and it wasn't until 1920 that women earned the right to vote. Since then, it took another 54 years before women were given the right to apply for their own credit cards (in 1974).

That women have come a long way is an understatement. Unfortunately, with regard to money, wealth accumulation, investing, and personal finances, there's still significant ground to cover. Making matters worse, the media has failed women—even women's media—which historically has not contributed to smart and open dialogue about money, lifelong financial planning, and investing questions and needs.

Why does this matter? Because these factors have a real impact on the financial outcomes and literacy of women. Here's a closer look at the top financial regrets shared by women and what you can do about them starting right now.

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Not investing more

Confidence in investing is about experience and exposure, such as through education. According to Lorna Sabbia, head of retirement and personal wealth solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, what’s needed is even more fundamental than improving the educational curriculum. She contends that women need to simply start talking about money openly to inspire confidence in investing.

“To me, that’s the first thing we need to do, and it applies to every single one of the financial regrets women have. We need to break the taboo around talking about money. That’s number one,” Sabbia insists. “First, let’s just talk about it. Because once we do that, women do a great job of mobilizing and getting things done.”

Women, start talking about investing. Share what you know about it, what you’ve learned, your mistakes, and your successes. Raise each other up. Because sadly, many women still believe that if they’re good savers, that’s enough–they don’t need to invest. Hint: It’s not enough, and you may even be losing money (due to inflation).

Importantly, it’s never too late to start. You can take steps right now to begin investing or investing more, says Lorna Kapusta, head of women investors and customer engagement at Fidelity Investments. “Just getting started on the path to help your money grow will have a lasting impact more than [letting your money sit] in the bank," she says, "and you don’t need a lot of money to start.”

Need a little help? Kapusta suggests checking with your employer’s human resources department to see if the company’s retirement savings provider offers free workshops or one-on-one appointments. Access to these resources during the workday can make it easier to take part and get started.

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Chosen a career with higher pay

If wishing for a higher-paying career hits home, all is not lost. Even if you’re not in a position to change career paths entirely, it's very possible to improve your salary.

“Can you position yourself for the next-best-paying job at your company or a promotion? And are you actively working to do that?” asks Sabbia. “Are you garnering visibility and making your intentions known?” And then she adds this priceless point: "You can’t dream in silence." Let’s just sit with that for a moment. OK, moving on.

Take steps to bring your dreams to life. Sabbia suggests developing advocates and supporters at your workplace. Talk to your manager frankly about your goals and ask for a candid assessment of any skill gap you may have that would prevent you from reaching your next career step.

Fidelity’s Kapusta offers similar advice, underscoring the importance of talking openly with supervisors. “While it can seem intimidating, feel empowered to schedule an honest conversation about your salary with your boss,” she says. “Be prepared with a list of things that make you a valued employee who deserves top dollar, and see how that goes before quitting over money. Even if you don't get the exact number you ask for, you might score enough of a bump to make it worthwhile to stay put.”

The gender wage gap continues to be a problem, too, but Sabbia says there are ways to overcome such realities. “Some of it now is understanding what should, and should not be said during interviews,” she explains. “The 64-million-dollar question during job interviews is ‘Tell me what you earned at your last job.’ Certain states have rules around what you can, and cannot ask so that there’s no further exploitation of the differences in pay between men and women. Be aware of that when interviewing.”

Instead, shift questions about what you earned at your last job to salary expectations during interviews. “It all comes back to the more we talk about this, and educate women, the more women are aware and it makes them better prepared for these types of conversations and for positioning themselves for promotions and raises,” says Sabbia.

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Too much credit card debt

Retail therapy is tempting, and using credit cards can be a slippery slope. While digging out of debt can be painful, it doesn’t need to be complicated. Begin by looking for credit cards with lower interest rates because, it should go without saying, it’s difficult to dig out of debt when the interest keeps piling up.

Kapusta offers some tangible steps to correct this issue. “To make sure that more of your payments go to paying down the principal, shop around for low-interest balance transfer offers or loans. You may even qualify for 0-percent-interest promotional rates,” she says.

Kapusta also urges you to pay more than the minimum balance on credit cards. “Making the minimum payment on credit cards can leave you in debt for years. By paying just the minimum, a credit card balance of $1000 at a 12-percent interest rate with a minimum required payment of $35 would take 34 months to pay off,” she says. “Adding a little bit more to your monthly payment can help you pay off the debt in a fraction of the time. Find spots in your monthly spending where you can cut back and put that toward your monthly minimum—even just a little bit will help.”

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Lived beyond their means

If your biggest financial regret is having lived beyond your means, it’s not too late to change. “Start with a simple budget to understand what you spend and what you make,” suggests Sabbia. “Sometimes that’s a joyful experience for women and sometimes it’s not. But you need to truly balance your checkbook and understand how much things cost.”

Sabbia adds that it also helps to define what emergency saving looks like as well as your liquidity. Fidelity’s Kapusta recommends following the 50/15/5 budgeting guideline, which is a way of breaking down your paycheck and managing your spending.

“Aim to set aside 50 percent of your income to cover essentials such as rent or monthly payments; 15 percent toward retirement; and 5 percent toward short-term savings,” explains Kapusta. “The remaining 30 percent is intended to be used for discretionary expenses.”

Kapusta adds this caveat: There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to budgeting. Depending on where you live, such as in urban areas where costs are higher, you may need to be a little more flexible. But using 50/15/5 as a guideline can be helpful in managing your expenses today and in the future.

Sabbia contends that the initial challenge we must tackle as women is simply to openly talk about money, and it’s time to start doing that now. Women can help each other by sharing lessons learned and practical advice. Without it, we're short-changing ourselves and missing an important opportunity on multiple levels. And media and financial services can better serve women by eliminating some of the taboos about covering money issues.

And one more point: We need to instill a new set of life expectations for women. The only sure investment is an investment in yourself. Onward.

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