Managing money at every age: A single woman’s guide to financial independence 

Emma Duffy By on July 2, 2019
 
women finances

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

You might think that your gender and your bank balance have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But gender and money can have a fraught relationship. 

Author, Susan Edmunds knows this. It’s why she’s written a book, Starting Out Starting Over – a single woman’s guide to money in Australia, all about improving the relationship women have with money.

Pictured: Susan Edmunds. Image supplied.

Driven by a desire to boost women’s financial literacy, Susan wants women to realise that managing money isn’t as hard or as intimidating as it seems.

“One of the worst mistakes I see women make is deciding that they’re no good with money so they just won’t bother to try. Sometimes if they’re in a relationship, this means they leave it all to the partner. Other times, it just means they sometimes let things get messier than they should, or they miss out on opportunities to get ahead. The reality is that pretty much anyone can grasp the basic concepts and make changes to improve their financial situation,” she told Savings.com.au.

If you’re a woman reading this who’s ever put money in the ‘too hard’ basket, here’s your chance to tick off some life admin and finally get on top of your finances.

This is our guide on how to manage money at any age. You’re welcome ladies. 

Meet these savings goals in your 20s

Make a budget and start saving

Firstly, sit down and figure out how much money you have coming in and how much is going out. In your 20s it’s probably not going to be very much, which is why it’s even more important to keep track.

Budgeting doesn’t need to mean drawing up a massive Excel spreadsheet and meticulously tracking every single purchase – unless that’s your thing. We’re fans of the 50/30/20 rule to direct your income more purposefully towards your goals, but there are tons of other budgeting styles out there. 

Once you’ve made a list of all your sources of income, you may want to divvy up your expenses like this:

  • 50% of your take-home pay to needs (rent, bills, food, transport, etc.)
  • 30% of your take-home pay to wants (wine, face masks, festival tickets, etc.)
  • 20% of your take-home pay to savings (house deposit, travel, etc.)

If you’re just getting started in your career and have lots of extra expenses like sorting out your work wardrobe or paying ridiculously high rent, you may find you’re spending more than 50% of your take-home pay on needs. If you can, try and borrow the difference from the 30% in the ‘wants’.

The biggest thing is to stay focused on that 20% savings goal. There will be times when contributing towards this will be hard (if not downright impossible). Start with whatever you can and try and boost up the amount whenever you have the cash to spare. Tax refunds are perfect for this. 

Hot tip: Pop your savings into a separate high-interest savings account so you won’t be tempted to touch them.

Pay off your student debt

If you’re otherwise debt free and can afford to make extra repayments, it’s a good idea to pay off your student debt ASAP.

It might be more convenient let the tax office automatically deduct your HECS-HELP debt from your pay and otherwise forget about it, but HECS-HELP debts are annually compounded by the national indexation rate (cost of living) so the debt may rise a little each year.

HECS-HELP loans are, for all intents and purposes, considered a debt – which may affect your borrowing power when the time comes to apply for a car loan or a mortgage. 

Start making superannuation contributions

It’s never too early to start contributing towards your retirement, even if you’re only in your twenties. If you have some savings to spare, pop them into your superannuation fund. You can also ask your employer to automatically put some of your take-home pay into your super fund through salary sacrificing.

Making extra contributions, no matter how small, can significantly boost the amount of savings you have in retirement. Don’t believe me? By putting away as little as $10 extra a week, you would have an extra $70,000 in your superannuation fund by the time you retire, thanks to the magic of compound returns. 

Save for emergencies 

If you don’t already have an emergency fund, stop everything and get onto it ASAP. Because, as Murphy’s law goes, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”.

Be it a car breakdown, an unexpected medical bill, or your housemate moves out and you have to replace everything in the apartment because it was all their stuff (this may or may not currently be happening to me), something Will.Go.Wrong. I can guarantee it.

But if you’ve got an emergency fund, it doesn’t matter. Or at least, it doesn’t matter quite as much as it would have if you didn’t have a bit of money set aside for this exact scenario.

Having an emergency fund gives you a nice little buffer so you don’t need to turn to your credit card or a personal loan to get you out of trouble. If you haven’t got an emergency savings stash, chances are you will wind up charging most or all of that to a credit card. And if you’re only making the minimum monthly repayments, that bill will hardly budge months later.

It’s generally recommended to have between three and six months of living expenses saved up in this emergency fund. That’s because, according to Seek, this is how long it takes for most people to find a new job, which is a common reason for dipping into their savings. 

Another type of emergency fund is what’s known as a f**k off fund (a secret emergency stash of savings when you’re in a relationship). Some women like to have a secret f**k off fund because it gives them a sense of security if they share finances with their partner. But as you can imagine, f**k off funds are controversial because they’re meant to be kept hidden from your partner – and keeping secrets from your partner is the first chapter of “What You Should Never Ever Do in a Relationship 101”.

So we asked Susan what she thought about f**k off funds. 

“I generally wouldn’t advise hiding stuff (particularly financial stuff!) from your partner. But there are some situations where I think it could be a good idea,” she said.

“I knew of one woman who was a stay-at-home mum while her partner worked. He became super controlling of their finances so, as their relationship fell apart, she was really stuck. She could have benefited from a fund.

“There was also another woman who got in touch with me whose partner set up a complicated trust structure for their house so she wouldn’t get any of it when they split. I feel like she should have siphoned off more of their money into a secret bank account when they were together,” she said.

Start saving for a house deposit

I get it: you’re only in your twenties and you’re probably not thinking about buying a house for a while yet. But for a single person on one income, it can take over eight years to save a minimum 20% deposit for a house (assuming you’re putting away 20% of your income) according to CoreLogic and ABS data. 

If home ownership is a goal for you, saving for it has to be your priority. As soon as your paycheck hits your bank account, immediately siphon off the biggest possible chunk you can afford into a high-interest savings account. You also shouldn’t touch it unless your car explodes/you need root canal/your washing machine floods your apartment. 

Start investing 

Many finance experts suggest that success in investing is driven by time in the market, not timing the market, which is why your twenties are the perfect time to start investing. You have the gift of time on your side, so you’re likely to be less impacted by short-term volatility in the market. This means you’re in a position to take on more risk that may result in higher returns in the long run.

Forget everything you picked up about investing from The Wolf of Wall Street – real life investing isn’t about money laundering, stock fraud, or throwing money at people from your yacht. Real investing is about setting goals and picking investments that will help you achieve them. It’s also about knowing how comfortable you are with taking risks. 

There are a lot of investment options to choose from but they generally fall into four main types: property, fixed interest, cash, and shares. For investment newbies, stashing your money away into a high-interest savings account is a relatively risk-free way to grow your money. Apps like Raiz can also be great if you want to try your hand at investing, but don’t want to dive in all the way just yet.

Before you start buying stocks in the share market and snapping up investment properties, do your research and consider seeking advice from an independent financial advisor. 

Set financial goals for your 30s

Put your best foot forward when applying for a home loan

If you’re thinking seriously about applying for a home loan, you’ll want to present the best possible version of your financial self to your lender of choice. According to research conducted by CommBank, most people buy their first home at the age of 32, which is why now is the time to get serious. Start by making sure you have a strong credit rating by requesting a free copy of your credit history. 

Next, make sure you have repaid as much of your ‘bad debts’ as possible, reduce your credit card limits, make sure you can document a pattern of regular savings, and have all income and expense documents at hand. 

Negotiate your salary or a pay rise

Ms Edmund says a big career mistake women make is not advocating enough for themselves. 

“When they get a new job, women are reportedly not as good at negotiating a starting salary, and then they are often less likely to push for promotions. Often, you’ll hear women telling other people that they’re great and should aim high, but then they don’t apply that same mindset to themselves,” she told Savings.com.au.

Sometimes, despite the best financial planning, disciplined budgeting and saving – you can still come up short. If this is the case, you may want to consider asking your boss for a pay rise. 

If you’ve been employed in the same position for some time with no pay increase, your pay may have fallen below the market average because of inflation.

When negotiating a pay rise, it always pays to be prepared and do your research. Perhaps you’ve gained new qualifications that can be factored into your pay increase. You should always base your request for a pay rise off market research and examples of your strong performance. “Needing more money” because you’ve got a lot of expenses coming up isn’t a good enough reason for your employer to give you a pay rise. 

Get ‘super’ picky

Picking the right superannuation fund in your thirties can play an important role in securing a financially stable future. Even though superannuation is critical to our retirement, many Australians aren’t overly invested in it. 

There are a lot of important factors to take into consideration when choosing a super fund: the fees charged, performance, insurance offering, etc. 

Shop around for insurance

If you haven’t already got health insurance by now, it’s a good idea to consider taking out cover before your 31st birthday – otherwise you’ll be stung with the Lifetime Health Cover (LHC) loading in addition to your premium should you choose to take out a policy further down the track. You’ll be charged a 2% loading on top of your premium for every year you put off getting private health insurance after the age of 31. Because the LHC loading lasts 10 years and goes up to a maximum of 70%, it’s a cost you may want to avoid altogether.

If you do have health insurance, or any other kind for that matter, it’s important to shop around and compare insurance policies each year before you renew. If you don’t, you could be hit with the lazy tax.

Increase your emergency fund

By now you should already have an emergency fund to cover any unexpected expenses – but how much is enough? That will largely depend on your weekly expenses and the number of dependents (if any) you support.

You may even want to consider having two emergency funds if you can afford it: one for minor accidents (fridge or washing machine breaking) and another for more serious events, like a job loss or illness.

Be wise with your increased cash flow 

Your thirties are generally a time when you begin making headway in your career. As your level of responsibility increases, so does your pay. Most people tend to reward their hard work by relaxing the budget a bit, but an increase in earnings presents a good opportunity to boost your savings or even grow your wealth by investing.

Don’t make the mistake of living from paycheck to paycheck: put that pay rise to work for you. For a low-risk approach, pop it into a high-interest savings account and slowly watch your money grow. If you’re not averse to a little risk, you may want to consider investing your extra earnings into another form of investment, like shares or property.  

Start saving for retirement in your 40s

Protect your biggest financial asset

It’s not your car, not your superannuation, nope – not even your house. Your biggest financial asset is you and your ability to earn. If you don’t already have life and long-term disability insurance, your forties can be a crucial time to protect your earning power. This is especially important if you have dependents who rely on your income. 

Most superannuation funds offer default life insurance which can often be cheaper than taking it out separately, so check your super fund before you start shopping around. 

Income protection insurance can also be an important addition to your financial cover, as it provides a certain amount of your usual income if you’re unable to work for an extended period of time due to an illness or injury.

Up your mortgage repayments

If you’re a homeowner, your forties can also be a great time to finally clear your home loan. In your twenties and thirties you were probably making minimum repayments because it was all you could afford at the time. Now you’re in your 40’s, try and use any extra cash flow to step up your mortgage repayments. 

Mo’ money, mo’ savings

If your income has recently gone up, don’t be afraid to spend money on things that will make your life more enjoyable (within reason obviously). A little lifestyle bump when you get a pay rise is natural, just don’t fall victim to ‘lifestyle creep’. 

Instead, put those extra dollars away into your savings, investments, or your superannuation. One thing not to do with your extra cash: prioritising saving for your kid’s tertiary education if you aren’t on track to meet your retirement goals. Student loans, scholarships and grants can help fund your child’s education – your retirement is entirely on you. 

Fast track your savings in your 50s

Cut costs where you can

If you’ve got kids, by now they’ll have (hopefully) flown the coop and be living out of home, which means you’ll have some money you used to spend on them back for yourself. See ya, school fees, sports lessons, new clothes, and all those extra groceries! 

If you’ve got a bit of extra room in your budget, treat yourself with something nice (after all, you’ve raised little humans) but also invest it towards your retirement or other money goals you might have too.

With fewer people now relying on you to – you know – live, you can probably also ditch some of your more expensive life insurance policies as well.

Zero in on your retirement plans

With retirement potentially only a decade or so away, now’s the time to get real about what you want your retirement to look like. Do you want to move to a quiet coastal area? Or somewhere in the hinterland? Where exactly? What’s the real estate market there like? The cost of living? What will you do all day? Price it all out and see what kind of annual income you’ll need to make it happen – then see how your current retirement savings stack up.

Women live, on average, six to eight years longer than men (according to the World Health Organisation) but we retire with less. Susan says not saving enough money for retirement is one of the biggest mistakes she sees women make.

“We usually live longer than men and generally earn less. So we have to provide for ourselves over a longer period of time, with less money to do it with.”

Evaluate your financial independence in your 60s

Give your retirement a practice run

Sitting on a beach and doing approximately nothing is fun for about a week. But if that’s your plan for the next 25 years of your life, you’ll probably end up extremely bored. 

If you can swing it, take a month or two off work to see if your retirement plans will actually work for you in the long-term. Or maybe you can drop down to a few days of work a week while you explore whatever it is you may want to do in your retirement – be it volunteer work or taking up a new hobby.

During this time, you’ll also want to make sure your financial logistics are doable. Try living off the income you plan to live on in retirement and see if it’s actually going to work. If you find it doesn’t, don’t stress. Think about how you might be able to add to your retirement income – maybe you can turn one of your hobbies into a side income, or drive for a ride-sharing app like Uber.

Plan your legacy 

Let’s face it: preparing your will, power of attorney, and living will (a document that lets you state your wishes for end-of-life medical care in the event you can’t communicate those yourself) isn’t anyone’s idea of fun.

But if you don’t, your family could be forced to make some very difficult decisions on your behalf, without knowing what your wishes were.  

Savings.com.au’s two cents

On average, women are paid less, take more time out of the workforce and put their careers on hold to raise a family. Many women struggle to make up for the years of income lost when they took time off, and often don’t get back to the same level of income they were on before having kids. Women also live longer than men, on average, so need more retirement savings – but they’re already on the back foot because of the aforementioned. 

Which is why it’s even more important for women to know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to managing their money. So stop telling yourself that you’re just not good with money because the reality is, you can learn how to manage your finances in pretty much exactly the same way you learn how to be good at anything else. 

Starting Out Starting Over, New Holland Publishers RRP $29.99 available from all good book retailers or online www.newhollandpublishers.com 

Emma Duffy
Emma Duffy joined Savings.com.au as a Finance Journalist in 2019 after spending a year as the editor of The Real Estate Conversation. She's most passionate about improving the financial literacy of women and millennials by writing about complex financial topics (what's an ETF I hear you ask?) in a way that's easy for the average Joe (or Jill) to understand.
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