Helping Women Take Charge of Their Future

September 11, 2014 ( - I’ve spent 30 years working in the financial services and nonprofit sectors, surrounded by capable, intelligent and driven women.

My experience is not unique, as women today make up 47% of the workforce and contribute more to the U.S. economy than ever before. But, despite our economic gains, women still face notable financial challenges. While many working women juggle their careers and personal lives with great dexterity, all too often I’ve seen these same women struggle to manage their personal finances.

My observations are more than anecdotal; they are validated by a new report from the TIAA-CREF Institute produced in partnership with the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at George Washington University. The report, “Working Women’sFinancial Capability: An Analysis Across Family Status and Career Stages,” examines data on the financial capability and security of more than 6,000 working women who participated in the 2012 National Financial Capability Study.

Several findings stand out for me. Nearly half of the working women we studied are concerned about their level of debt and ability to repay it. Excessive debt can put women in a vulnerable financial position, limiting their ability to handle financial emergencies and save for retirement. This too was reflected in the findings. Only 38% of the women in our sample have saved enough to cover three months’ worth of living expenses, roughly the same percentage doubt they could come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need arose, and only 44% are currently contributing to a retirement plan.

These challenges notwithstanding, the vast majority of working women seem satisfied with their day-to-day financial management skills. Fewer than half of those surveyed have sought any professional financial advice in past five years. And nearly 80% believe they are good at handling checking accounts, using credit and debit cards, and tracking expenses. Yet, when asked five questions measuring basic financial concepts, such as the effect of interest rates on savings, only 12% were able to answer all five correctly.

In total, the report paints a picture of working women—across career stages and age groups—resorting to high-cost borrowing, setting aside minimal savings and doing little retirement planning. Needless to say, these findings have significant implications for women’s long-term financial security.

So what can be done? First and foremost, financial literacy needs to be part of high school and college curricula. But, financial education shouldn’t stop there. Advice and counseling ought to be available in the workplace too, as it’s in every employer’s interest to have financially secure employees. Today only 20% of working women have received financial education through school or work. For their part, women need to take advantage of the financial advice that’s offered and participate in their employer’s retirement plan, if one is available.

Debt counseling, in particular, would help many working women, especially if focused on managing multiple sources of debt. Such information could be made available to women throughout their careers, or even pre-career. For example, facts about likely earnings for different college majors combined with data about projected student loan payments might be eye-opening to young women entering college.

Of course there is no one-size-fits-all approach; financial education and advice need to be tailored to women’s personal goals, career stage and family status. But, one thing is certain: Helping working women meet their financial challenges is a critical issue, not just for those involved, but for the U.S. economy as a whole.


Stephanie Bell-Rose, senior managing director and head of the TIAA-CREF Institute  

NOTE: This feature is to provide general information only, does not constitute legal advice, and cannot be used or substituted for legal or tax advice. Any opinions of the author(s) do not necessarily reflect the stance of Asset International or its affiliates.