When it comes to money, women tend to get the short end of the stick. Not only are they paid less than men for equal work (and the discrepancy is even greater for women of color); but they also carry far more of the student debt in the U.S. But none of that is stopping them from surpassing men when it comes to financial independence.
According to a new study conducted by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, women become financially independent faster than men. The study, “Early Adulthood: The Pursuit of Financial Independence,” surveyed a national sample of more than 2,700 respondents, with a focus on people ages 18 to 34; and found that overall, finances are the top source of stress and the top barrier to achieving life goals like buying a home and starting a family. Seventy percent of those surveyed have received some sort of financial support from their parents in the past year — but women stop relying on that help before men do. Per the study, by the time they’re in their early 30s, women are about half as likely as men to receive parental support in major expense categories like food, housing, student loans and vacations.
While there may be several contributing factors to this result; one connection the study made is that young women tend to focus on their financial futures more than men. Among those surveyed, 72 percent of women — compared to 60 percent of men — said their highest financial priority is saving for the future and paying down debt. On the flipside, 40 percent of men — compared to 28 percent of women — said their highest financial priority is to “enjoy life now.”
So, even though women get paid less and hold almost two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in the U.S., according to the American Association of University Women, their forward-thinking may help them successfully support themselves before men do. “The good news is that women tend to take a longer-term view on finances, which can give them a powerful advantage to address debt in a smart, disciplined way, while also looking ahead toward future goals,” said Jennifer Auerbach-Rodriguez, head of strategic growth markets for Merrill Lynch.
But, while women may have a solid handle on financial independence, the study found they lag behind men when it comes to investing: Only 27% of early adult women surveyed said they have investments outside of employer-sponsored retirement plans, compared to 46% of men. “This tells us that while women are avidly seeking financial independence, there is more that they can do to build wealth,” Auerbach-Rodriguez said. “Investing is an important and powerful way to build financial security as it provides a path to growing wealth that income alone cannot.”
So what’s stopping women from taking that path? According to the study, it’s a lack of confidence in managing investments and a fear of not knowing what they’re doing. “Investing has been made to seem complex — and it certainly can be,” Auerbach-Rodriguez said. Fortunately, while it can certainly be intimidating at first, even the most green investors can get the ball rolling by focusing on a few key strategies, as well as getting help from experts and expert resources like personal finance apps. Auerbach-Rodriguez’s advice for anyone (women or men) intimidated by investing: “Nothing beats fundamentals as you’re thinking about getting started. Begin with the basics, whether it’s personal research, an online class, or seeking advice from a professional, and your knowledge and confidence will grow — along with your investments.”