Are you a woman in transition? If you’re facing new life challenges — a successful owner or manager of a rapidly growing business, someone with a recent inheritance or perhaps recently widowed, divorced, engaged, married, or dealing with illness — then you’re a woman in transition, and you have special financial needs.
The pandemic forced most of us to look at our finances more closely than ever before. And while our usual advice is to avoid making rapid decisions while under pressure, you may have not had that luxury when the world essentially shut down in 2020. Now as we move into a post-pandemic new normal, it’s a perfect opportunity to reassess your situation and options. Naturally, your first instinct is to talk with those around you. However, you may be receiving conflicting advice from family and friends. You may be struggling with grief, guilt, fear, or other powerful emotions. You may feel strapped for time or as if each day is an eternity, but either way, key business or personal finance issues aren’t likely to be at the top of your priority list. You need strategies for coping with necessary financial decisions during this life transition.
Although each woman’s particular circumstances are different, women in transition face certain issues in common.
Numbness, Denial, Impulsiveness, and Conflicting Advice
Women in transition often report feeling as if they’re moving through a thick fog, or as if their brain is numb. You are not alone in feeling this way. It’s a basic human coping or self-protection mechanism to shield us from an onslaught of stressful events and emotions. The danger is when this numbness extends to shielding us from the consequences of our financial behaviors. The denial reflected in months of unpaid bills and overdue notices can quickly destroy a lifetime of creditworthiness and take years to recover from. Impulsive decisions like purchasing expensive vacations, gifting, or hastily buying or selling major assets like your business, home or stock portfolio can leave you with major regrets, tax liabilities, and a diminished net worth for years to come. Meanwhile, it can seem as if you’re in a vortex of swirling, conflicting advice from friends and family about what you should or shouldn’t do.
Given these widespread reactions and experiences, certain financial strategies work for nearly every woman in transition:
- Buy time. Defer all but essential decisions for a year. You may want to seek professional financial advice on what decisions simply cannot be deferred, but in general you want to buy the time to work your way through this life transition. If keeping on top of your monthly paperwork and chores is an issue, you may want to consider the services of a personal concierge or bookkeeper.
- Buy flexibility. Now is not the time to commit all your cash to long-term investments or pay off your mortgage. Keeping liquid assets such as cash and short-term investments gives you flexibility to make decisions when you are in a better place. A year in the future, your needs may be quite different, so your goal now is to preserve options for your soon-to-be changed lifestyle. Again, independent professional financial advice may be helpful.
- Take care of yourself. Sound, thoughtful financial decisions are more likely when you are rested, well and at peace with your life stage. Eating for health, making appointments in your calendar for a daily walk or other favorite physical exercise, and carving out time for quiet rituals of meditation, warm baths, or other soothing activities are proven coping techniques for the stresses of major life transitions. Studies demonstrate that taking care of yourself in such ways can provide wellness and other important benefits with little cost or risk.
- Acknowledge your vulnerability. Many women broadcast their emotional vulnerability during a life transition without being aware of it. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people who will take advantage of someone in such a situation. It is especially important to be careful about the people and services you engage to help you. Please see the resources section for services commonly sought out by women in transition.
In addition to the challenges shared by all woman in transition, specific transition situations each bring additional financial challenges and traps.
Two-thirds of small business owners say their business is their greatest personal asset and primary source of family income, so protecting your company and planning for your future financial security are often one and the same goal. Selling your business can also stimulate a sense of loss and grief – as if you’re losing a part of yourself. (Please see the grief section below.) It’s likely that you considered the future and viability of your business at least once during the pandemic. Even if you were able to remain open, the thought of experiencing something like that ever again might have you thinking that it’s time to get-out.
Business Growth/Sale: Avoiding Financial Traps
Strategies you can take to safeguard your finances during rapid business growth or after the sale of your business:
- Don’t mix rapid growth and inexperience. That often means not gifting a rapidly growing business to your inexperienced adult children. Uncontrolled growth in the wrong hands can quickly dissipate corporate assets.
- Protect your income stream after the sale. If something happens to the buyer, your payments can end abruptly. Request duplicate premium notices be sent to you when key man life insurance and disability insurance premium payments are made. Alternatively, you can own the policy so that no changes (or lapses) can happen without your knowledge.
Whether you are considering separation or are already in the divorce process, you will be making decisions that will affect the rest of your life. Dividing up assets in a divorce has never been an easy task, but increasingly complex investment options make it even harder now. Dividing your portfolio the wrong way can trigger vastly unequal tax consequences. Overlooking the QDRO form (pronounced “KWA-dro”) can make a mess of dividing retirement plan assets. You may need help navigating the economic aspects of a divorce, as opposed to the legal issues like custody handled by divorce lawyers. In addition to an attorney, you may want to consult with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst. Check with the Association of Divorce Planners for someone local. Divorce can stimulate a sense of loss and grief. Please also see the grief section below.
Divorce: Avoiding Financial Traps
Strategies you can take to safeguard your finances during and after a divorce:
- Keep taxes in mind. A stock portfolio split down the middle might not be financially equal (or equitable).
- Don’t be house poor. Many divorcing women want to keep their homes for emotional reasons and to provide stability for the kids. But maintaining a house also means mortgage, tax, upkeep expenses, and a large illiquid asset.
- Splitting up retirement plans? That involves tricky tax rules, so be sure you have the proper paperwork and talk to qualified advisors.
- Update wills, trusts (and other legal documents) and beneficiary designations on retirement plans and insurance policies, so your ex or some other unintended beneficiary doesn’t end up inheriting a windfall.
Whether you, or a family member, have recently been diagnosed with a serious illness, you will be facing many new challenges and decisions. Serious illness can stimulate grieving for the loss of the healthy, able-bodied self you’ve always known. Please also see the grief section below.
Illness: Avoiding Financial Traps
Strategies you can take to safeguard your finances before and after a diagnosis:
- Establish a Power of Attorney. A Power of Attorney needs to be drafted so someone can handle your financial affairs while you are incapacitated.
- Choose your Health Care Proxy. If you have just received a diagnosis for a life-threatening condition or terminal illness, you want someone you trust empowered to authorize or decline medical procedures.
- Consider establishing a trust so your assets will be managed during your lifetime, and pass to your heirs as you intended, without the stress, expense and time delay of the probate process.
Second marriages and blended families bring the financial challenge of caring for each other and for multiple beneficiaries.
Marriage: Avoiding Financial Traps
Strategies you can take to safeguard your finances before and after a second marriage:
- Update wills, trusts and beneficiary designations on retirement plans and insurance, so both of you, your children and your partners children are cared for as you both intend.
- Discuss your finances – Know how much debt your partner has and the impact of your option to share or combine finances.
Grief and Loss
Although you may have expected grief after the death of a loved one, you may be surprised by its intensity or duration. There is no one right way to grieve and most of us do not proceed through the classic stages of grief in a linear fashion, and many women are surprised to experience grief from the loss of their health or the sale of their business.
Grief: Avoiding Financial Traps
Strategies you can take to safeguard your finances after a loss:
- Take care of yourself. While everyone grieves differently, that doesn’t mean you need to go it alone. You can learn from what others have experienced, as well as health professionals. I have gathered favorite books and websites on grief below.
- Avoid grief-driven decision making. Viewing inherited or insurance claim money as a poor substitute for your lost loved one can lead to guilt, foolish spending, simply giving away what was intended to provide for your financial security.
- Avoid making decisions by default – Not looking at your finances can cause unintended outcomes and missed opportunities, or unintended tax consequences.
Favorite Books & Audiobooks on Grief
It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, by Megan Devine
Grief works: Stories of life, death, and surviving, by Julia Samuel
Grief and Loss, Centers for Disease Control
Grief: Coping with reminders after a loss, Mayo Clinic
Grief: Coping with the loss of your loved one, American Psychological Association
Heidi Clute, CFP® is co-owner of Clute Wealth Management in South Burlington, VT and Plattsburgh, NY, an independent firm and registered investment advisor that provides strategic financial and investment planning for individuals and small businesses in the Champlain Valley region of New York and Vermont. Clute Wealth Management and LPL Financial are separate entities. Securities offered through LPL Financial. Member FINRA/SIPC.