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Michelle Singletary:

By Michelle Singletary Washington Post

The pandemic has been tough for many Americans but especially for women, resulting in what’s being called the COVID “she-cession.”

In a typical recession, men usually face more job losses. But the coronavirus pandemic produced a different outcome, with women experiencing higher unemployment rates than men.

Women with children under 6, who made up 10% of the prepandemic workforce, account for almost a quarter of the job losses related to COVID-19, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

“Compared to the Great Recession, where females accounted for less than one-third of the employment decline, females have accounted for more than half of the decline during the pandemic for prime-age workers,” wrote M. Melinda Pitts, research director of the Center for Human Capital Studies at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

As of August, the unemployment rate for women 20 and older is still 1.5 times higher than the prepandemic unemployment rate, which was 3.1% in February 2020, according to a report by the National Women’s Law Center. Younger women were hit especially hard, with 9.4% of women between 20 and 24 unemployed in August.

For women of color, the pandemic exacerbated long-standing inequities, the center pointed out. Nearly 8% of Black women 20 and over were unemployed in August, more than 1.5 times higher than their unemployment rate of 4.9% in February 2020.

The unemployment rate for Latinas 20 and over was 6%, more than 1.2 times the prepandemic unemployment rate of 4.9% in February 2020.

In many cases, the pandemic stopped the economic gains made by women in recent decades.

Overall, women will need almost nine years of job gains to recover the nearly 3 million jobs they’ve lost since the pandemic started, according to the analysis by the National Women’s Law Center. Women lost 6,000 leisure and hospitality jobs in August. They lost 16,000 jobs in the education and health services sector.

The closing of schools and day care centers also disparately affected working moms. Among unemployed adults, women 25 to 44 were almost three times as likely as men to not be working due to child care demands, according to a 2020 Census Bureau report.

Then there’s the pay gap. In 2019, women earned 82 cents to every dollar earned by men, according to the most recent data of full-time workers from the Census Bureau. A Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of full- and part-time workers found that in 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned. That’s better but still not equal.

“Preexisting gender gaps have amplified the crisis asymmetrically between men and women, even as women have been at the front lines of managing the crisis as essential workers,” according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2021. “Combined with the additional pressures of providing care in the home, the crisis has halted progress toward gender parity in several economies and industries.”

Wage inequality means women have to make their earnings stretch further. Even those who didn’t experience a financial loss because of COVID may still need some coaching to do better with their finances.

Whether you’re doing well or struggling, economic empowerment begins with the basics managing the money you have.

I spoke with Lorna Kapusta, head of women investors and customer engagement at Fidelity Investments. She spearheads the company’s initiative to empower women to take control of their finances. One of the first questions she gets asked by women is how to better manage their paychecks.

We talked about Fidelity’s 50-15-5 spending and savings rule of thumb that will not just get you back on your financial feet but will help to grow your wealth.

If you are unsure of how to control your spending and manage your expenses, this budgeting strategy is a simple way to manage your income.

What about the remaining 30%? Well, read on.

The first 50% for life: Look at your net pay (what you bring home after taxes and deductions) and allocate 50% to everyday expenses. This would include your rent or mortgage, food, utilities, transportation, child care, insurance, cable, streaming services, etc.

The first step is to organize your financial house. “People want a guideline,” Kapusta said.

The 15% for wealth builder: Aim to save 15% of your gross or pretax income for retirement. This would include any employer contributions.

“At that level, most people will fall off their chair if they’re just starting out,” Kapusta said. But start where you can. If there’s a company match, at least put in enough to get that money, which gets you closer to the 15%.

Jayda Mitchell, 20, who lives in New Orleans and serves in the Coast Guard, understands the compounding power of investing at such a young age. She’s already contributing 10% of her pay to her retirement account (including a match from the military). She also has a Roth IRA.

“I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m 35,” Mitchell said.

Incredulous at such an ambitious goal, I asked Mitchell why that target.

“Why not?” she said. I don’t have any debt, and as long as I keep saving and I won’t buy anything I can’t afford then there is no reason for me not to be able to set goals. And I think I’m well on my way. And as I get older, I’m going to invest more money. I just want to set myself up for retirement, children, living. I don’t ever want to be stuck in a place where I can’t provide for myself.”

Mitchell works with Ernest Burley, a certified financial planner based in Maryland.

“Most of my clients are women,” Burley said. “The women I work with are very progressive and proactive about their finances.”

The 5% for the unexpected. There’s really nothing new under the sun about the basic building blocks of financial security, and the emergency fund is tried and true. Yet, many people who have room in their budget still don’t plan for the financial emergencies that are an inevitable part of life.

Faced with a hypothetical expense of $400, many people would have to use a credit card and then carry a balance to handle the emergency, according to a Federal Reserve report on the economic well-being of U.S. Households in 2020 through May of this year.

“On a very regular basis, we’re talking to thousands of women,” Kapusta said. “For women of generations, one of the top stressors is money. The pandemic hits and that stress just explodes. With that being said, what we saw is a strong interest in doing more with their money.”

The final 30% for exceptions. Your budget has to have room for the extraordinary. If you live in a high-cost area, your housing costs could take up 50% of your net pay.

If you’re trying to dig out of debt, here’s where that money will come from. Or, you can allocate funds for fun.

In this area, you may also want to add money to save outside your retirement account. Historically, men begin to invest outside of retirement much earlier than women, Kapusta said. But Fidelity has found that an increasing percentage of women have started investing in nonretirement accounts since the pandemic.

Kapusta said the combination of the pandemic and the stress that it created made women understand the need to get their financial house in order so that they can cover unexpected expenses. But it also showed them the power of the stock market to create wealth.

In 2020, Fidelity saw a 41% year-over-year increase in new retail accounts opened by women. At the end of the first quarter of 2021, investing activity by women was still increasing doubling as they’ve watched the stock market perform well despite the pandemic. The ability to save and invest outside of a retirement account could be a game-changer.

“This is unprecedented,” Kapusta said. “More women are taking action with their money than we’ve ever seen before.”

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