3 Easy Tips to Help You Pay Off Debt, Save Money AND Have a Life

Financial Advice by Carmen Rita Wong

Q: I am very eager to have all of my bills paid off, but no matter how I work the numbers, it seems like ALL of my money is going to my bills and I’m left just scraping by, especially on those last few days before my next paycheck.  Is there a trick to paying down my debt and putting some money away in the bank, all while still being able to enjoy having a life?

You may remember in grade school that there were some ‘tricks’ to remember multiplication tables, etc., but, unfortunately, the answers to the problems don’t change: a number times zero is always zero. Our household budgets are very much plain old addition and subtraction. So, when your expenses and income are as tight as the lid on a pickle jar, it’s time to change one, the other, or both.

I don’t know exactly what your numbers are, but here are some universal tips to help loosen things up no matter how many zeros in your salary, or debt:

  1. Make more money. We women are a bunch of hard workers and jugglers. But is there room–even a couple of hours a week–to make some extra dollars doing things you enjoy? If you have a hobby, such as design, set up shop at Etsy. Can you be flexible on weekends and earn money running errands (see TaskRabbit) or dog walking (Care.com)? Think about what your skills are and availability is beyond your regular job. You may be able to make that paycheck breath a bit with extra income.
  1. Find more money. Consider this a bigger version of the change-under-the-cushions. As I’m a big fan of enjoying life so I don’t like the idea of cutting back so much that you jeopardize your sanity. But, you do have to consider where you can cut back. For example, with so much access to subscription services for television shows and movies (such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Fire, etc.) there is little need for cable. You can go from paying $100 a month for your favorite shows to around $20 a month depending on what package you go with. And what about your grocery bill, or going out, or clothes shopping? Pick your priorities when it comes to enjoying life and then focus on all the other stuff to find your savings. Write them down and create deadlines–two hours over a weekend doing research and making some calls can make a big difference.
  1. Make a big change. When you spend year after year stressing about your money and feeling too squeezed to breathe, it may be time to think about a big change. For the majority of Americans, our homes are our most expensive expense, taking up 30%-60% of our budgets. I’m not recommending moving tomorrow, but, think about your future–what do you see? Where would you like to be, mentally as well as financially? Is where you are worthwhile? For some folks, it takes a year or two to make a big change, but the extra 10 or 20% of income saved makes it all worthwhile. And if you have no dependents and work in a field with solid employment, it could be an even easier move. Should-you-move is a big question for you to answer, but, it’s always worth posing the question.

We may not be like Houdini and be able to slide out of our budget-shackles, but we have a lot more of an ability to make changes in our lives than we realize. Abracadabra!

Carmen Rita Wong is the President and Founder of Malecon Productions. She is the former co-creator and host of the only national, daily personal finance television show, On the Money, on CNBC. Carmen was also the co-founder and former President of an all-female financial planning firm, is currently Assistant Industry Professor of Finance and Risk Engineering at NYU Polytech, a former editor at ‘MONEY’ magazine as well as a previous national advice columnist at ‘Good Housekeeping’, ‘Glamour’, ‘Latina’, ‘Essence’, and ‘Men’s Health’. Carmen also writes for ‘The New York Times’ and is the author of two books, her most recent, The Real Cost of Living. She has also written a novel based on her life and the lives of her first- and second-generation Latina friends, famous and not, to be released in 2015.


Confidence is not Masculine or Feminine: it’s Structural

A widely accepted justification for the glass ceiling is a difference in confidence levels between men and women. In 2014, a study from Washington University of St. Louis reported that women perform better in less competitive work environments.  Today, more than 70 years since the world’s first female head of state took office, this news sounds regressive and antiquated at the very least.

Women have spent years catching up in academia and now outrank men globally in higher education enrollment and graduation rates. In the United States, women earn 60% of all undergraduate degrees and account for 52% of the workforce. This increase can be seen across the board, including in countries like Saudi Arabia, where women make up 51% of the total college enrollment but yet do not have the freedom to operate a vehicle alone.  Despite these widespread gains, we are still vastly underrepresented as leaders and disproportionately compensated for our positions.

For 17 years, I have worked directly with many ambitious and resourceful women who are anything but apathetic towards their careers. These women have faced challenges and come out on other side exuding both professional initiative and overwhelming personal aspiration to move forward for themselves and their families.

So why are so many strong women perceived as timid in the workplace? Just like any professional skill, confidence is learned and therefore can be influenced by our surroundings. Women’s ‘soft’ approach to career advancement can be attributed, in large part, to a lack of structural support in the workplace. Since many women serve as the primary caregivers to children as well as the sick and elderly in their families, they may endure periods of time out from their careers, which forces them to work twice as hard to get the same distance as their male counterparts. Even without these breaks in career momentum, limited institutional support including inadequate maternal policies and inflexible work schedules make it hard for women to stay competitive and hinder their upward mobility. The unfortunate consequences can be a loss of self-confidence and lowered expectations in order to meet the demands of splitting time and energy between professional and family life.

However, there is some progress on the institutional level that suggests corporate mindsets are shifting towards being more inclusive of women.  The British based phone company Vodafone recently announced it will be instituting a maternity policy at the end of 2015 that set a precedent for businesses worldwide. The new policy will include 16 weeks of fully-paid leave. In addition, returning employees will be able to work 30-hour weeks for the first six months and still receive their full compensation.  This will dramatically increase benefits in several of the 30 countries where Vodafone operates, especially the United States.  As the only developed country without sanctioned minimums for maternity leave, the United States falls behind less progressive nations like India, who provide 84 days of paid leave for their women.

Offering structural support to working women does not just benefit the individual; it also bolsters the economy. Many companies would actually save money by including paid leave for their female employees. The total cost of replacing women who leave the workforce to start a family often outweighs the price of increasing benefits to retain a current employee. Providing more agency incentives like those at Vodafone would boost self-esteem, making women feel more valued in their positions and ultimately encouraging their return to the workforce.

Though enhanced work-life policies make it easier for women to access the workforce, it’s not the only change that needs to be made. Some countries, like Spain, have even implemented equity laws that require a certain percentage of female candidates be represented in each electoral race but still have yet to appoint a female leader. To generate actual change, advancements on the institutional level must also be coupled with a psychological shift.

The belief that women are not strong or effective leaders persists despite the evidence.  A study from Pepperdine University reported Fortune 500 companies who more frequently promoted females boasted higher profits and outperformed those at the industry standard. In order to change this perception of women’s professional worth we need more visible female leaders in the workplace.  Historically, women were held back from attaining senior positions while today we are challenged to find those mentor relationships that play a vital role in career advancement. The perpetuation of prescribed gender roles ensure women with powerful careers are labeled as “exceptions,” rather than role models. Much like maternity provisions, mentorship is seldom integrated into a company’s policies, putting the burden on women to fill that role externally.

At Dress for Success we work to close this gap by creating a global network of women helping women. Our programs thrive on mentor relationships that educate and empower women to make changes in their own lives and share their experiences with other women.  Within this culture we can cultivate a change in perspective that will normalize female leaders in our workforce and strengthen professional networks for all women.

Until society develops larger internal framework to accommodate all women in the workforce, we would benefit from looking to each other for mentorship and offering the support that is lacking on the institutional level. If properly supported in our careers, we would no longer perceive a lack of confidence as an obstacle for women in the workforce.

Regardless of gender, our confidence is influenced both internally and externally and together reinforces our overall self-esteem.  If we begin to view the issue of career confidence in its structural context rather than as an intrinsic male or female trait, we can identify the holes in our current system and begin to offer better supplemental support to working women. Broadening the scope of the conversation will allow women to realize their full professional potential, open the door to more career opportunities and create a stronger and more lucrative workforce worldwide.