Financial Planning for Middle Age


Once careers and families are established, many consider making the largest purchase of their lives: buying a home. In this busy time of balancing your needs with those of partners, children, and employers, it’s also essential to stay on top of your financial situation.

Creating a “Both/And” Life: An alternative to the elusive work/life balance

Balance is so overused,” sighs Chris Cohen, a national executive recruiter and partner at CohenTaylor Executive Search Services, a local firm serving nonprofit organizations. In working with many high-profile female professionals, Cohen understands the struggle of finding a middle ground between the roles of mother and employee. Between expectations at home and at work, balance can seem like an elusive goal. In reality, it’s a feeling that requires constant adjustment.

Part of what Cohen believes challenges women from successfully combining the two are long held beliefs about home and work that have spawned structural inequities. Cases in point: If a husband and wife both work full-time, the mother will complete about 40 percent more childcare and 30 percent more housework than the father; depending on the industry, a woman may be paid nearly a quarter less than her equally qualified male counterpart (the gap is even greater for women of color); childcare costs have increased 168 percent in the past 25 years, a figure that has likely contributed to the 6 percent increase in the number of women staying at home full-time today compared to 1999.

To counteract these barriers to work/life balance, Cohen advises women to work on communicating what they want and need at any given time, so they can get closer to what Cohen calls a “both/and life.” As an alternative to “balance,” this idea acknowledges the ever-changing nature of work and life. Living a both/and life, says Cohen, means restructuring the way you approach work and figuring out what is good enough at any given point. 

Cohen recommends women create large-scale goals that are conducive to the lifestyle they desire and then make smaller decisions with those goals in mind. If
employees want to spend dinnertime at home or take three-day weekends with family, they should communicate those goals to their employer and commit to making them happen. Then, missing one soccer game for a meeting or skipping one business trip for a school play doesn’t feel like a failure because the sacrifices have a purpose within the larger goals.

Cohen suggests that the eternal give and take of a both/and life means that along with committing to goals, women have to commit to continuous evolution in practical decisions and mental framework. With today’s busy schedules, it’s unrealistic to give 100 percent in every sphere—doing a great job doesn’t have to mean doing a perfect one. “It took me decades to figure out what’s good enough,” Cohen says.

A Career Restart: Tips for re-entering the workforce after time away

Workplaces can change a lot in just a few years. Staying up-to-date, researching, and networking can help with re-entry.

Stay up-to-date
Anne Pryor, a LinkedIn visibility coach and career planner at Minneapolis-based Meaningful Connections Consulting, suggests that while you are away from work, take time to stay updated in your industry by reading and researching new or changing trends, meeting with former colleagues, and becoming familiar with new technology needed in day-to-day office tasks. That way, when it’s time to return, you’ll have an arsenal of information to ease the transition. Pryor also recommends taking advantage of educational resources from community centers, local colleges, the Science Museum of Minnesota, online learning sites, and even YouTube videos.

Highlight core competencies
Pryor stresses that stay-at-home mothers have more workplace skills than they might realize. “They get stuff done,” she says. “They’re self starters, they’re flexible, they have great attitudes, and all of that is transferable.” The key is to change the language moms use to describe their daily duties. Chris Cohen, an executive recruiter, recommends scrolling through the “Skills” section on LinkedIn and comparing each of them to day-to-day motherhood duties to find workplace terms that articulate those strengths. “If you managed many schedules at home, that can translate into project management at work,” she says.

Prepare materials
Applicants should assemble a LinkedIn profile, résumé, cover letters, and an understanding of positions and companies before starting to reach out or apply. This preparation ensures a less hectic job search process and demonstrates forethought. Many recruiters use LinkedIn to search for job candidates based on keywords, so Pryor encourages women to fill out their profile completely and interact with their connections who will garner them endorsements and recommendations necessary to boost their visibility to employers or recruiters. 

Leverage connections
Once it’s time to apply for a position, Pryor suggests reviewing personal networks to figure out a connection point to each specific company. Odds are you know someone who knows someone else who works there, and a personal connection to a current employee helps your résumé to stand out among those of unknown applicants.

Financial Confidential: I left my executive job to raise two children and now I’m struggling to fit back into the workforce

“I was a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman’s in New York City before I moved to Minneapolis where I was a buyer for Dayton-Hudson/Marshall Field’s. Eventually, I became the women’s fashion and trend director for clothing, shoes, and accessories. I was traveling about 22 weeks a year, both in the states and internationally. But then I became a new parent, and every time I got on a plane, I was heartbroken.”

“I was gone a lot for the first two years of my daughter’s life because I was so caught up in the excitement and fast pace of my career. Since my husband was traveling and working full-time as well, we enlisted the help of a nanny. But I missed out on an opportunity that I didn’t even know I was missing. I didn’t slow down enough to really get to know my daughter until I took 10 days off for a family vacation. When it was just the three of us, I realized that I really didn’t know my own kid and I was really saddened by that. When I had that time to relax and enjoy her, it was clear to me how much I wanted to be with her. I decided I was going to be a full-time stay-at-home mom. I went back to work and turned in my two months notice.”

“Eventually, I got another job where I was the PR and marketing manager for a small start-up company—it was run by women, one of whom was also a mother. Even with supportive colleagues, a part time schedule, and minimal travel, I found it really hard to balance. When you’re invested in doing a good job, you can’t ever shut off work when you go home, and I think that’s a real struggle for women who work part-time. You never feel like you’re doing an outstanding job either at home or at work. So I decided to leave that job and ever since then, I’ve been at home with my daughter and my son.”

“Still, I love working, being creative, and being with other adults. And when that went away, I lost a lot of who I am. Now, with my daughter going to college, I’m figuring out how to get back to me. Being a mom has been completely rewarding, and I have no regrets about stepping out of the workplace, but it’s going to take a lot of time to find a job that I can contribute to, that is meaningful, lucrative, and allows me to have time to focus on my family.”

“I don’t even know where to begin. With the résumé, what am I going to say? That I’m really good at making family dinners on-the-go? I’m on LinkedIn and looking at people who I used to work with and trying to take bits from what they’ve written. I’m trying to put my name in conversations, but it feels like a comedy show. I went to business school, I ran businesses. I knew how to work Excel, but it has changed. So I’m on YouTube trying to figure out how to apply new Excel techniques and feeling completely overwhelmed.” –As told to Maxine Whitely

Making a Home: Buying a house is the largest purchase most people make—and preparation can ensure it’s a decision made wisely.

Before the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) in 1974, it was difficult for women to get a credit card—let alone a mortgage—in their own names. But by 1981, single women made up a resounding 11 percent of homeowners in the United States. By 2006, it was 22 percent. After a dip in homeownership during the recession, women homeowners now make up the second largest market segment, behind married couples. Even so, conventional considerations for home buying aren’t necessarily sufficient for this group, says Karen Keljik, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Burnet who focuses on single women clients. 

Finance first
Before even beginning to look at houses, the first step is to understand your financial situation. Keljik recommends shopping aggressively for mortgage and loan options and carefully considering renting versus buying. “Especially this year, increasing rents have been driving single people to buy,” she says. “I can think of multiple instances where a client’s mortgage payment is less than what she was paying for rent.” Beyond the monthly cost of renting versus buying, keep in mind the possibility of a work transfer, meeting a partner, retirement, saleability, and income stability when deciding which way to go.

When shopping for homes, Keljik advises clients to buy less house than they can afford. “If a client is going to be single her whole life, it’s nice to get a house paid off so that when she retires, her house is paid off,” Keljik notes. It’s also vital to think of upkeep costs. Maintaining a home can cost anywhere from 1 to 3 percent of a home’s price each year, so budget for repairs and maintenance along with a mortgage payment.

Consider amenities
Whether it’s easy access to restaurants, grocery stores, and shopping, or space for a yard or garden, location plays a central role in deciding where many choose to settle. When assessing neighborhoods, Keljik suggests checking crime-mapping reports such as CrimeReports and SpotCrime and also tells clients to consider a property’s options for secure places to park a car. 

Ensure longevity
Keljik says many of her older clients also consider ways to make their home an investment that will work for them as they age. One-story condos or units in buildings with an elevator are easier to navigate when mobility decreases. “They say 70 is the new 60, and it’s true,” notes Keljik. The average age of admittance into an assisted living home is 79, so those buying slightly below their means often manage to pay off their home around retirement, creating many years of low-cost living and independence.

Kids and Cash: How to educate children about financial responsibility, from allowance to college affordability.

Start early
“No age is too young to start,” says Kara McGuire, author of The Teen Money Manual. “Parents don’t get into the habit of talking about money soon enough, and families can get used to the idea that money is a topic to be swept aside.” McGuire recommends extrapolating lessons from children’s books. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, for example, can be used as a platform to discuss financial values such as altruism, recognizing resources available, and necessity versus excess. 

Discuss what matters
In order to conduct meaningful conversations about your family’s finances, McGuire advises that parents should decide on the financial values they want to instill in their children, and then mirror those priorities in their own saving and spending habits. For instance, if parents value giving to charitable organizations, they may encourage their children to donate a portion of their earnings or allowance. 

Figure out financials
Due largely to living through a recession, today’s kids and teens are more practical with money than many might expect. “They’re growing up with a mindset that things aren’t free, that nothing is guaranteed, and that they might have to make sacrifices,” says McGuire. But she still encourages parents to decide what is realistic in terms of spending money on clothes, presents, etc. “Most kids will understand limitations as long as they are clear.”

Be consistent
To enforce accountability, McGuire advises parents to “make sure you can be consistent if the kids are being consistent.” If an allowance is tied to chores, then funds for the allowance have to be available if the tasks are done. That stability, McGuire says, impresses reasonable standards of work and reward. 

Promote hard work
Modeling diligence and financial responsibility while encouraging industriousness is a great way to embed those core values. That said, McGuire explains that it’s important not to promote American attitudes about “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” without noting that hard work is only one factor in success and that there can be barriers to it beyond one’s control. Establishing this reality  is a great starting point for a financial conversation.

Cultivating Financial Independence: In romantic partnerships, finances are still a joint responsibility

While partners may pledge perpetual cooperation, in some cases, responsibilities become divided such that one party is left out of the financial loop. Should that relationship end—whether by way of death or divorce—the other party can be unprepared for financial independence.

“Good financial practices while being married are also helpful in the case of divorce,” says Susan Gallagher, an attorney at Gallagher Law Office and member of Minnesota Women Lawyers. This includes adequate documentation, joint responsibility and understanding of finances, and full disclosure—regardless of relationship status. Gallagher says starting conversations about money early on in relationships can ease a lot of the fear that comes along with finance, and suggests simulating the process of creating a prenuptial agreement, even if a couple does not want to contractually decide how monetary assets would be divided should the marriage fail. The exercise of identifying and disclosing all financial interests on both sides and knowing who has what helps establish a feeling of openness, Gallagher says. 

From there, the best way to stay on top of your finances is to do it yourself. “No matter how seductive it might be, avoid the temptation to abdicate,” says Timothy LaPean, financial planner and owner of Minneapolis-based Thoughtful Financial Planning. “It’s a recipe for resentment and poor planning.” When choosing a financial planner to discuss financial matters small and large, this point persists. Instead of handing off all the work to a professional, LaPean says a more cost-effective way to get advice and stay in the know is to find a professional who accepts hourly payments, prepare documents and inquiries, and then take an hour or two to go over questions. 

When working with couples, LaPean has his clients set individual financial goals before creating joint goals so that each partner learns to manage their money with their own best interest in mind. This creates the best financial situation for both parties as individuals and partners. For married people, this rule applies especially to non-marital assets (those acquired before marriage, individual gifts or inheritances), which Gallagher recommends keeping in their own traceable accounts. She stresses the importance of also keeping good records of all shared accounts, gifts, loans, mortgages, payments, and transactions. In the case of death or divorce, the ability to locate all money, property, and equity is vital to ensure fairness.

Photo by Tj Turner

Financial Confidential: After getting divorced, I transitioned to financial self-sufficiency 

“When I got a divorce, I learned very quickly that, in court, lawyers can create the appearance that money isn’t necessarily marital—that possessions acquired before the marriage or an inheritance bequeathed to one person aren’t considered joint assets.”

“So in court, I advocated for my independence and to be able to work without losing what I was getting from him. I also advocated that the children’s lifestyle was not supposed to change. I had child support until the last child turned 18, but once that happened, I was absolutely on my own.”

“When I was married, he made the money, but I paid the bills. He did the big things like taxes and annual insurance, so those were learning moments for me, but because I had done the checkbook the whole time, when I had to go through the exercise with my lawyer during divorce of asking how much I needed, I knew how to add up the different buckets of my life.”

“The day I got divorced, I made a diagram that showed my personal income and the money I was getting from the settlement. The settlement dwindled down to zero over the course of 15 years, and so I knew that I had to get my income up over the course of those 15 years.”

“I had no idea how I was going to budget, but I was very meticulous. I paid all the bills in the house, I knew where the money had to come from, and once I became a solo earner after a period of not working and going to graduate school, I knew that I had to live within my means and guard my savings.”

“The first time I went to the grocery store after the divorce, I was very conscious and frugal. I bought a chicken, a quart of milk, and a bag of carrots, hoping it would feed the family for one week—it sure didn’t.”

“Later, when my youngest graduated from high school, it was time to give up my house. I built a graph of how much money I was going to sell the house for, how much money I was going to buy a townhouse for, and I kept track of every dollar when I sold something. I kept track of everything I bought as well.”

“I had a very empowering female boss when I moved into the corporate world. Once, on a business trip, she asked me, ‘How much do you think that you can make this year?’ I gave her a figure and she said, ‘No. You can make more.’ I looked at her thinking, ‘Really?’ And then I did want to do that. I wanted to do that for my pride. I thought if I could make it to a certain income, it meant I had made it for myself.”

“Today, I would rather live with the belief that quality of life is better than quantity of money, but I’m still proud of being financially independent.” –As told to Maxine Whitely

Read more:
Financial Planning Early in Life
Financial Planning for Later in Life