Dear Readers, March is a significant month for women. First, the entire month is declared Women's History Month, this year honoring women who fight against all forms of discrimination faced by women and girls. The 2018 focus is on increasing gender parity, with a rallying theme of #PressforProgress. Both themes represent weighty and extremely important issues that go hand-in-hand in continuing the progress women are making toward the goal of gender equality.   

As you can imagine, these themes go right to the heart of one of my personal passions -- financial independence for women. I've long been a champion of women taking control of their finances as a means of being individually strong, as well as being strong partners and strong members of their communities. But it's more than a matter of strength. For women, financial independence is a matter of necessity. 

Statistically, we live longer than men, so we need to take care of ourselves. Plus, we continue to be faced with pay discrimination. According to a 2016 report from the Bureau of Labor statistics, median weekly earnings for full-time salaried women are just 82 percent of what men earn. On top of that, we're often faced with discrimination in terms of advancement opportunities. All of which means we have to work harder, save more and be our own advocates.

So I'd like to use this month's focus on women to encourage women everywhere to take charge of their finances as an important step in negotiating a better situation for themselves. Financial independence is empowering. By taking charge of your finances, you're taking charge of your life.

Women are known to put others' needs first, but when it comes to retirement, you have to think of yourself. Take charge of your own financial future by taking full advantage of a company retirement plan. Contribute at least up to the company match, more if possible. Don't have a company plan? Open an IRA. The point is to save as much as you can as soon as you can. You need to be prepared.

Part of that preparation is learning to make the most of your money, and that means investing. Your first thought may be that you don't want to take the risk, and market ups and downs are definitely a reality. But being too cautious can also put you at a disadvantage. 

Especially for something with a longer time horizon such as retirement, you ideally want a diversified portfolio that's positioned for growth. This means having a portion of your money invested in the stock market and accepting the associated risk. While that can sound daunting, it doesn't have to be, because you don't have to go it completely alone.

When it comes to investing and managing your money, having a support team can be a great confidence booster. Even if you're just starting out -- and especially as your assets grow -- consider working with an advisor. I think of a financial advisor sort of like a personal trainer, someone to guide you and keep you going when you might otherwise be tempted to call it quits. 

An advisor can help you look at the big picture, focus on retirement planning and build a well-diversified portfolio. And working with an advisor who understands you and your goals can be a major source of peace of mind. So think about the type of person you'd be most comfortable with. 

Of course, how much you want to work with an advisor is up to you -- a one-time consultation, periodic check-ins or full-time asset management. Just make sure you understand how and how much your advisor is paid. Costs matter. 

To really get on top of your finances, you may want to work with a Certified Financial Planner professional to develop a comprehensive financial plan. A 2012 Schwab study on women's confidence in managing their finances indicated that women with a written financial plan were significantly more confident than women without one.

I'm a huge advocate of having a financial plan because it goes beyond just saving and investing, and helps you look holistically at all the interrelated parts of your financial life. It reviews your income, expenses, investments, retirement planning, insurance coverage, income tax liability, estate planning needs and -- most importantly -- how they all work together. Plus it gives you a roadmap to follow and a plan of action. 

Financial independence isn't just about how much money you have. It's also about having the confidence to make decisions and standing up for yourself. The truth is that female or male, single or married, all of us need to be in control of our financial lives. But women especially need be encouraged to take greater charge. By doing so, we can more effectively be part of the progress, not only for ourselves but for future generations of women and men as we press for greater equality and opportunity for everyone.

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