Small steps make big difference for financial health: experts
Given today's shaky economy, more women are seizing control of their finances and, at the very least, are determined to learn more about the basics of money management and how to invest their assets wisely.
Last Tuesday's "Living A Health Financial Life" seminar, sponsored by Mutual Security Credit Union, in partnership with Hearst Media and its HealthyLife magazine, drew a large turnout of women -- and men -- eager to listen to financial experts talk about budgeting, credit reports, estate planning and finding a competent financial planner.
Against picturesque views of the Long Island Sound from the Inn at Longshore's Grand Ballroom, four panelists -- including Westport's own local radio celebrity Lisa Wexler -- offered the audience tips on how to make small changes that could positively affect their personal finances.
Noting that people today are living longer lives, Stephanie Giletto, divisional vice president of Nationwide Financial, stressed the importance of getting organized, determining one's goals and taking actions, no matter how small a step it may be.
"Do not procrastinate," she advised. "You came here tonight for some information, so use it. Knowledge is not power; it is the application of knowledge that is power."
Jill Russo Foster, a financial coach and author of Cash, Credit and Your Finances: The Teen Years, also encouraged people to take control of their finances by making a budget. Russo described budgets as "the starting point" that will lead to increased savings.
"You know the big items, such as your mortgage or car payments," Foster said. "It's the holes in the budget that get you in trouble. It's the things that you don't realize that you are spending money on that are the problem. It's the little things that add up."
Ideally, she added, you want to change your habits so that you could maintain your lifestyle but spend 10 percent less.
Foster also described the importance of having stellar credit. This could be obtained, she said, by paying bills on time and keeping a balance on credit cards that is no more than 30 percent of the card's total limit. "This is not the time to max out your credit cards," she said.
Likewise, if you are planning to buy a house in the near future, Foster said that it's not a good idea to open up new credit cards. Contrary to what many people think, having credit cards is a good thing.
"Throw it in the refrigerator if you're afraid that you will use it, but don't close out your account," Foster said. "Having long-term credit cards show that you can handle it regardless of what the economy is like. You have to learn to act responsibly, which is what this whole seminar is about."
Wexler, acting as the seminar's master of ceremonies, as well as its keynote speaker, pointed out that change happens in "small steps." However, she also added that "The enemy is complacency."
She described in detail her own journey of moving from owning her own law practice to essentially taking on two new businesses in the radio broadcasting industry.
"I am now responsible for creating a really fabulous show that people want to listen to, and selling advertising and marketing the show so it's a financial success, too," she told the audience.
On Tuesday night, she credited her mother, who was in the audience with Wexler's father, for instilling in her an entrepreneurial spirit.
"My mother taught me that women need to be financially independent," Wexler said. "We must pass this along to our daughters."
Also referring to family members, Dr. David Carboni, a certified financial planner and expert on retirement issues, spoke about the need to have an up-to-date will, durable power of attorney, health care representative and appropriate life insurance beneficiaries in place.
Vivian Werner, of Stamford, said that all of the speakers made interesting points. She was initially drawn to the seminar for its opportunity to network. Werner recently got laid-off from her marketing manager position at IBM after 30 years of service.
As a single woman, though, Werner explained that she has already "done a lot of work on my finances." In fact, she used money received from IBM's final package to pay for tuition to an interior design program. Werner's goal is to open a marine upholstery and canvas business, she said.
And, referring to Giletto's advice about using a financial planner, Werner said that she is presently working with someone she trusts.
Giletto -- whom Werner described as a "dynamic speaker" -- stressed the importance of letting one person get to know your entire portfolio.
"Everyone sitting here today is long-term investors, even if you think you are more short-term," Giletto said.
Larry Holderman, president and chief executive officer of Mutual Security Credit Union, was pleased with the seminar's turnout.
"Providing information to the people in the communities that we serve is a large part of what we do," he explained.