03/01/2012 03:40 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

Women and Money: Put Yourself First

As women, we tend to put others first. This can be a virtue, but when it comes to money, the desire to help can backfire in a big way. This likely isn't the first time you've been advised to put your own needs first, but when it comes to finances it's best to take the airplane oxygen mask approach -- secure your own before helping others.

The first step is to understand how your perfectly valid and even admirable decisions to prioritize others can threaten -- or sabotage -- your financial goals and security. Keep the following in mind as you make financial decisions big or small.

Spending: I have an acquaintance whose daughter was a fashionista in high school -- regularly sporting expensive jeans and designer purses. I couldn't figure out how she could afford to dress her daughter this way -- and it turns out, she couldn't! Along with her husband, she declared bankruptcy after racking up insurmountable credit debt on these and other purchases.

It's not uncommon to want to purchase the "right" things for your family, but it's important to limit these kinds of purchases. Make realistic choices when it comes to your discretionary expenses, and don't be afraid to say no - you're in charge of the money you earn.

Earning: Women may experience financial setbacks by leaving the workforce to care for young children or aging parents. Care-giving is to be admired, but exiting the workforce means leaving behind a paycheck and often the ability to contribute to employer-sponsored and matched retirement plan.

Similarly, a woman may choose to forego a promotion so she can focus on her family -- a choice that is in line with her values, but which also has financial ramifications that will require more careful planning. Other women impair their earning power by hesitating to ask for and negotiate a higher salary. We often work hard, hoping to be recognized and promoted when our male counterparts tend to ask for a raise proactively - the difference in compensation over time is significant.

As you leave financial martyrdom behind, take a close look at your ability to earn income, and become more assertive if you see gaps -- whether it be at work or at home.

Saving: Your child's car requires a repair. A friend needs some extra cash to make ends meet. Your mother has a significant medical bill after a health emergency. Sound familiar? As women, we want to help, and we often do -- even if it means stretching our own budgets. At some point, you may forego putting money into savings, or even dip into retirement savings.

I've seen many women struggle to send money to their spendthrift children in college who are perfectly capable of holding part time jobs. I know a woman who couldn't refuse her financially irresponsible sister and actually took money out of her 401(k) at a penalty to help.

When faced with these situations, ask yourself if compromising your savings is really the best thing for you and the other person in the long run. Is this a true need you want to help with, or are they taking advantage of you? Sometimes it's justified, and sometimes it is better to say no.

As women, we often get emotional satisfaction and positive reinforcement from others for making sure that the needs of those we love and care about are met, but this can sometimes come at the expense of our own wellbeing. Remember that in order to take care of others long-term -- physically and financially -- we must take care of ourselves.

If matters-of-the-heart and your pocketbook are at odds, consider developing a written financial plan to guide your decisions. Commit to taking a hard look at your income, expenses, savings and long-term goals before doling out financial support. If you wish and are able to, factor a specific amount in to your budget to use for helping others. Still unsure you'll be able to say "no"? Consult with a financial professional who can help you solidify your plan and navigate those tough money conversations with family and friends.

Changing your financial ways can be difficult, but renouncing your financial martyrdom and taking control of your own financial future will likely feel right in the long run.

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