3 Steps Toward a Better Financial Future

Here's a shocking piece of research: Nearly half of women suffer from what's called "bag-lady syndrome" - a none-too-PC term for the fear of finding yourself suddenly destitute, especially in old age. This fear plagues even those earning as much as $100,000 a year - and in some ways, it's justified: Women earn 77 cents for each dollar men earn and live, on average, five years longer than men do, so we are more likely to find ourselves with dwindling resources as we age.

Here are three steps you can take right now to plan for the future.

1. Build an emergency fund with at least six months of living expenses.
A recent poll found that 61 percent of people don't have a three- to six-month safety cushion, though they claim it's their number-one financial goal. Even just thinking about saving up such a large amount can be daunting, so do it gradually. Have $50 or $100 automatically withdrawn each month from your checking account and plopped into a savings account. And remind yourself frequently to curb spending so that you can feed your savings. One trick: Stick a Post-it that reminds you to save instead of spend right on your credit card. Next time you reach for the plastic, this visual trigger will help you just say no; then, leave the store empty-handed, head to an ATM, and transfer the amount of that forgone purchase from checking into savings instead.

Related: How to Trick Yourself into Saving Money

2. Embrace the magic of compound interest.
If you start putting away $1,000 a year at age 30 and earn a modest 5 percent interest per year, you'll have $126,840 at age 70. So you've technically only invested $40,000, but you've managed to triple your total. Begin at 35, and you'll have $94,836. Even if you wait until 40, you'll have almost $70,000. No matter your age, you need to start socking the cash away now. A company-offered 401(k) with matching - meaning for every dollar you put in, your company adds 50 cents or even another dollar - is your best option, if it's available to you. If not, open a Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA). You can have $100 a month - think of it as a tad more than $3 a day - siphoned out of your paycheck and automatically funneled into a Roth IRA.

Related: Three Commonly Overlooked Money-Saving Tips

3. Get health insurance.
The number-one reason people go bankrupt is an unexpected medical emergency. If you're insured at work and get laid off, under the law known as COBRA, you're legally entitled to keep your current coverage for 18 months - but you'll probably have to pay for it. (If you lost your job before March 31, 2010, the government may pay for up to 65 percent of your COBRA premiums for up to 15 months. Get details at dol.gov/cobra). If you're not employed or don't have health benefits, look for low-cost catastrophic coverage from ehealthinsurance.com. And if you truly can't afford to insure yourself, you may at least be able to get coverage for your kids at insurekidsnow.gov. Protecting your family the best you can adds up to a healthy bottom line.

Related: 6 New Ways to Tame Credit Card Debt

What are you doing now to ensure a more comfortable retirement? Do you have any habits that help you save small amounts of cash?

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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.

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