alexa

I can't tell you how many times I've been out with my girlfriends and, inevitably, one will complain about the state of her finances — how underpaid she is, how her AmEx is maxed out, how she can't afford her big dream, whether it's to take an exotic summer vacation or move into a bigger apartment. My inclination is to be helpful, ask how much she's got in savings or whether she's taking advantage of her company's 401(k) contribution match. But I've learned from experience that such questions are the equivalent to asking a woman if she's put on a few pounds. Just don't go there.

The fact is, women don't like to talk about money, let alone deal with it. Though we're killing it at work, earning more than ever, running our households, and making big-ticket decisions, too many women still worry they'll be judged by what they earn and how they spend it. So instead of asking for help, they try not to think about it, treating their finances the same way they did back in college — spending it when it's there, freaking out when it's not.

That's one of the reasons I founded LearnVest three years ago — to help women take control of their money. There's nothing sexier than an empowered woman. The website offers free and easy tools and information so you can finally put your cash to good use. We help you devise a livable budget (who says you have to cut out the daily latte?), unload your student loans, and build a realistic financial plan that will allow you to splurge without remorse. That's worth a fortune, if you ask me. So let's talk money.

ALEXA'S $$$ SECRETS

1 THINK BIG(GER). Setting long-term goals can be daunting — nearly three out of four Americans say they have a hard time sticking to them, according to a study by Northwestern Mutual. Instead, they focus on the here and now — do I have enough to make my car payment this month? But planning even a few years ahead can help you score that big prize. The key is to break down what you want into small, achievable pieces. Say you want a new car in the next five years. Figure out how much you'll need for the down payment, then divide that number by five to determine your annual savings target. Suddenly, the goal feels attainable, right?

2 FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT. Everyone's situation is unique, but a realistic budget is totally doable. LearnVest recommends that you spend half your income on essentials like rent, utilities, commuter costs, and groceries. After that, earmark 20 percent for financial priorities — credit-card bills, student loans, and squirreling away something in savings. After that, you've still got 30 percent of your paycheck for the fun stuff — Prada pumps, blowouts, and dinners out. At the end of the month, you'll have paid your bills on time, put aside some savings, and still have enough for the things that you want to do, not just need to do.

3 KNOW THAT LIFE IS FULL OF SURPRISES. We never intend to lose our jobs, break up with our live-in loves, or face any number of the curveballs life throws our way. But they happen all the same, so have a bailout plan just in case. Sounds corny, but I call this the "freedom fund" because it gives you the freedom to get out of a jam without climbing into debt. You should have up to nine month's worth of living expenses set aside. (Remember I suggested setting aside some savings from the 20 percent of your paycheck used to pay your credit-card bills and loans?) I certainly hope you never need it, but it's reassuring to know it's there.

Check out our free career boot camp with LearnVest here.

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