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What happens when you fill a room with a few hundred women eager to improve their financial lives, and experts there supporting them? A few tears, a lot of laughter and some great “aha!” moments. Since participating in the Women’s Money Conference in Las Vegas this past weekend, I’ve been on one of those post-conference, female-bonding, “we’re in this together” kind of highs.

The event was presented by the Nevada State Treasurer’s Office and the Nevada College Savings Board, and organized by Gina Robison-Billups, former CEO of The International Association of Working Mothers and president of the Women’s Money Council. What makes the Women’s Money Conference unique is that it’s not just a one-day event, but rather a prelude to an entire year of group support and mentoring. Those who attended will have the opportunity to work together in small groups led by volunteer mentors to overcome challenges and meet their goals.

The speakers at the event (of which I was one) were amazing, but what also stayed with me were the conversations I had with attendees in between the events. Women of all different ages and backgrounds shared their stories and their vision of what they are trying to accomplish. One couple told me they lost their home in the foreclosure crisis not that long ago, but they have already started a business and are eager to put the past behind them. Another pulled herself off the streets and wants to start a non-profit organization to help other women. Another shared how she is trying to improve her finances so she can model better financial behaviors for her kids. Another wants to pay off college debt so she can save and invest.

In my presentation, I shared strategies for getting out of debt and was encouraged by how many people came up to me later to tell me they planned to take my advice to review their credit reports and scores. I pointed out that getting out of debt often involves changing financial habits, and along with two other speakers, urged attendees to try writing down every penny they spend for thirty days.

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Free Tool: Credit Report CardI sat in the audience for the rest of the day and, like many others, felt like I was trying to drink from a fire hose. Nevada State Treasurer Kate Marshall set the tone for the day when she shared two stories. One was of her father who worked hard, but kept his bills in a cigar box where they would pile up and sometimes go unpaid, resulting in the utilities being turned off. When the family fell behind on rent, they would move, and Marshall moved often when she was young.  Her grandmother, on the other hand, kept her finances carefully organized. She wrote down every penny she spent in a little notebook and each month would staple together that month’s bills with her spending journal for the month. She served as a powerful example for Marshall, who now is responsible for making sure “the state’s investments and debt obligations are managed prudently and in the best interest of the people.”

As emcee, Elaine Starling kept the conference energy dialed way, way up. Between sessions, she asked attendees to share their “aha” moments with the rest of the group. So here are a couple of insights I gained myself during the conference:

It’s OK to Be Selfish

Marcia Brixey, founder of Money Wise Women and author of The Money Therapist, offered strategies for finding $1000 to save toward your goals. She speaks from experience. During her career at the Social Security Administration, she talked to many women who wished they had done things differently in their own financial lives. As a result, she was careful with her money and was able to save enough to retire early and devote her “second” career to financial education.

She had most of the audience nodding knowingly when she talked about how important it is to find an alternative to “retail therapy” and offered free copies of her “Checkout Checklist,” a list of five questions to ask yourself before you buy something:  Do I really want this? Do I need this? Will I use this? Am I buying this because it’s on sale? How many hours will I have to work to pay for this? Do I really love this? You can download your own free copy of the checklist here.

Aha moment: Stop trying to take care of everyone else before you take care of yourself. The definition of selfish is when you’re not doing what the other person wants you do.

[Related Article: Credit Card Debt and the Gender Divide]

You Need Five Sources of Income

Gail Perry-Mason has one of those great “beat that odds” success stories and is now a successful financial advisor and author of Girl, Make Your Money Grow! She inspired attendees to have not just one or two sources of income, but five. And then she fired off a practical list of ways (and websites) to help accomplish that.

She’s a Detroit native and says that in Detroit everyone hears the word “layoff” these days. She recounted telling her family (three boys and a hubby — she says she’s a “single mom of four”) that they needed to do some lay-offs at home. “I told them someone’s gotta go,” she deadpanned. She didn’t kick anyone out, but she did make them curb their spending.

Perry-Mason also explained that she dedicates one week every year to a boot camp to teach kids about investing. Graduates of the program now return to volunteer as instructors. Kids in the camp actually buy stock and start businesses. One of her own sons bought Nike stock at a young age and has now persuaded the company to let him be a product tester.

Aha moment: “Anything that starts with an “i” — iPod, iPhone — your kids have to earn the money to buy themselves.”

The next Women’s Money Conference will be held in Reno Nevada on June 9, 2012, and the attendance is expected to be even higher. I won’t be there for that conference, but if I have a chance to participate in another, I won’t miss it — and neither should you. To learn more, visit WomensMoney.org.

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Image: Hvnly, via Flickr

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