Women and Money; Taking charge pays off

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A FUR-DRAPED beauty takes a commanding stance and surveys the beach in a full-page magazine ad. If wandering on the beach in a $7,000 fur coat doesn't strike you as peculiar, her priorities might. The ad describes the woman's thoughts this way: ''My accountant told me to put my money in real estate. My broker said stocks and bonds. But I made my own decision. I'm wearing it.''

The inference is that feminine impulse is greater than feminine money sense.

The notion isn't rooted entirely in myth - most women will admit they're more at home clipping food coupons than bond coupons. But there are exceptions to the rule, and they're not just the savvy women you read about on the business pages. They're housewives and working women with no formal training in finance who have decided to do more than watch their money drain through their checkbooks.

Recommended: Can you manage your money? A personal finance quiz.

Edith Whaley is one of those exceptions, and she suggests that a more appropriate approach to the fur advertisement would have been, ''I have my portfolio of stocks. I have my real estate. Now I can have my wonderful fur coat.''

Mrs. Whaley, a Los Angeles advertising executive who does have stocks, real estate, and a fur coat, adds that any woman who has the money to spend on a fur coat should have already developed a financial plan.

For this series of articles, the Monitor talked to several women like Mrs. Whaley who have successfully taken charge of their personal finances - investing and saving for retirement or their children's educations, for example.

Although several of the women interviewed were thrust unprepared and sometimes unwilling, into these responsibilities, each has emerged with an active interest in her finances. None have the golden touch or an immunity to wild swings of the economy, but they have armed themselves wisely against the hazards of ignorance just by paying attention to their money. Their observations can help other women take the first step.

Mrs. Whaley admits that upon her divorce 13 years ago, ''I was frightened about some of my decisions because all of a sudden I knew that I didn't actually know how to pay bills for electricity, for gas. I didn't know about insurance, estate planning, lawyers, running a bank account . . . all the things you leave to a husband to do.

''My jewelry went back and forth to the pawn shop several times to pay the bills,'' she continues, illustrating the uncertainty of those first years on her own, entering the work world and supporting her teen-age son. It also characterizes the determined resourcefulness that has helped propel her assets into the six-figure range.

It took more than an ability to add and subtract in a checkbook, Mrs. Whaley admits, but she says she owes much of her success to her inquisitiveness. She made it a point to meet professionals in insurance, law, contracting, and stocks.

''I'm not afraid to turn around and ask somebody a question,'' says Mrs. Whaley, noting that this has been her only financial training.

''You can talk to bankers, lawyers, and accountants,'' she suggests. ''But the important thing is not to find someone and lean on them. A lot of women go to them with all the intentions of learning but end up leaning on them.''

After researching an investment, Mrs. Whaley may get advice from an accountant. But she welcomes only ''suggestions, not decisions'' from her advisers. She has put her money in real estate, a radio station, and stocks that are related to her advertising profession.

Speaking from experience, Mrs. Whaley advises ''a clean break'' financially in divorces.

''Alimony gives them (women) a crippling crutch . . . it takes away what they might be able to do. I recommend taking alimony for three years . . . to just get started. Maybe $500 (a month) the first year, dropping to $300 and then $100 and then none. If they don't have enough to really live on, it forces them to get out and hustle.''

Financial know-how within the context of marriage, too, is important. Kathy L'Amour is a good example.

''Louie writes the books and I keep our books,'' explains Mrs. L'Amour, wife of the prolific western paperback novelist, Louis L'Amour.

''I don't think of myself as a businesswoman,'' says Mrs. L'Amour, a delicate woman who studied acting and ''hated'' economics and accounting classes. ''It (economics in school) kind of bored me,'' she says, adding, ''It's only fascinating when it's your own business you're working with.'' She admits that the full-time job of managing the sums her husband's more than 80 popular novels have brought in is fascinating.

While Mr. L'Amour brings in the money, Mrs. L'Amour capitalizes on it, assertively investing her husband's income in land and gas and oil drilling. Mrs. L'Amour says her confidence is usually backed by research and not by any one financial adviser.

''I do not profess to be a businesswoman because I'm not really trained for it. But I also don't mind asking a lot of questions,'' says Mrs. L'Amour, who like Edith Whaley has no aversion to ''dumb'' questions.

Although Mrs. L'Amour's financial acumen has proved the perfect complement to her husband's writing, it had to be developed gradually. Mr. L'Amour encouraged her to handle the family affairs. ''Louie always wanted me to know all about our affairs. Often women are kept ignorant about their own affairs until it's necessary for them to take over and handle them, and then they don't have any kind of background. I think he always felt very strongly that I be able to do and handle anything, no matter what happened.''

So how did she start? ''Gradually,'' she says, ''. . .paying the bills, as many women do. And then I did all the work for the taxes. I keep a set of books for us, personal books, and corporation books. And I invest the money. It just sort of happened--as Louie's income grew, my abilities grew.''

Mrs. L'Amour's experience can be an inspiration to the woman who may be balancing a checkbook for the first time, or thinking about investing. While today Mrs. L'Amour's financial dealings seem sophisticated, they had their beginnings in the basics of penny-pinching, she says.

She details the early years when ''all we were doing was paying the bills and trying to keep ahead of the tax man.'' She recalls, for example, typing nine copies of one of her husband's book manuscripts because they didn't have the cash to get it copied.

Ruth Schultz was not guided as gently into money matters as Mrs. L'Amour.''

What I think most women should realize is they can't just depend on their husbands or a man to take care of them because they need to take care of themselves,'' says Ruth Schultz, whose husband and father died within four months of each other in 1973.

The two men were Imperial Valley, Calif., farmers, and they left her with their whole operation--full of business and agricultural responsibilities. There was no time for hesitation. Farming decisions had to be made, and Mrs. Schultz suddenly found herself making them.

Without a college degree, or even a business or agriculture class to her name , Mrs. Schultz had lived comfortably as a housewife, mother, and artist, selling a few of her paintings. But she had listened and paid attention to the family business dealings, she says, and the sudden transition to farming offered her a new sense of independence and very little margin for timidity.''

I don't drive tractors,'' she concedes, but she finds the business aspects of farming very exciting. ''Taking a risk can be a wonderful experience,'' she says. At a cost of $1,100 an acre to grow lettuce, Mrs. Schultz is doing some high-powered business wrangling on her holdings of more than 2,000 acres.

Her untrained but successful business sense has earned her the respect of the predominantly male farm business as well as the southern California financial community. She is the voice of agriculture on the board of directors of Imperial Savings and Loan Association.While Mrs. Schultz says she enjoys the ''gamble'' of the farming business, she is conservative in her personal finances.''

I don't have a financial adviser. I get periodicals, and I listen to my attorney and my CPA. I take it all in and then I make my own decisions,'' says Mrs. Schultz, adding that she steers clear of investment avenues she doesn't understand.''

I don't have much in the stock market. I don't have time to keep track of it and I don't understand it,'' she says.

Her ''conservative'' dealings include a low-risk, high-yield investment in a AAA-rated insurance company, certificates of deposit with various savings-and-loan institutions and banks, and homes in Santa Monica and El Centro , near her farming interests. She prefers to keep the money she uses to pay bills in a regular passbook savings account ''because I like to put my money to work.''

Money matters were dropped as unexpectedly on Edith Fletcher as they were on Mrs. Schultz.

Mrs. Fletcher was active in the family money management. ''All the major decisons were made jointly (with her husband). There were no financial secrets, '' she says.

But she learned in 1958, when her her husband died unexpectedly, that there is a difference between being a good provider and a good financial planner.

Although a pension had been set up, her husband died just a year before he was to gain a vested right, so she received none of the benefits expected from the pension. She had ''good'' social security, she says, adding, though, that ''today it isn't all that hot. What was top bracket in 1958 is a far cry from top bracket today.''

''I made a few horrendous mistakes,'' says the Lexington, Mass., retiree. For example, she put a lump sum from her husband's death benefits in a checking account instead of a savings account.

In those first few months on her own, Mrs. Fletcher realized a need to take control of the assets, secure them, and make them grow. (In many cases, widows don't have the same control Mrs. Fletcher had, because husbands often put their estates in trusts to be administered by professionals for the widow who may be considered unqualified to handle her own affairs.)''

I had exactly $7,500 invested in stocks, which I had very little knowledge about. For nine months I used to lie there in bed nights and really study insurance and the stock market. I learned how to read and understand financial reports. I educated myself,'' she says.

She parlayed that $7,500 into some solid investments that enabled her to send four children to college, buy a home with cash, and still have $33,000 left for her financial plan, which she has drawn up to last until she is 85.

''My problem,'' she says, summing up her advice to women just stepping out on their own, ''was that I really didn't think about these things as early as I should have. I'd say to young girls that they should start from the time they get a nickel's allowance.'' Love, honor--and finance--forever?

Financial advisers emphasize that married women should consider themselves financial entities - even if they aren't the principal breadwinners and even if their husbands handle the finances.

They say married women should maintain at least a portion of their finances separately, whether it be through separate checking or savings accounts, credit cards, or retirement funds.

Norman Abrams, a Los Angeles accountant who represents women in divorces, maintains that love and money do not mix. Defending this approach, he says it is not a fatalistic view of marriage but rather the same common sense approach applied to any money matter.

A woman who sinks all her money into joint accounts with her husband, has credit cards in her husband's name, and doesn't pay attention to the family finances runs several risks. If she is widowed or divorced, the credit history built in her husband's name does not revert to her. So she has no credit history to qualify for loans or new credit cards. All money in joint accounts can be frozen in case of her husband's death, and she may not have access to it until the estate is settled. In case of divorce, all jointly held funds can be divided equally, even if one person has contributed more. And if she doesn't know where all the family money is tied up, she can't lay claim to it if she is divorced or widowed.

Even if she has nothing else to do with the family money, there is one financial imperative for a married woman, advises Mr. Abrams: Read the family's annual tax return.

''There is one particular thing that every woman has to do. That is to sign the tax return annually. Regardless of who takes care of their bank account, they always have to sign the tax return. Usually everything is included in it. If she makes herself interested, she is going to get an awful lot of information.'' Stretching the dollar on a welfare budget

MARY LEE GIULIANO is a successful money manager - in an unconventional way.

She may not know the difference between broke and broker or financial red and black, but what she does know about stretching a dollar would probably amaze even the most budget-conscious people.

On a welfare and food stamp budget of $774 a month, Mrs. Giuliano manages to feed, house, and clothe a family of nine. It's a juggling act she hadn't anticipated.

''My natural assumption was that I'd get married and he'd support me,'' she says. But because of divorce and, later, her second husband's unemployment, financial responsibility for her growing family came to rest on her shoulders.

Her perception of herself as a dependent housewife has never fit the role she actually plays. But from the beginning Mrs. Giuliano has been concerned with the most basic aspect of financial responsibility - providing the necessities of food and shelter.

Government funding helped her earn her belated high school diploma last year, and now Mrs. Giuliano is working toward a degree in social welfare.

Mrs. Giuliano does not imply that she is a financial sophisticate. But she says, ''You can't afford not to know about money when you're poor. We learn through experience.''

''Poor people have a wealth of information . . . they've got survival skills, creativity most of us would envy,'' agrees Jean Entine, executive director of the Massachusetts Women's Commission in Exile.

''When you have money you feel it's very necessary to have soup, salad, meat, and dessert to be healthy. But you can put a good meal on the table without all that,'' explains Mrs. Giuliano, who says she stretches her $200 monthly allotment of food stamps by feeding her seven children ''lots of eggs, peanut butter and jelly, and soups.''

The children, ranging from 3 to 20 years old, share a five-room,

65-a-month East Boston apartment with Mr. and Mrs. Giuliano.

Many low-income women find cheap, secondhand clothes for their families, but Mrs. Giuliano says she buys new, inexpensive clothes for the children twice a year, putting September's school clothes on layaway in July. She saves on clothing expenditures, she says, because it's all ''community property . . . underwear and socks and everything . . . and my daughter and I wear each other's clothes.''

''One alternative was shared housing, to bunk up with another family on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children),'' says a Boston welfare worker, but ''next year's (federal) budget proposal would require a roomie's income to be counted in welfare formulas.''

One Boston welfare mother of three, who asked not to be identified, explains her method of controlling spending, which closely parallels the budget advice offered by many financial advisers: ''When I'm really low on cash, I make a menu. I write down what we're having for dinner. A vegetable, meat, starch. Plan it all out so I know exactly what I have to buy.

''I budget with a friend, too. We sit down and plan out where the next check will go,'' continues the Boston woman, who gets $595 a month in welfare and food stamps.

Vicki Williams, an unemployed Indiana factory worker determined to stay off welfare rolls, knows that every penny does count, adding that she leaves the shopping up to her husband, who has a better knack for finding bargains. ''I'm a bargain hunter to some extent, but he knows the price of everything - I couldn't bother with that. Even being poor I couldn't figure which can of dog food is the best price for a certain amount. I would convince myself those few cents don't matter. But they do. I know if we both go to the grocer I could buy $15 more than him and still have the same thing. We eat better on $30 than a lot do on $ 60.''

Mrs. Williams, who has worked for most of the past 20 years but has never qualified for unemployment benefits because her work was interrupted for family responsibilities, explains that she has ''always had what I needed.'' She may owe that to one of the working class background rules-of- thumb she and her husband adhered to: never buy on credit.

On the other hand, she says, outside of a land investment they intend to keep , the Williamses had no systematic plan for savings or investment while they were both employed. ''We always have just thrown our income in one big pot . . . for bills and all. If I wanted to write a check for a suit, I would. If he wanted a rod and reel, he'd write a check . . . whoever got there first.''

These examples illustrate alternating resourcefulness and ignorance about money management. Where there is ignorance, it is identical to that of higher income earners who complain they can't accumulate savings. The resourcefulness is the sort of financial expertise borne of necessity rather than choice. Financial advisers agree it is a ''crisis'' that most often pushes women into financial responsibility. It can be a husband's death or divorce. Or it can be the realization that ''you're the only thing that stands between your children and institutions,'' says Janet Diamond, a representative of the Coalition for Basic Human Needs, a Boston welfare rights organization run by welfare recipients.

At first glance, the survival instinct that low-income women develop bears little resemblance to the academic personal finance methods touted by today's crop of self-help seminars and money books.

But their cost-cutting measures, some of which admittedly are desperation moves, largely are common sense measures many people could learn from. Low-income women understand the basics higher income earners sometimes don't. These techniques often are only enough to keep bread on the table for poor people and not enough to start amassing capital, which is the key element in developing a stable financial situation. But given some margin, experts agree, these are the money management methods that could set a financial plan straight.

''I would never say that you can save money on a welfare paycheck. You can't. You're talking about being below the irreducible minimum,'' says Jane Bryant Quinn, the syndicated columnist who wrote ''Everyone's Money Book.'' But she suggests that saving money is possible at almost any income level.

''I know people making quite substantial sums of money who can't find $10 or overextended themselves. And there are people who make much less money and who are living comfortably and saving money every year because living comfortably means having a little more than you need. You can have a little more than you need at all kinds of income brackets. It's an attitude where you say, 'This is how much money I make, therefore this is how I live and can still put a little aside.' You can have that attitude at any income level.''

One financial counselor at the Chase Exchange, a Chase Manhattan Bank financial service for women, confirms the irony, noting that a complaint common to people of all income levels is that they don't have enough money or they can't save.

Experts like Ms. Quinn and those at the Chase Exchange promote strict budgeting methods for savings and investment. But, counters Mary Ann Saffelo, a divorced mother of two, ''When you're below the poverty level and people tell you to learn to budget, that's a joke.'' After leaving her $20,000-a-year California factory job because of a disability, her financial situation defied all budgeting theory--her monthly income was $379, but her rent alone was $358. Simple arithmetic illustrates her position.

Is there any way out of the financial mire for women like this? Often without the hope of employment--something that would pay more than basic welfare--there is no way out. Education has been a sure ticket up (although social program cuts are limiting the amount of aid available for women to get training).

There are two problems, explains Ms. Diamond.

''Workfare will make it absolutely impossible to go to school,'' she says, referring to the federal welfare reform that would force AFDC recipients to accept minimum-wage jobs with social services agencies or risk the loss of benefits.

The other problem, she explains, is getting poor women to think beyond the weight of their immediate situation. ''It takes a lot of effort to pull yourself out of poverty,'' she says, explaining that a young woman alone, raising children, trying to find decent but affordable child care so she can hold down a job, ''thinks in terms of just getting by day to day. She thinks in check cycles , and usually not beyond that.''

''Maybe she thinks a job will buy Christmas presents or get her daughter Jordache jeans, but she doesn't think in big terms. She doesn't think that in five years she'll be making $25,000 a year and have a staff of 10 (which is a way men are conditioned to think). Being unable to conceive of a job in those terms, she doesn't go after the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For women, to be a failure in the job market is OK - she wasn't socialized to think she could (succeed),'' concludes Ms. Diamond.

This socialization is changing, though, as women begin to perceive more clearly their economic roles as breadwinners and as independent financial entities. Representing an increasingly large part of the money-making world, women are learning that if they are smart enough to make it, they're just as capable of managing it. And they are learning to treat their money as if it were their own business, not a man's.

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