Off to the races for women investors, if fully informed

The married couple sitting in the office of financial planner Craig Carnick were both physicians. They were both enjoying high incomes. And they had embarked on independent investment programs. ``The husband was in all kinds of screwy tax shelters and other gimmicks,'' Mr. Carnick, of Traverse City, Mich., recalls. ``The wife had stayed with conservative old mutual funds. We got their portfolios together and he didn't look so good. He had lost money.''

The husband's defense, Carnick remembers, was that ``the salesman said these were good investments. His wife, who had made some nice returns on her investments, looked at him and said `You believed him?'''

That tale, Carnick says, illustrates an important fact about women and money: While their interests, needs, and approaches to money and financial products may be very different, women can do just as well as men - or better - when it comes to finding the right places for their money.

If there is a deficiency, Carnick and other financial planners agree, it is in the amount of information many women have. All the financial and investment products that are available to men are equally available to women, and so is all the information. It's just a matter of getting it, understanding the investments, and having the courage to act.

Financial services firms and planners that market their wares as ``financial planning for women'' or ``financial products to meet women's needs'' don't have anything special to offer women, the advisers say. The products are the same. The returns on investments are the same. And the risks are the same. The only thing that's different is the marketing.

``I don't believe women and men are all that different in the financial products they use,'' says Lee Carlson, a vice-president in the private banking division of Shawmut Bank in Boston. While the focus of financial planning might differ if a woman is married or single, Ms. Carlson says, her investments won't be much different from a single or married man's.

``The tax code doesn't treat us according to sex,'' agrees Sally Wilkins, a planner in Boston. ``It's really a matter of education and understanding.''

To a great extent, it's also a matter of background. Many women, Ms. Wilkins says, grew up with their fathers taking care of the family's finances. When they married, their husbands made the financial decisions, bought the life insurance, made the investments, and pretty much kept to themselves the knowledge of what money was coming in and where it was going.

If the husband died first, Wilkins says, the widow's financial affairs were handled by a grown child - often a son or son-in-law - or, if there weren't any children, a back trust officer.

``They just kept up the unquestioning reliance on the male figure,'' she notes. ``It's really sad. Before, you were expected to get married and have a man take care of you. That expectation isn't there anymore.''

``Women's cultural conditioning is very different,'' agrees Grace Weinstein, a financial adviser and author of several books on personal finance. ``Women often come to the financial process with a bit more trepidation.''

Trepidation or not, Ms. Weinstein urges women to find out all they can about finances before they have to. About 85 perent of all women will be alone at some time in their lives, most often beacuse of divorce or widowhood, she points out.

One of the first things married women can do to become more familiar with money is to take turns with the family's finances. This not only includes writing checks and balancing the checkbook (which many women do already), but making the insurance payments, following investments, keeping track of dividends and other incoming payments, and following the progress of any savings accounts.

``It has to be more than just paying the bills,'' Weinstein says. ``Meanwhile, the husbands can run the household to see how the appliances work. I've known men who didn't know how to work a coffeepot.''

Other financial planners suggest that women take more permanent steps. One of these is for the wife to make herself more financially ``separate'' from her husband. Even if he provides most or all of the income, the wife should still make her own financial plans and provide for the possibility that she'll have to handle the money on her own one day.

One way to start is with her own checking account. A savings account and a couple of credit cards also help establish an independent financial identity, even if all the money comes from the husband. Credit rating bureaus can only show that bills were paid and bank accounts maintained; they cannot show where the money came from to do it.

Without this, if a woman is widowed or divorced, her credit history will be based on her husband's finances, not hers.

If a wife is working, she should consider whether she will contunue to work without interruption until retirement. Since many women do not, but move in and out of the work force, she should consider how this will affect her ability to qualify for a pension and probably open her own individual retirement account.

Whether a woman is single, married, widowed, or divorced, there is a wealth of information available to help in financial education. Many four- and two-year colleges have adult education programs on personal finance, as do unaffiliated adult education centers.

This will not only help women understand finances, but make them an even stronger force in the economy, Wilkins contends.

``Women do have an influence in the economy,'' she says. ``They have a power in the marketplace and they have to understand that and learn to use it.''

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