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Feminine financial finesse. Women take stock in investment literacy

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Laurie McCormick, president of McCormick Associates, an investment firm in Boston, cites another barrier: women's belief that they will be taken care of. ``If they're not married, they're still waiting for Mr. Right. Or they think social security will take care of them, or that they will receive a windfall. They don't want to face having to know.''

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For those who do want to know, an all-female class often provides a more comfortable setting. Kathleen Hegenbart, a financial consultant who teaches this ``Investing for Women'' class, dispels students' initial anxiety by telling them, ``When you sit down and start to learn, you will be amazed at how simple it is. Terminology - that's where the primary gap is. You wouldn't understand the book `Dick and Jane' if it were in Greek.''

There is nothing Greek about the chart she hands out to show the erosion of the dollar. Assuming an inflation rate of 5 percent, $10,000 today will be worth only $6,139 in 10 years, and $2,314 in 30 years. ``What will $10,000 do under the mattress?'' Ms. Hegenbart asks.

At the same time, she warns against speculating too recklessly for top dollar. ``There isn't an investment you can make that's worth losing sleep over. Before you take the plunge, ask, `Is this going to make me nervous?'''

One of the most original approaches to financial education is the Women's Financial Center in Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization established last spring to serve lower- and middle-income women. The center offers workshops and individual counseling, with fees based on a sliding scale.

``We want to let people who don't have a lot of money know there are things they can do,'' says Carole Phillips, executive director. Response, she adds, has been ``very gratifying.''

To illustrate, she tells of an artist who attended a workshop last summer. ``She decided it was time to stop being like a child, and to be a grown up and get more involved with the family money.''

As a result, the woman has taken out a home equity loan to buy a small building with an artist friend, which they will renovate for a studio. Calling this ``a terrific success story,'' Ms. Phillips says, ``She's had the experience of making the decision herself, rather than as Mrs. So-and-so, an appendage.''

Despite progress like this, financial advisers find many women reluctant to seek professional advice.

``The same woman who will spend $50 for a silk blouse, because it's pretty and makes her feel good, will hesitate to lay out $50 for an abstract, intangible service,'' Phillips says. ``The truth is, if you have a good, professional adviser, whether it's a real estate lawyer to represent you when you buy a house, or an accountant, or a financial planner, the fee will be offset by the money the professional has helped you save in the transaction.''

Even with professional help, achieving financial security takes time. But as Ms. McCormick, who teaches investment workshops for women, sees it, ``Most people fail to become financially independent because of procrastination and fear of the unknown.''

Women, she insists, have to take care of themselves. ``You must be educated to handle your own assets, whether you're married or not. You work hard for your money. At some time you're going to want to retire or be forced to retire, and you're either going to rely on charity or the money you've invested. Which would you rather rely on?''