Feminine financial finesse. Women take stock in investment literacy

IT is the first night of a seven-week course called ``Investing for Women.'' The eight women gathered around a U-shaped table at the Wellesley Community Center are explaining why they are here. ``I know nothing about personal finance,'' says Winnie Williams, the owner of two day-care centers. ``Our kids are grown, and we're paying off college loans. Retirement is coming. It's time to think of ourselves.''

Roz Kaplan, who works at Boston College Law School, tells the group: ``My mother had been a businesswoman, but my father always handled the finances. When he died, my husband, an attorney, had to take care of her finances. I didn't want to be in that predicament.''

Another woman, newly divorced after 30 years of marriage, needs to know how to plan for retirement. Still another wants to learn more about the investments she and her husband have made.

But it is Marilyn Hobson who sums up the mood of the class. ``I do not want to be a money moron,'' she says firmly. ``I have seen older women in my family become financial victims, either through the kindness or the cruelty of others. I don't want that to happen to me.''

This determination to become better informed reflects a growing desire on the part of many women to play a more active role in their financial affairs. No longer content to earn minimum interest in a savings account or to watch their husbands make all the investment decisions, they are enrolling in classes, seeking the services of financial planners, and reading books.

For some women, it was the stock market crash last fall that heightened their interest. As Susan Haffenreffer, founder of Investing for Women, an investor-education company, explains, ``In a raging bull market, the likelihood of making money is very good, even for the inexperienced investor. Since the crash, however, perceptions have changed. Optimism has been replaced by fear and the growing awareness that there is no substitute for knowledge.

``You can't hide from economics anymore,'' she continues. ``These cycles affect us all. We're in danger if we're not informed.''

Yet for every woman who takes steps to become better informed, there are countless others still reluctant to admit their ignorance.

Ms. Haffenreffer tells of a physician who is enrolled in one of her classes. As the woman was leaving home to attend the first session, she turned to her husband and asked, ``What's the difference between a stock and a bond?''

Her husband replied, ``You go to that class and find out.'' If he hadn't told her that, Haffenreffer says, ``she admitted she might have taken off her coat and stayed home, because she was embarrassed about not knowing.''

That embarrassment has many causes. Primary among them is what Grace Weinstein, a syndicated financial columnist, describes as ``the notion that men are born knowing how to manage money, just as we think they're born knowing how to fix cars.'' When people don't know their investment options, she says, ``they're frozen. They sit getting 6 percent, knowing it's not the best. Even 7 percent is better.''

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.''

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?''

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