Like many women of her generation, Virginia O'Connor was content to let her husband handle the family finances while she managed the household and cared for their three children. But when she was suddenly widowed four years ago, her lack of knowledge about money quickly became a liability.
''I knew how to write checks, and that's all,'' says Mrs. O'Connor, of Bolton, Mass.
A financial planner has handled her money since her husband's death, but O'Connor now wants to ''make more informed decisions'' and plan for her later years. As a first step, she has enrolled in a financial seminar for women, saying, ''This year my goal is to become financially literate.''
That determination puts O'Connor among growing numbers of women who are trading passivity and dependence for education and greater control over their retirement planning. Concerned about the future of Social Security, changes in pensions, and reduced job security, they are attending seminars, reading books and magazines, joining investment clubs, and seeking the services of retirement planners.
''We get women all the way from their 20s up to their 70s, says Barbara Williams, a certified financial planner who conducts workshops for women at a community college in Carlsbad, Calif. ''A lot of women say, 'Oh, I'm not good at math, so I'm probably not good at this.' But they are good at the day-to-day things - knowing where the household money has gone, making the family finances work. With a little guidance, those same skills transfer easily to investments.''
Judy Beatrice, a vice president at Smith Barney in Waltham, Mass., adds, ''I have a lot of younger clients coming in - women in their 30s and 40s who say, 'I've got to get serious about retirement.' ''
By some estimates, 9 out of 10 women will be responsible for their own finances at some point in their lives. Research in 1992 by Oppenheimer Funds, a New York investment firm, found that although over 80 percent of women took part in household finances - balancing the checkbook, paying bills - only 12 percent were involved in investment decisions. Among women surveyed by the National Center for Women and Retirement Research in Southampton, N.Y., close to 80 percent said they were preparing for a secure retirement. Yet one-third didn't know how much they would need, and many of the rest estimated too low.
At the same time, women face challenges in accumulating sufficient funds. They still tend to earn less and thus save less than men, says Jane Ingalls of Oppenheimer Funds. ''They invest less, and when they do invest, they invest more conservatively than men.''
Still, more women are investing, particularly in mutual funds. Their participation in 401(k)s is also increasing, although ''it's still not adequate,'' says Mary Hastings, a certified financial planner at Merrill Lynch Financial Consultants in Burlington, Mass. ''Especially younger women don't realize the need and the advantage to start earlier. The sooner they start, the bigger that compounding effect is going to be.''
Both a 401(k) and an individual retirement account (IRA), Ms. Hastings points out, offer tax-deferred interest. A 401(k) provides a second benefit because money is contributed on a pre-tax basis.
By far the biggest investment hurdle women face, retirement planners find, is timidity.
''Women tend to be very risk-averse,'' Ms. Ingalls says. ''What most people don't understand is that risk is two-dimensional. There's the potential of putting your money in an investment that's too risky, where you lose your principal. But there's also the risk of losing money by playing it too safe - putting your money in a savings account or a CD or another lower-yield investment that doesn't keep up with inflation.''
A second hurdle for many women, Ingalls finds, is the misconception that they need a large lump sum - from $1,000 to $10,000 - to invest. ''Many mutual-fund companies will allow you to start an asset-builder account with as little as $25 a month,'' she says.
A third obstacle involves liquidity. ''Many novice investors think that if you invest your money you can't have access to it,'' Ingalls says. ''But you can have access if you need it.''
The first step in retirement planning involves what Hastings calls retirement analysis, asking: ''If I want to retire at a certain age, what do I need to maintain my current standard of living? How much will I need to save each year to reach that goal?''
Similarly, Williams suggests more investment-oriented day-to-day planning. She tells women to fill out two budget sheets. ''The first one records where they have been spending their money. The second is based on where they would like to be spending it. So many feel that their money just spends itself. By setting up a goal sheet, they can make better decisions and be somewhere different financially a year from now. It's a wonderful feeling of control.''
The next step is to develop a strategy to reach that goal. To help women overcome concerns about risk, financial planners often show them charts illustrating how stocks have historically outperformed rates of return on savings accounts and CDs.
''I make the point about time and diversification being the two points to successful investing,'' Williams says. ''If you go into a mutual fund over 10 years, you may have two negative years. But the positive years will more than make up for the negative years and outperform the CDs. Just that much education can help people take a little higher risk.''
Other education is available through investment clubs. ''This is a very good way for women to start putting money in on a small basis,'' Ms. Beatrice says. ''It gets their information level up and helps give them self-confidence about dealing with money.''
Joining such a club remains one of O'Connor's goals. ''To be able to sit down with other women and learn something by researching stocks would be challenging and helpful,'' she says.
Beatrice emphasizes the need to understand a variety of investment options. ''Most women think bonds are safe, but they are more volatile than stocks,'' she says. She also underscores the importance of age-appropriate planning. ''What you do with your money at 20 is very different from what you want to do at 50 or 75,'' she says.
Whatever an investor's approach, careful retirement planning requires time and attention. ''It takes a lot of work - it doesn't just happen,'' says Dorothy Clarke, director of the National Center for Women and Retirement Research To make that task easier, the center offers hundreds of seminars around the country.
Marilyn O'Neill, a high school sociology teacher in Watertown, Mass., is currently taking one of those seminars in suburban Boston. ''I have put money aside systematically for many years in IRAs and tax shelters,'' Ms. O'Neill says. ''But there is another whole world out there in investments, and I want to learn. I don't want to live my later years worrying about money.''
O'Neill also wants a younger generation to learn about retirement planning. ''Young women have to be taught that the money of today is never going to take care of the needs of tomorrow,'' she says. ''I try to bring these issues up with my students. I wish someone had done it with me.''
Jean Bernhard Buttner, chairman of Value Line Inc., in New York, is optimistic about women's greater involvement in financial planning and investing. ''More women will earn more and be in the work force longer,'' she says. ''As they do earn their own money, they're going to be more inclined to feel they should control it.''
Explaining the importance of financial independence, Ingalls says, ''Women are certainly capable of investing. You can't confuse lack of experience with lack of ability. They just need to spend some time putting their financial house in order. It's never too soon to start, but it's never too late.''