When the subject is money, women often cling to two persistent stereotypes, one a pleasant dream, the other a nightmare.
In the dream, they harbor fantasies that a white knight will provide happily-ever-after financial security. In the nightmare, by contrast, they fear that an impoverished retirement could turn them into bag ladies on the street.
Now financial advisers and money managers are marshaling forces to change those images. In a proliferation of books, seminars, conferences, Web sites, and investment clubs, they are reaching out to women, helping them to become financially savvy and economically independent. Prince Charming, they warn, may not come.
"If and when he does show up, he may have less than you do," quips Brooke Stephens, a financial adviser.
In part, this burgeoning interest reflects changing demographics. As the number of single women grows, so does their need for economic independence. By some estimates, one-fourth of young working women now between the ages of 18 and 26 may never marry.
Divorce and greater longevity also require self-sufficiency. Ninety percent of women currently being supported by someone else - parents, a husband, the government - will at some point be self-supporting, notes Gail Shapiro, executive director of Womankind, a resource center in Wayland, Mass.
Financial planners also see this increasing interest as the next step in women's progression in the workforce.
"In the 1970s and '80s, we were glad to have a job and be making money," says Joan Perry, president of Take Charge Financial! in Los Gatos, Calif. "Now the question is, How do we make our money work for us?"
Answers to that question take many forms. But underpinning every other step is the need for women to take money seriously. Ms. Shapiro says, "I know men and women who can't balance a checkbook. But I've never heard a man giggle about it."
Ignorance is hardly bliss
Shapiro knows firsthand the perils of financial ignorance. She married at 19 without a college degree. Later she and her husband divorced. As a single mother with three children, she had to go back to work and handle finances and investments.
"I had to figure it out," she says. Although she learned in part through mistakes, she also put together a network of excellent advisers - a financial planner, an accountant, and a banker, all of them women.
To help other women "figure it out," five years ago Shapiro and Ann Bickford Smith created a six-week money-management class called the Financial Literacy Project. When a Boston newspaper gave the course a three-line mention, 600 women called, wanting to sign up. Its success continues. Participants range from their 20s to their 60s. Speakers - all women - cover topics such as credit, stocks, wills, retirement, and insurance.
Now Smith and Shapiro are expanding the course to other cities. Their book, "Money Order: The Money Management Guide for Women," will appear in April.
Younger women, the partners find, tend to be more savvy. But what surprises them is what does not change. "It's just as true of a lot of younger women as it is of older women that deep down inside, even though rationally we know it's not true, there's still this deep wish to be taken care of," Shapiro says. "That holds us down."
So does self-deprecation. Many women, Ms. Smith observes, come to the class with negative attitudes. "They say, 'I don't know anything.' But everybody does know a lot."
Julie Garella of Carnegie Capital Advisors in Charlotte, N.C., sees the greatest commitment to financial education among women between 45 and 60. "An enormous number of women are starting to take control. They have assets and can manage their finances."
By contrast, Ms. Garella finds young women in the so-called Gen X group often more interested in "focusing on what Ann Taylor's got on sale."
Still, priorities can change. Heather Roulston Ettinger, a principal at Roulston & Co. in Cleveland, observes growing ranks of working women in their 30s and 40s who manage the money in their families. Many honed their skills during their single years.
Yet Ms. Ettinger and others see a generational divide. As chairwoman of a program in Cleveland called Women Managing Money, she gives a class on "Solutions for Women." Some participants, she says, are reluctant to tell their husbands that they are taking a class to learn about money.
That reticence also prevails among some members of Smith and Shapiro's classes. Married women, particularly those in older generations whose husbands have total financial control, find it a challenge, Smith says, "to go home and confront their husband by saying, 'I want to know what it costs to run our house. What are our investments? What is the total picture?' "
Some women are unable to do that, Smith says. "Or they'll try to strike up a conversation about it, and he'll go a little way, saying, 'This is what our bills are.' "
Yet a woman's greater financial knowledge benefits the entire family. One man whose wife took Smith and Shapiro's class told them it had completely changed his marriage. He said, "Now we're talking about money and investments. What a load off my shoulders."
Unable to enjoy their money
For a year and a half, Nan Sabel, a principal of the Women's Financial Network in Bedford, Mass., hosted a nightly radio talk show in Boston called "Straight Talk: Women and Their Money." Although 90 percent of experts on the program were women, 70 percent of callers were men. Again and again women told Ms. Sabel, "I didn't call in because I didn't want to sound stupid."
Sabel, who appears on other radio shows and gives talks titled "Banish the bag lady syndrome," also meets midlife women - usually single, divorced, or widowed - who have another financial problem: plenty of money but an inability to derive pleasure from it. After watching their Depression-era parents hoard money, these women refuse to spend.
"If you save and save and now you're 50, you feel your money's behind a brick wall," explains Sabel.
She tells of one woman in her early 50s who never earned more than $40,000 a year. Because she was frugal and her company matched her savings, her nest egg is now $700,000. Even so, Sabel says, "She's petrified she'll end up with nothing and have to eat cat food."
Women and philanthropy
Another woman in her mid-50s told Sabel, "When I have $1.5 million, I'll get cleaning help." Then she raised the bar to $2 million. Last month, she reached $2.4 million and finally hired cleaning help. Still other women tell Sabel, "I'll need all this money for the nursing home."
"There's such fear out there," Sabel says. "They should be enjoying their money, giving it to their children, giving it to charity."
Charity is, in fact, a concern among women's financial experts. In general, they say, women tend to limit their giving to modest amounts - often $50 - and do not think of themselves as philanthropists.
Calling philanthropy "a very important piece of the whole financial program," Shapiro says, "It's important to share what we have. Giving is important."
Because attitudes about money start in childhood, financial experts also emphasize the importance of helping girls understand the role money plays in their lives."If we know nothing about money as women, what are we teaching our kids?" asks Ms. Perry.
Last month, the National Coalition of Girls' Schools in Concord, Mass., sponsored a conference in Boston on "Girls, Women, and Money." It drew 500 people, a fifth of them affiliated with girls' schools.
"In addition to learning the ABCs, girls need to define the letter D, for dollars," says Whitney Ransome, an executive director of the coalition. Girls, she notes, hardly need to learn about spending. Last year they spent about $37 billion on clothes, cosmetics, and accessories.
"We want them to have a better understanding of what they might do with that same money," Ransome says. She would also like publishers to offer as many books about how girls and women deal with money as they do on weight loss and dating.
She and other advocates encourage women to shake off any complacency and take an active part in their finances.
Perry offers a simple formula: Devise a spending plan. This gives you control over your dollars. Spend less than you earn. Invest the difference. Reinvest it.
Perry herself learned the importance of financial independence the hard way. For many years she worked as a successful bond trader in New York. Then she married. But her husband became abusive. She finally left one day with only her car keys, her jeans, and her American Express card.
"Here I was, a woman with an MBA," she says. "I had grown up in a good family and worked on Wall Street. How did I miss the skills that were essential to my financial independence? I really had a sense that day that I could become a bag lady."
Urging women not to be afraid, Ransome says, "Women tend to think they have to know and do everything perfectly. It can begin with tiny steps, from reading the business section [of the newspaper], even if you don't understand it all, to paying more attention to what happens to your cash.
"Money," she adds firmly, "is not a dirty word. You need financial authority."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society