For women, financial savvy is no fairy tale

You couldn't miss the hot-pink envelope mixed in with the mail that arrived at our house one day last week. Addressed to me in a small, neat script and looking like an out-of-season Valentine, it begged to be opened.

"Special Invitation," the fancy lettering inside teases. But don't get your hopes up. This is no party. The subject at hand is strictly business – an all-day financial conference for women.

Even the enclosed "Complimentary VIP Ticket" sports a wide band of hot pink, as if to reassure recipients that the money talk at the seminar will really be girl talk – nonthreatening and even fun. This is the same electric pink, after all, that decorates the covers of romance novels and women's self-help books.

Is this what it takes to get women's attention about money and make the subject soothing?

If so, perhaps the feminine ploys have come not a moment too soon. Despite unprecedented wealth and power, 90 percent of women feel financially insecure, says a study released last week by Allianz. This despite the fact that they are more educated and more involved in financial decisions than ever before.

Compounding women's insecurity, the survey finds, is a "tremendous fear" of losing all their money. About half the participants express concern that they might become a bag lady. That includes almost half of the wealthier women – the ones earning more than $100,000 annually.

The bag-lady syndrome runs deep. Even Gloria Steinem, that paragon of independence and self-sufficiency, once voiced the same concern.

As if to echo the Allianz findings, another survey released last week also reports a lack of confidence among women. Almost half the men surveyed by Stowers Innovations say they feel in control of their finances, compared with just over one-third of women.

Still, one sociologist who studies women's financial issues cautions that surveys like these must be kept in perspective. This kind of self-reporting can lead to skewed conclusions. When men take part in a survey, she notes, they are more likely to say with confidence, "Yes, I know that." By contrast, women tend to sell themselves short. The sociologist herself is heartened by women's growing financial savvy.

When it comes to money, women have long been conditioned to think small. Earlier generations of thrifty homemakers stashed hard-saved cash in the proverbial sugar bowl. They stretched the "pin money" their husbands gave them for small personal expenses. (Mercifully, the dictionary labels the term "pin money" as archaic.) And they teased their daughters about carrying "mad money" on a date so they could get home alone if necessary. It all fostered a piggy-bank mentality.

Women need all the encouragement they can get to think in bigger terms about savings and investments. But sometimes that encouragement comes in odd ways. The Allianz survey, for instance, invites women to identify with five commonly recognized fictional characters, choosing the one that most closely matches their financial profile. Are you Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Belle from "Beauty and the Beast," Goldilocks, or Wonder Woman?

Is this clever – or condescending? Would a survey geared to men ask them to identify with characters in fairy tales and comic books? Probably not.

Today, when financial literacy is a buzzword in some schools, younger generations of women will surely get a head start on being financially savvy. Yet many already know that curbing frivolous spending can be hard to do in a consumer culture where the insistent siren call is "Buy, buy."

A friend of mine speaks admiringly of a woman she knows who has "pots of money." Although the woman could afford to buy anything, she spends carefully and saves diligently. When her children were teenagers, she made sure they held summer jobs to understand the value of a paycheck. She respects money.

As she and others already know, when the subject is greenbacks, it's not enough for women to "think pink" or identify with Cinderella. Prince Charming isn't necessarily coming to the rescue.

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