When Planning For The Future, Women Have Been Hands Off

Mar 31, 2014
Originally published on March 31, 2014 10:46 am

It's a truism in the financial industry that women need to get more out of their money than men since they live longer and make less, especially if they take time out to care for children or aging parents. But it's also a given that they lack confidence when it comes to investing, something that's clear on a recent evening at the Women's Center in Vienna, Va.

A handful of middle-aged women are gathered in a small room to hear the basics of investing. One in the midst of a divorce laments that she let her soon-to-be-ex handle all of the finances. A single woman expresses a gnawing concern that she hasn't saved up enough to be able to stop working in a decade or two.

"I really don't know where to start," says Christiane Geidt, married and 46. She actually has accumulated a nice chunk, but — as is common for women — it's sitting in her savings account. Geidt is nervous about losing money if she invests, something that doesn't seem to bother her husband.

"I think men ... enjoy it more," she laughs. "It's their adrenaline, maybe, that kicks in."

Actually, research suggests it's testosterone that makes men more open to such risk. But women have something else that men don't.

"Women are terrified of retirement," says Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement. "They're terrified of running out of money. They're terrified of becoming bag women."

Cate Blanchett delivered an Oscar-winning portrayal of that age-old image in last year's hit Blue Jasmine, in which she plays a wealthy New York socialite who has it all, loses it all and ends up delusional on a park bench.

Hounsell points out that most women don't have as much to lose; the median annual income of those working full time in 2012 was less than $38,000. She has spent her career trying to coax women to plan for and invest in their future. But too often, Hounsell says, when women do seek out financial advice, they're turned off.

"We don't want wealth management gobbledygook that we can't understand," she says. "A lot of the studies show that women want somebody that they can talk to who will say, 'How old is your mother?' and 'Who is caring for her?' and all those things. Well, they haven't been trained like that."

Financial planners, she says, have been steeped in industry jargon. And they are overwhelmingly older, white men. Still, Hounsell senses a shift. She says the big firms now have webinars, websites and entire studies devoted to women.

"I was on a panel where I almost fell off my chair," she says. "Someone was sitting there with a slide from a big consulting firm saying that people want simple, straightforward information that helps them make changes in their life. And I feel like I've waited 25 years to hear that."

At FBB Capital Partners in Bethesda, Md., Wendy Weaver gives that straight, simple talk. Compared with a generation ago, she says, women today are more likely to be single, and also more likely to make just as much, if not more, than their husbands. And yet, she says, women's attitude toward money doesn't seem to have kept pace with their expanding role in the economy.

"The millennials seem to be trending back toward relinquishing control," she says, "whether that be, 'My spouse will take care of it,' or even, 'I'm still at home so my dad takes care of it.' "

Weaver even sees breadwinner wives who still let their spouse handle the finances. She worries that either they're too nervous to invest, or they fear they will offend a spouse if they ask for more say in money decisions.

"That emotion has to be removed," she says, "and just look at money as a tool, and a means to an end."

Weaver points out that back in the "greatest generation," many women handled the home finances. Sure, most didn't have to figure out 401(k)s or stocks and bonds. But — here's the irony — when women today do invest, they get even better returns than men.

"Men feel like they always have to fix things and trade whether it needs to be fixed or not," Weaver says.

One expert calls it the "remote control factor." Women, Weaver says, like to think long term. They do more research and ask more questions.

Of course, people need money to invest, and this is still a tough time for many. But Weaver and others are hopeful that for young women at least, the recent recession may have a silver lining.

"There is definitely a lot of fear," says 27-year-old Sarah Ameigh of Bethesda. She graduated from college in 2009, in the wake of the financial collapse.

"There was a mood," she says. " 'Worried' would be the best word to describe it. We all did OK in terms of getting jobs, but there's always that little voice in your head that, ugh, you just don't know what's possible."

Ameigh is grateful for her job in marketing and has already started to invest in a 401(k) and is calculating how much more she can save. A little worry, she says, might turn out to be a good thing.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the days before April 15, tax day, MORNING EDITION will be reporting on women and wealth. Now, we don't mean wealthy women, we mean how women work toward financial security and how it brings up very different considerations for women than it does for men. As part of our series, NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been speaking with women to see how their attitudes and fears shape how they think about their finances over the long haul.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: There's a truism in the industry. Women need to get more out of their money than men. They live longer and make less, especially if they take time out to care for children or aging parents. But when it comes to investing, they lack confidence. That was clear one recent evening.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So who are we missing?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Maya.

LUDDEN: A small room at the Women's Center in Vienna, Virginia, a handful of middle-aged women here for a workshop on Investing 101.

TIA MARSILI: I wish that I had known more about our finances. I wish I would've been more involved.

M FITZGERALD: I am not getting any younger and I am starting to go, yeah, so what's going to happen in 10 years or 20 years when I can't....

CHRISTIANE GEIDT: I really don't know where to start. And I mean, it's very confusing and it's pretty much complex.

LUDDEN: That was Tia Marsili, M(ph) Fitzgerald and Christiane Geidt - divorcing, single, married. Geidt says she's actually accumulated a nice chunk, but common for women, it's sitting in her savings account. She's nervous about investing because of the risk of losing it, unlike her husband.

GEIDT: I think with men, it's just like they enjoy it more. If things don't work out and you lose money here and there and he just easier takes it - it's their adrenaline, maybe, that kicks in more, I don't know.

LUDDEN: Actually, it's testosterone, at least that's what research suggests makes men more open to such risk. There is something else women have that men don't.

CINDY HOUNSELL: Study after study shows the same thing.

LUDDEN: Cindy Hounsell heads the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement.

HOUNSELL: Women are terrified of retirement. They're terrified of running out of money. They're terrified of becoming bag women, you know, and women just have always had that fear.

LUDDEN: It's an age-old image that's still around. Take Cate Blanchett's Oscar-winning role in last year's hit "Blue Jasmine."

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "BLUE JASMINE")

CATE BLANCHETT: (As Jasmine) I never pay attention to Hal's business affairs. I have no head for that sort of thing.

LUDDEN: This wealthy New York socialite has it all, loses it all, and ends up delusional on a park bench.

(SOUNDBITE FROM FILM "BLUE JASMINE")

BLANCHETT: (As Jasmine) "Blue Moon," I used to know the words.

LUDDEN: Cindy Hounsell points out most women don't have as much to lose; the median annual income of those working full time in 2012 was less than $38,000 - all the more reason, she says, for women to plan ahead and make their money grow. But too often, she says, when women do seek out financial advice, they're turned off.

HOUNSELL: We don't want wealth management gobbledygook that we can't understand. A lot of the studies show that women, they want somebody that they can talk to who will say how old is your mother and who is caring for her and all those things.

LUDDEN: But financial planners, she says, haven't been trained like that. They've been steeped in industry jargon and they're overwhelmingly older white men. Still, Hounsell senses a shift. She says the big firms now have webinars, websites, entire studies devoted to women.

HOUNSELL: I was on a panel where I almost like fell off my chair because someone was sitting there with a slide from a big consulting firm saying that people want simple straightforward information that helps them make changes in their life. And I feel like I've waited 25 years to hear that.

WENDY WEAVER: Hi.

LUDDEN: Hi. Nice to see you. At FBB Capital Partners in Bethesda, Maryland, Wendy Weaver gives that straight, simple talk.

WEAVER: So Doris, congratulations. I think you did a really good job...

LUDDEN: She manages money for plenty of successful professional women, like this client who's about to retire in comfort. Compared to a generation ago, women today are more likely to be single and more likely to make just as much, if not more, than their husbands. So are more stepping up to manage their money?

WEAVER: In the GenX generation I definitely see a bigger mix of who is in charge, but the millennials seem to be trending back towards relinquishing control, whether that be my spouse will take care of it, or even I'm still at home so my dad takes care of it.

LUDDEN: Weaver even sees breadwinner wives who still let their spouse handle the finances. She worries they're letting emotion get in the way.

WEAVER: And you have to disengage that emotional piece that if I ask to be involved, my husband's going to think I don't trust him or I should be doing this but it's too scary so I won't. That emotion has to be removed and just look at money as a tool and a means to an end.

LUDDEN: Weaver points out that back in the Greatest Generation, women handled the home finances. Sure, most back then didn't have to figure out 401(k)s or stocks and bonds. But here's the irony: When women today do invest, they get even better returns than men.

WEAVER: Men feel like they always have to fix things and trade, whether it needs to be fixed or not.

LUDDEN: One expert calls it the remote control factor. Women, Weaver says, like to think long term, do the research, ask questions. Of course people need money to invest, and this is a tough time. But Weaver is hopeful that for young women at least, the recent recession may have a silver lining.

SARAH AMEIGH: Oh, yes, it definitely put fear in the heart.

LUDDEN: In Maryland, 27-year-old Sarah Ameigh is grateful for her marketing job, but she's not taking anything for granted.

AMEIGH: I graduated in 2009, right in the midst of everything. So there was a mood, I would say, amongst all my friends and I just kind of worried. Worried would be the best word to describe it. We all did OK in terms of getting jobs, but there's always that little voice in your head that says, ugh, you just don't know what's possible.

LUDDEN: So Ameigh has already started a 401(k) after consulting with her parents, and she is calculating how much more she can save. A little worry, she says, might turn out to be a good thing. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

GREENE: Okay, tomorrow in our series we're going to meet some Latina women who are growing their wealth through savings circles.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It was funny because we were (unintelligible) people and the girl was like, all you're doing is like giving money to other people but not collecting interest on it. And there's a risk. But all of us didn't see it that way.

GREENE: And as part of this series, we've been asking some influential women to share their money lessons. Here's U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR: My grandma and grandpa saved money in a coffee can to send my dad to college. It was down in the basement. And they were able to send him to a community college and then he got a journalism degree at the University of Minnesota and went on to interview everyone from Ronald Reagan to Mike Ditka to Ginger Rogers. Growing up in hardscrabble mining town and it was all because they were willing to save money.

GREENE: All began with a coffee can. That's great. A money lesson from Amy Klobuchar. The Minnesota Democrat is chair of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. You can see lessons from other interesting women at our Tumblr. Just search for SheWorksTumblr. We hope you'll share a lesson that you've learned, good or bad, about managing money. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.