My Grandma Betty worked for most of her life, starting as a teen at the Lakes Theater in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and continuing right up into her 80s, when she crunched numbers for Nielsen Research, her red hair finally tinged white at the temples. In between she helped out at her parents’ store and kept the books for various ventures in her hometown.
So it seemed likely she would be all right, at least financially, when her husband died much too young in 1980, when she was just 52. After all, she earned an income as a bookkeeper. But the money savvy she had for the day-to-day didn’t translate into the long term. She moved to Florida, and whatever nest egg she had was soon gone — a large chunk of it swindled away, I’m told, by a pair of dance instructors who preyed on lonely souls. My parents helped support her until her death at 85.
My Grandma Joan, on the other hand, didn’t earn a salary, but she certainly worked: She oversaw a family of five kids while her husband, a county engineer, made the money. They had been married for 53 years — since my grandma was 17 — when he died in 2002. His Minnesota state pension still takes care of her today, but it came with a learning curve. While she had managed the household, as a new widow at 70, she didn’t know how to manage that money without help.
I’d love to say that this is a tale of generational divide, with the female boomers, gen-Xers and millennials who came after these two Depression-era babies all comfortably on their way to financial independence. But many of us aren’t.
Women in general are still overly focused on the everyday when it comes to spending and saving, leaving much of the long-term planning to our spouses or putting it off for another day that often comes too late, if at all.
I’m guilty of it. I got married young and divorced young, and then spent the next decade single and trying to build a career while keeping my head above water. There never seemed to be enough left over to contribute to a retirement plan. It wasn’t until I remarried and could again split household costs that I started putting money into a 401(k) — at my new husband’s urging.
According to a 2015 study by Fidelity Investments, most women are comfortable balancing a checkbook (79 percent), but only 37 percent of us are confident in our abilities to plan for retirement — and half of us are nervous about the financial decisions we already make (gen X is the worst, with 58 percent of us filled with self-doubt, compared to millennials’ 57 percent and boomers’ relatively healthy 41 percent).
The fact that we don’t yet have salary parity with men has a lot to do with it. We’re increasingly the main breadwinners in U.S. households (42 percent of them, according to the Center for American Progress), yet we’re still paid less than men for the same jobs across most fields, including journalism. We need to earn what we deserve in order to retire as we deserve and be able to live independently if we so choose. But we can’t focus our efforts solely on the gender wage gap at the expense of financial literacy — much less financial fluency.
That’s a mistake on several levels. First, we’re likely to live longer, so we have more incentive to educate ourselves about the long haul (and we’re more likely to live in poverty if we don’t). And second, the less we know and have, the more beholden we are to others; that means some of us are captive to bad relationships or bad jobs — or just jobs in general.
While Betty was proud of her many decades of work, I can’t help but think that she would have liked her job to have been a choice later in life — rather than a necessity.
Tricia Bishop is The Baltimore Sun’s deputy editorial page editor.Tricia Bishop is The Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @triciabishop.