When it comes to finances, men and women aren't alike

Pop culture says that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. But when it comes our finances, are we really worlds apart?

Many financial experts say the two sexes are different enough that women can use advice tailored to fit their style and needs. And two new ventures under way in Maryland are trying to capitalize on that. 

An Owings Mills accounting and investment advisory firm recently launched a practice catering to women-owned businesses. Peg Downey, a nationally known financial planner from Chevy Chase, and two colleagues are starting to train financial advisers on how to better communicate with and serve women clients.

Finances should be a women's issue. On average, women earn less than men, receive fewer retirement benefits and live longer, which means they are more likely to develop health problems and incur steep medical bills later in life. Plus, women often take off years from a job to raise a family or care for an aging parent, further reducing their ability to build a nest egg.

All this, and the potentially huge female market, hasn't been lost on the financial industry. Books, seminars and programs target women. Some of it is gimmicky, or just the same old advice that's been, as Downey says, "pinked up" to lure women clients.

Downey says her venture, Directions for Women, is different. For example, it offers training for advisers to hold "circles" where women can learn in a group and discuss their views on money to get comfortable with financial planning. Women may be asked to describe their first "money message" from their parents and how that influences their life today.

"This just isn't some airy-fairy thing. It is indeed how women work," says Downey, noting that women traditionally have gathered in circles — from yesteryear's sewing bees to today's book clubs.

This is a little touchy-feely for me, but if it gets women to take charge of their finances, I say go for it.

After all, while women have made progress with their finances over the years, more needs to be done.

When OppenheimerFunds released a major study on women and investing in 1992, women reported that their financial experience largely involved balancing the checkbook and paying bills, says Ellen Schoenfeld, a vice president of marketing. Today, women are far more engaged in investing and more knowledgeable, she says.

Nonetheless, in another study three years ago, OppenheimerFunds found that half of women didn't participate in a retirement plan even though a wide majority said their top goal was to save for retirement.

And a recent Transamerica survey found that women were less likely to enroll in a retirement plan and, if they did, they contributed less than men. In addition, significantly more women expect to rely on Social Security for their primary source of retirement income than men.

"There is still just a very widespread lack of awareness among women when it comes to saving and planning for retirement," says Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

Of course, not all women are alike. But ask financial professionals about the differences between the sexes, and they all make similar observations:

Men are comfortable with financial jargon; women want plain English. Men make quick decisions; women need more time and information before acting. Men like charts and beating the benchmarks; women want to know what the numbers mean for their life, such as whether they can retire early or remodel the kitchen.

Of course, this sounds a lot like stereotyping. "Most people want plain English," says Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement. "That's why we have Twitter. They don't want too many characters."

But Downey and others say there truly is a difference, particularly in how women learn.

"Our brains are really wired differently," says Downey, who has been a planner for 28 years. "The problem with the old stereotypes is they say one way is good and another way is bad. We're not saying that. We are saying it's different, and we want to change the conversation to become more friendly for women."

OppenheimerFunds' Schoenfeld says women today can benefit from financial advice that targets certain niches, such as small business.

That's what's happening at Glass Jacobson in Owings Mills, which created a women-owned business practice in August at the suggestion of accountant Tammy Schneider.

"It's realizing the fact that men and women are different instead of pretending it's not there. It's a matter of embracing it," says Schneider, director of the practice.

For example, women tend to do less long-term planning, they are more reluctant to ask a lender for money and they often don't know how to obtain government contracts, she says.

Men are more comfortable calling someone they have met once or twice to ask for business or a referral. "Women hesitate to make that phone call unless there is a deeper connection," she says.

Schneider says her role is to help clients make all these connections so they can take their business to the next level.

Downey's goal is "to change the financial planning atmosphere for women," she says. Her partners in Directions for Women are planners Eleanor Blayney, author of "Women's Worth," and Elizabeth Jetton, former president of the Financial Planning Association.

Traditional financial planning continues to be male-dominated, with the heavy use of jargon and charts that turn off or intimidate many women, Downey says.

Directions for Women will train advisers on how best to communicate with women — listening, showing empathy and explaining matters in laymen's terms — and how to be more creative in finding solutions to women's financial problems. The names of planners who have undergone the training will be posted on Directions' website as a resource for women.

Of course, not all men are alike, either. Downey says the skills advisers will pick up to better serve women could appeal to men, too.

"Men don't know all the jargon," she says.


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