What Women Want

Last year I found a really interesting survey done by media firms Meredith and NBC Universal about “what women want.”  Health, a happy marriage and terrific sex life aside, living well these days, women said, is mainly a matter of dollars and cents.   Financial strain now ranks as the most serious threat to a woman’s household and economic security.  A year later with a worse economy I bet that feeling is more than ever. And as I begin working on my upcoming makeover show on SOAPnet, The Bank of Mom and Dad, I see first-hand the financial strains young women are enduring – from piles of credit card debt to unemployment and fights with spouses over money.

The survey also discovered that one in five women is at least $20,000 in debt (excluding her mortgage), and about one third of women blame their Visa and MasterCard balances for being unable to save for the future.  It’s no news flash that women like to shop and buy the nicer things in life.  (Incidentally, men enjoy shopping too, just on different items like plasma TVs, golf gear and gadgets.) But women, more often than not, are criticized for engaging in what financial experts refer to as “retail therapy.”  It’s the act of splurging on, say, a new pair of Jimmy Choos or loading up on Chanel cosmetics, when it’s not the most financially smart thing to do, but, well, it feels good.  “We’re a nation of unconscious spenders, so if you’re having a bad day or a good day at work…what do we do? We go to the mall,” says Marcia Brixey, author of The Money Therapist: A Woman’s Guide to Creating A Healthy Financial Life and founder of moneywisewomen.net.  What’s more, adds Brixey, is that women generally fail to put themselves – and their financial needs – first. “We are nurturers and caregivers.  We take care of everyone else but ourselves and it hinders us later in life.”

All the while, let’s not forget that there is great news to celebrate, the fact that women, who are more independent, waiting longer to get married and start a family, who are achieving higher degrees and climbing the corporate ranks, are kicking butt on the financial front in numerous ways.  Young, single women, for example, were – before the housing burst – the largest demo of homebuyers in the country behind married couples.  They totaled 22 percent of all real estate purchases in 2006, according to the National Association of Realtors. Women are also the fastest group of entrepreneurs in the U.S.  One in ten business owners is female, according to the Small Business Administration.  And who says women are worse with stocks than men? A study by two professors at the University of California Davis found that women’s portfolios performed 1.4% better than men’s. Why? Well, as it turns out, being too bold doesn’t always pay off in the investment world. “We hypothesized men would trade more actively than women because of their greater overconfidence in trading ability…and this trading would hurt their returns. We were exactly right,” says Terrance Odean, co-author of the UC Davis study.

It is most essential that women receive sound, positive money advice now, especially in these haggard economic times.  Without some practical and encouraging financial R&R now, this population of smart, savvy and ambitious women will be more prone to debt, more likely to ignore saving or investing and ultimately fail achieving longer-term financial goals, like having children, buying a home, and maybe attending graduate school.  And since they outlive men by an average seven years, it’s relatively important that women achieve financial freedom as soon as possible, for as long as possible. 

There is such a thing as paying off debt, saving for the golden years and living well at the same time.  In fact, the time to do so couldn’t be better. Remember, that while consumers are getting pinched, businesses are struggling, too.  It’s actually an opportune time to buy a house, invest and shop. Yes, shop.  Many retailers and banks will offer discounts, even if not advertised, all for the sake of making money. What’s needed now is some added financial awareness and a dose of self-confidence. After all, says Brixey, “when women start to take action…and once they set [financial] goals they’re well on their way.”  The rest, as they say, is in the bag – be it Prada, Coach or sweetly discounted from T.J. Maxx. The choice is yours.

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