The quest to invest in a female future

The penny has dropped. Elaine Williams reports that women are realising they must control their own finances

Women's financial outlook is vastly different from men's - a point uppermost in the minds of the women who attended a money-management seminar in Edinburgh earlier this month.

One-fifth of them were teachers. Career breaks, part-time and supply work, sessional teaching and self-employment can wreak havoc with pension prospects if women have not planned from a relatively young age. It's a grim morning when you wake up and realise your pension will buy you little more than a bunch of flowers.

Many of those attending the Women Managing Their Money seminar were looking for advice on budgeting and investments that would take them into a dignified and secure old age.

Some of the more financially prudent, like Gwen King Horn, head of an Edinburgh secondary school, who al-ready owns shares and PEPs and pays additional voluntary contributions to her pension, were seeking confirmation that they were on the right track. They also wanted a method of assessing "the bewildering array of financial products currently on the market".

Others, like Carol Acutt, a 52-year-old primary-school teacher and a single parent, were perhaps more typical. She said: "I've only half of what I should have at this stage in my pension fund and I've never really been in control of my budgeting, using loans to pay off loans. I'll have to work beyond 60 just to pay off my mortgage."

Ute Penny, a 40-year-old part-time German teacher at Edinburgh's Stevenson College of FE and Napier University, began to pay into a pension scheme only three years ago.

She said: "When the wrinkles started to appear, I started to worry about what I would live on. I'm not interested in money but now I have to be. I try not to go into debt but I don't really invest.

"Going to an all-women conference made it easier for me to say: 'I don't know anything and I want to know it all. I came away thinking I must take out a PEP, but with the confidence not to go for the first one pushed at me."

Anne Cowan, a recently retired teacher said: "I've never taken the least interest in the financial pages; I didn't know what a PEP was. When I was teaching, I had neither the time nor the energy to read what I was interested in, far less anything as irrelevant as investing money."

Statistics point to a potentially bleak old age for many women. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission, a third have a standard of living below the poverty line when they retire and six times more women (1.5 million) than men have to depend on state benefits in retirement.

Even a short career break can have a severe impact. Five years out of employment can reduce a woman's pension fund on retirement by up to a third, according to the financial services industry.

Margaret Mearns, one of the independent financial advisers leading the seminar, point-ed out that divorce rates had quadrupled in the past 20 years, that 36 per cent of households were now one-parent and that average life expectancy for women had risen from 52 in 1900 to 79 in 1996.

In 1960, there were four people working for every OAP; in 2020 there would only be 2.5. "I think we can safely assume that the state will not look after us in our old age," she said. Women would have to take control of their financial futures.

A sociological study of women aged 60 to 80 by the National Council of Women had asked: "What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to a younger woman today?" The response had been overwhelming: "Never believe that a man is going to be there to look after you."

Margaret Mearns said women should be prepared to restructure their finances to fulfil their personal long-term aspirations. She asks: "Have you a picture of yourself as an older woman in retirement? How do you need to plan financially to achieve that?" The audience was given a Cook's tour of the financial world: how to read the Footsie and the financial pages; PEPs; TESSAs; mortgages; pensions. But the main point of the seminar was to give sound basic advice. According to Margaret Mearns, women's financial strategies should be: * tailored to individual lifestyles;

* flexible (to cope with career breaks, changing jobs, part-time working, unemployment); and

* practical - taking account of present needs.

Judy Hume, another of the speakers, an independent financial adviser with a large teacher clientele, said it was "never too late" to take out a pension or an AVC or to start investing. Teachers, she said, were not good managers of money; they were "too interested" in their jobs. "A lot of financial advisers don't like dealing with teachers because they take so long to make decisions, but they do make loyal clients. I spend a lot of my time sorting out pension gaps for female teachers."

The seminar was set up by Antonia Swinson, a financial writer and businesswoman in Scotland who believes women are deterred from making long-term financial decisions to suit their very different needs because they feel overwhelmed by a confusing, patronising and male-dominated financial-services industry.

Sponsored by Scottish Amicable and IFA Promotion, it was an event designed to encourage women to discuss their financial fears and requirements in a relaxed atmosphere.

Mary Jennings, chair of the Money Management Council, speaking recently to the Royal Society of Arts, put the cost of financial ignorance at Pounds 39 billion a year. She said: "If you think that on average, people have about Pounds 500,000 going through their hands during the course of a working life, that's tantamount to losing Pounds 50,000 of it through mismanagement."

She said: "Consumers and the industry are poles apart. In many ways, women are more prepared than men to come to grips with their personal finance, but they are put off by the hard sell."

A second Women Managing Their Money seminar will be held in Glasgow this autumn. Inquiries: Tel 01620 843037fax 01620 892663.

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