On Wall Street

Investing and the Single Woman: Vast numbers of single women can use your help. But do you know how to build a lasting relationship?

April 1, 2004

All of us work with a diversity of clients: couples and singles, old and young, middle class and wealthy, parents and non-parents, gays and heterosexuals, men and women. Each of these characteristics, along with individual nuances, affects our clients' investment styles. Single women, especially those who never have married or been in a committed relationship, are a unique group of investors. As of the 2002 census, this group was as much as 25 percent of the U.S. female population over age 15.

A cursory look at the psychology of single women suggests that many may not be the easiest of investors with whom to work. Like most women, and in contrast to men, never-married women tend to be conservative, less confident investors with a low risk tolerance. Being single, they are more financially vulnerable, leading to even more fiscal restraint.

Compared to men, women -- who live seven years longer, on average, and have higher health-care costs -- have greater financial needs, and this is especially true of single women. It simply costs more to live without another adult's contributions and shared benefits. In fact, sociologist Dr. Linda Waite -- in her book, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially -- found that married people have more than twice as much money, on average, as unmarried people.

Having less money, single women likely will play it safe. In fact, single women are much more risk averse than married couples. (For evidence of their risk aversion, read a report by Vickie L. Bajtelsmit at www.aria.org/rts/proceedings/1999/risk_aversion.htm). As investors, women tend to be less experienced, less knowledgeable, and less confident than their male counterparts. They ask more questions and take more time to make decisions.

Given all these caveats, why should a financial advisor seek out single women as clients? The potential of a loyal, rewarding long-term relationship is one strong reason. Like most women, the never-married often are simply looking for someone they can trust and who listens well to their concerns. In her book Prince Charming Isn't Coming: How Women Get Smart about Money, Barbara Stanny points out that when women first hire an advisor, they may be anxious to hand over the responsibility of managing their money. They look to the advisor to take care of them. When a woman begins a relationship, she is expecting that it will last.

For advisors, this poses a challenge. You must be careful not to take over completely. If you try to take on the role of "Prince Charming," you can lose the partnership that's necessary to work effectively with your client.

Building lasting trust takes time. You need to educate your client to understand her investment options and the risks and rewards associated with them. Explain why she must protect herself over a long life span and how diversification and risk-taking reward the long-term investor. Present materials in small pieces and be willing to repeat yourself. Be patient and give her time to make decisions. You are helping your single client to care for herself as an independent person.

To that end, support your client's existing financial strengths and encourage her to pay attention to her intuition and analytic skills. Respect her values and her interests, reminding her that low turnover is a healthy trait, usually leading to higher returns.

Since many women find it difficult to fire an advisor, you may need to help new clients leave an existing advisor relationship. And if your client is about to enter a marriage or a committed relationship, support her in keeping her financial independence -- to think like a "single" whether she is one or not.

When your client feels empowered and respected, she will find little reason to leave your relationship. Rather than seeing herself as financially alone, she will know that you are an integral part of her support team.

Sharon Rich, Ed.D., is president of WOMONEY (Sharon.rich@womoney.com), a fee-only financial planning firm in the Boston area that focuses on the needs of women and their families.

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Dr. Sharon Rich