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Dollars & Sense

In today’s anxious financial climate, these savvy women are helping educate and empower women to take control of their money.

By Susan Josephs
Winter 2011

As a young girl, Galia Gichon witnessed her parents’ divorce and never forgot what her mother told her. “She said you always have to make sure that you’ll be able to take care of yourself. And she helped me open my first passbook savings account,” recalls Gichon.

Barbara Stanny, on the other hand, grew up with parents who never discussed money. When it came to finances, her father, Richard Bloch, who co-founded the famous tax preparation and financial planning firm H & R Block, would tell her not to worry. “In his mind, making and managing money was a man’s job. So the only thing I learned about money growing up was how to spend it,” she says.

Today, Gichon, 40, and Stanny, 63, share a similar calling: Both are financial experts who specialize in educating and empowering women to take control of their money. Based in Connecticut, Gichon runs an independent financial advice firm called Down to Earth Finance, which attracts a largely female clientele, while Stanny, who lives in Port Townsend, Wash., has built a prominent career as a personal money coach, motivational speaker and best-selling author.

Together with an increasing number of Jewish women, they have carved out their own distinct paths in the field of personal finance.

While some worked their way up through Wall Street firms, others, such as journalist Beth Kobliner, followed in the footsteps of Sylvia Porter, a Jewish woman who became the first prominent female financial writer in the United States. Some initially pursued other careers and became financial experts out of necessity and traumatic personal experience. What they tend to have in common is the ability to translate technical jargon and sophisticated financial concepts into easy-to-understand messages about fiscal responsibility, personal finance and women’s empowerment. And in today’s precarious economic climate of unemployment and stock market volatility, where the U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that 46.2 million people live below the poverty level, their highly relevant messages have brought them additional clients and increasing recognition.

 “Tumultuous markets mean a windfall in our practice,” says Saly A. Glassman, a nationally recognized financial planner who runs an all-female wealth management team at Merrill Lynch’s Blue Bell, Pa., office that serves 600 families and handles more than $3 billion in assets. “People look for a guiding light, for leaders that can help them through tough times. And while I often kid around about this, I do say that if you want a job done right, then send a woman.”

"We’re still stuck in the psychological syndrome of men needing to be the main financial giver
of the family, even though more and more women are becoming that.” –Suze Orman

A career in finance, in fact, might just be an ideal vocation for women, observes Annamaria Lusardi, a professor of accountancy and economics at the George Washington University School of Business, who has conducted research on women and financial literacy. “I sometimes speculate whether we’d be in this terrible financial mess if there weren’t more women in finance. They’re less likely to be overconfident when making investment decisions, plus I really believe they care not just about their own financial well-being, but the financial well-being of others,” she says.

That might explain why Suze Orman, arguably the field’s most famous Jewish female financial guru, continues to expand a brand that includes nine New York Times best-selling books, a new television show called America’s Money Class with Suze Orman, now running on the Oprah Winfrey Network, and a product line that includes an identity protector, an insurance evaluator and a new prepaid debit card. And in her latest book, The Money Class: Learn to Create Your New American Dream, she addresses the realities of a struggling economy, tailoring her financial advice to those who’ve lost their jobs and can no longer afford to buy their own homes.

“People can feel the 30 years I’ve been doing this,” says Orman, now 60, of her success. “They know I care, and they feel I’m one of them. I grew up with nothing; I’ve sat behind a desk and lost people’s money and I’ve had my own credit card debt. So when people see me, it gives them hope.”

Having spent decades dispensing tough-love advice to legions of female fans, Orman believes that “women are much more informed about money than they were 10 years ago. But single women have a financial edge over women in relationships with men. We’re still stuck in the psychological syndrome of men needing to be the main financial giver of the family, even though more and more women are becoming that,” she observes.

Orman has paved the way for newcomers such as 34-year-old Amanda Steinberg, who founded the online publication DailyWorth in 2009 after confronting a personal financial crisis and sought to hold herself “publicly accountable.” Targeted toward women in their 30s and 40s, DailyWorth has more than 150,000 subscribers and raised more than $1 million in capital. Modeled after the successful lifestyle website Daily Candy, it sends daily newsletters to readers’ inboxes with practical tips on budgeting, earning, spending, saving and investing.

“I thought the email model would make sense to women who knew they needed these tips, but didn’t necessarily want to read them. So sending an email to their inbox is like putting a scale in the bathroom,” says Steinberg, who lives in Philadelphia and commutes to the DailyWorth offices in New York City.

"If women are really going to change the world and make a difference,
they need to understand money." –Barbara Stanny

Raised by a single mother who instilled in her the drive to be financially independent, Steinberg graduated from Columbia University with a degree in urban planning and architecture and became a successful Web developer and entrepreneur. By her early 30s, she earned some $200,000 a year, but struggled to pay her mortgage. “I realized it was wrong that I was making so much money but unable to afford my life, and I no longer wanted to hide my woes with money,” she says.

By offering financial information on “a mass scale,” Steinberg believes she’s distinguishing her brand from other personal finance resources and services. “There’s never been a money publication geared toward women like this,” she says. “Plus, we’re in the middle of a massive cultural shift. There’s this recognition now that women are thinking about the economy beyond the best laundry detergent to buy. It’s about their needing to understand the difference between Fidelity and Vanguard when choosing a retirement plan.”

Women, however, continue to demonstrate strikingly lower levels of financial literacy than men, according to Lusardi. In recent studies that she and fellow economist Olivia Mitchell conducted in eight countries, including the United States, women were less likely to correctly answer three basic questions about bank accounts, inflation and the stock market, regardless of age and geographic location. “But women were almost more likely to admit that they didn’t know the answer—that rather than guessing the answer, they’re admitting their lack of knowledge,” says Lusardi, who also directs the Financial Literacy Center, a joint venture of Dartmouth College, the Wharton School and the Rand Corporation.

Lusardi sees a clear link between her research and the growing number of women who’ve found success as personal finance experts. “My findings show that women are ideal targets for financial education,” she says. “But we also have to recognize that there are differences in how men and women deal with finance, and there are different ways to become financially knowledgeable. And in my view, women haven’t had the same access to this knowledge as men.”

Stanny, for example, spent the first part of her adulthood “feeling stupid” about money. “Money is what women’s lib forgot to tell us about. It’s our last frontier, because if women are really going to change the world and make a difference, they need to understand money,” she says.

After earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology, Stanny worked as a counselor and journalist. She also married a man who essentially gambled away her inheritance and “I let him do it. I signed whatever he wanted me to sign. Whenever I saw something financial, my eyes just glazed over,” she recalls.

Stanny realized she needed to end her marriage the day she went to an ATM to withdraw $60 and discovered an empty bank account. After divorcing, she received tax bills for more than $1 million and decided to ask her father for help. “He said no and I can tell you, after years of therapy, that this was the best thing he could have done for me,” she says.

"Because for most women, their relationship with money isn’t just in their head;
it’s in their heart and soul.” –Barbara Stanny

With three young children to support, Stanny resolved “to get smart” about money. She began taking classes and, as a journalist, decided to interview financially successful women about their own money management methods. The interviews led to her first best-selling book, Prince Charming Isn’t Coming: How Women Get Smart About Money, followed by Overcoming Underearning and Secrets of Six-Figure Women. She also developed a series of seminars and coaching methods designed to encourage women to explore their deep-rooted attitudes and beliefs about money before working on concrete goals. “I call this tunneling,” says Stanny. “I help women see what’s holding them back. Because for most women, their relationship with money isn’t just in their head; it’s in their heart and soul.”

While Stanny had to teach herself about money as an adult, Kobliner can trace her career success to absorbing her parents’ Depression-era spending habits as a child growing up in Queens, N.Y. “My parents came of age during the Great Depression, and they would wait 15 years to buy nice furniture and 25 years to go on a big trip to Europe,” she recalls. “But they taught me lessons that seem so fundamental and so foreign today, like the value of living beneath your means, avoiding debt and saving.”

Kobliner studied literature at Brown University and, after graduating, assisted Sylvia Porter with her syndicated column. She discovered a knack for “understanding information that can easily confuse and overwhelm people and being able to explain concepts in a simple way. That’s the most important skill I bring to the table,” she observes.

In her 25 years as a New York-based journalist, Kobliner published the best-selling Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties, became a financial expert for young adults, appeared on Sesame Street with Elmo to teach children about sound money habits and was appointed to President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability last fall. “My biggest challenge now is seeing how many people are suffering in this economy and figuring out how I can be most helpful to them,” she says. “Young women today have it particularly hard. Many are moving back home with Mom and Dad, putting off marriage and having kids, and giving up on their dream jobs. I find that young women are more educated and self-sufficient than ever, but faced with more difficult circumstances.”

The challenge of helping others navigate the turmoil of the current economic crisis spurred Glassman, 53, to write It’s About More Than the Money: Investment Wisdom for Building a Better Life. Published last year, it draws upon Glassman’s three decades of experience at Merrill Lynch and emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility in the realm of financial planning. “After things started blowing up in the fall of 2008, what really got to me was how everyone wanted to blame someone for what happened. I got really disgusted by this,” she says.

Recently ranked by Barron’s magazine as the No. 1 female financial adviser in the country, Glassman grew up in Philadelphia playing sports with the boys in her neighborhood. “While I don’t think that necessarily prepared me for a career in financial services, this taught about me about collaboration, how to be persuasive and how to win,” she observes.

Fascinated by human behavior and the type of person that others would approach to help solve problems, Glassman studied psychology at Cornell University and, after graduating, took the advice of her father, who told her she belonged in a brokerage house. She wound up with two job offers and decided to work at Merrill Lynch on the condition “that the firm’s value system aligned with mine, which boiled down to three simple things: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal.”

Glassman credits her success to taking a substantial professional risk as a young stockbroker in the early 1980s, when “all you had was a phone, a desk, a Cole’s Directory and a bunch of products you tried to sell people. To me, this was like calling someone up and telling them, ‘Hey, I have this new antibiotic and I don’t know much about your body, but I have a feeling this drug will be perfect for you.’ It didn’t align with my value system,” she recalls.

After persuading her boss to let her develop her own “client-focused brand,” Glassman interviewed potential clients about their lives before drawing up comprehensive and individualized retirement plans. “I was vigilant and unyielding in this approach, and my business soon went ballistic,” she says.

Unlike Glassman, who has spent her entire career at one company, Gichon worked for several Wall Street firms, including Nomura Securities, Bear Stearns and Institutional Investor, before starting her own business. At these companies, she developed her talent “for taking concepts such as debt service coverage ratio and explaining them to clients in a way they could understand. I also had a mentor at Nomura who really helped me,” she recalls. “You had to be tough and scrappy there, but I never felt any gender barriers.”

Working at Bear Stearns, however, “was tough. I was part of the mortgage-backed securities area, and people often described it as a shark tank,” she recalls. “But I don’t look at that time as a negative experience…it taught me that I wanted more of a balance in my life.”

Gichon started writing a business plan for her own company while getting her MBA at Fordham University. “I didn’t want to be associated with a bank, and I knew I wanted to focus on helping women take charge of their cash flow and investments,” she says.

Currently celebrating the 10th anniversary of Down to Earth Finance, Gichon echoes many of her peers, observing she’s ultimately in this business “because I can see the difference I’m making in people’s lives. Someone will tell me, ‘I heard you speak five years ago and because of that, I’ve saved $20,000.’ Or, ‘I never would have bought my house if it wasn’t for you,’” she says. “And then people will say, ‘Thank you so much.’”

 Susan Josephs is a freelance writer who lives in Venice, Calif.

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