Left in the Lurch

Suddenly and unhappily, women can be thrust into the role of household financial manager after a lifetime of ignorance.

by Elicia Brown

It was hard not to be jealous: My friend, whom I’ll call Rachel, seemed to glide effortlessly through life. She radiated beauty, kindness, intelligence. While a student at a top college on the East Coast, she found love, and soon after graduation she married, later moving with her husband into a spacious home. A mutual friend informed me that her husband had founded and managed a lucrative business.

But as happens in as many as 50 percent of American marriages, the matrimonial bonds eventually began to fray. And Rachel, a mother of three in her early 40s, a part-time social worker living in one of the most expensive regions of the United States, found herself in tremendous debt with little understanding of how she’d arrived there. 

“I paid the babysitter. He was paying for almost everything else,” she says. “Financial issues were part of the divorce.”

One day, a supermarket cashier informed Rachel that the machine wouldn’t accept her credit card. Rachel pulled another card from her wallet. It didn’t work either. Neither did a third. Meanwhile, at home, Rachel discovered surprising mail: collection notices. Unbeknownst to Rachel, her husband had invested tens of thousands of dollars of their money in risky film and theater ventures, and neglected his own business. In debt, and desperate for income, he continued to take out credit in Rachel’s name, and loans against their home, even after they separated in 2009.

“I got married very young. I didn’t know much about money, and I was not very interested,” says Rachel, who was married for almost two decades. The marriage “had a very traditional division of labor,” adds Rachel. “I was happy not to make the decisions. Every now and then I’d say I want to learn more about investments and help out.” But she didn’t follow up.

No one knows exactly how many women find themselves in situations like Rachel’s – suddenly and unhappily thrust into the role of household financial manager after a lifetime of ignorance. But the numbers may continue to rise as women of the “opt-out revolution” reach middle-age and beyond. These women, primarily in the well-educated, upper-middle class families not uncommon in the Jewish community, abandoned full-time careers to focus on children and parenting. Their experiences have been documented since 2003 when the writer Lisa Belkin coined the phrase, and reported on the movement in the New York Times Magazine

“These marriages aren’t all going to work out,” says Sacha Millstone, a wealth manager at the Millstone Evans Group of Raymond James, based in Colorado. “I want [the wives] to be more fully informed about the financial impact. It’s not just a values decision. It’s a financial decision. People don’t think through the ramifications. They can’t imagine that it won’t work out the way they hope. ”Rachel sounds a similar warning: “What I learned is that it’s important to know about money. There’s an elitist view among nice Jewish families that it can’t happen to you.”

A Widow’s Tale

Divorce is just one kind of upheaval that forces women to suddenly manage their assets. Sarene Shanus experienced a cataclysm of another type when her husband of 20 years, Phillip Feuer, passed away unexpectedly of an infection in 2000. He’d undergone cardiac surgery, contracted a staph infection while in the hospital, and died a month later. At the time, Shanus was 45, working part-time, and the mother of two teenage girls.  

During the course of their marriage, Shanus had taken control of charitable matters in the household, deciding how much money to donate to which cause. Otherwise, her husband, who had been a math major at Harvard College and graduated from Harvard Business School, handled all their financial affairs.

But Feuer provided an invaluable gift before he entered the hospital. He thought Shanus should be prepared to take on the money matters during his recuperation from surgery. Shanus grabbed a yellow pad, and scrawled the names of bank accounts, online access codes and passwords; relevant information such as which accounts can only be withdrawn quarterly, and which receive higher interest; as well as where in the house she would find bank statements and credit cards. 

“If you care about the person you love, organize your finances,” says another woman whom I call Alissa, who lost her husband to pancreatic cancer a decade ago, when she was in her mid-50s, and still had a child living at home. After the death of a spouse, while dealing with grief, “I can’t imagine adding into that the chaos of finances,” says Alissa. “I don’t know how anyone does that.”

Shanus, who has a law degree, believes herself to be fortunate because, after Feuer’s death, she managed to take on his responsibilities at the family’s commercial real estate company, where they had worked together with her brother. Until that point, Shanus, also an alumna of Harvard, but with an undergraduate degree in art history, had been serving as the in-house counsel.

The extended Jewish community also sustained Shanus during the difficult months following Feuer’s death. Synagogue members fed her for two months, she says. Eventually, through her synagogue, Westchester Jewish Center, Shanus met another man. Yet even after her marriage to Harold Treiber in 2005, she didn’t abdicate her role as bill-payer. “I never gave back that function,” she says. “It’s a sign of my ability to conquer a very difficult situation. It’s part of who I am.”

Woman of Valor: Woman of Value

Given the modest role that upper-class Jewish American women played in money matters through much of the last century, one might suppose that further back in history, Jewish women were completely cut off from the world of business. 

Such is not the case.  

Archeologists have discovered documents which suggest that even 2,000 years ago, wealthy Jewish women owned property and livestock, and women on occasion lent money to their husbands, according to Jewish Women’s Archive web site, which offers an online encyclopedia of Jewish women. 

The hymn “Eishet Chayil,” which translates to “Women of Valor,” celebrates the business acumen of women. Sung by husbands to wives in observant Jewish households every Friday night, and taken from the final lines of the Book of Proverbs, the hymn praises the wife who “considers a field and purchases it,” “senses that her trade is profitable,” and “knows that her merchandise is good.” 

In contemporary times too, women in fervently Orthodox communities often act as the breadwinners, while husbands attend yeshiva, studying Jewish texts all day. Of course, even apart from this traditional world, many women handle money with ease, especially when it comes to taking charge of the domestic budgets. If the topic of investments is broached, however, American women of this century, Jewish or not, generally express less confidence than male partners.

Men don’t suffer from that “self-critical voice in their head telling them they’re not good at something,” says Millstone, who advises that women refrain from handing over the financial reigns to another person. “Don’t tell the spouse, `You do the investments.’ Look at 401K plans together. If you have a financial advisor, you both go to that meeting,” she says. “There’s nothing complicated about it. It’s not rocket science.

(Almost) All You Need to Know: In Three Easy Steps

Maybe learning rocket science would be less challenging for some women than overcoming financial ineptitude. At the very least, it would be less emotionally fraught. I should know. If anything should happen to my husband or to my marriage, I’d be lost. 

Not so many years ago, my husband Jeremy stood in our bedroom, a pile of folders in his arms. I was propped up on pillows, reading a novel. “Listen,” he said, in a stern tone we sometimes adopt when our children are likely to do anything but tune in to our words. 

I looked up.

“This is important,” Jeremy said, explaining where he would store folders containing information about life insurance, bank accounts and investments. Information I should need, in case he should die unexpectedly. I froze. “I don’t want to think about this,” I said. I returned to my book. It wasn’t until last week that we spoke about it again. Jeremy mentioned something about how “we win” if the short-term life insurance expires before he expires. “I don’t like talking about this,” I muttered.

“That’s why you don’t know where the files are,” he replied.

I am learning though. The website, “Get Your Shit Together,” includes a handy checklist of items to review with one’s spouse before a life (or death) event gets in the way. I’ve printed it out, and I scheduled a “money date” with my husband, at the suggestion of Galia Gichon, the author of “My Money Matters,” a boxed set of financial cards and workbooks, and an educator at Down To Earth Finance.

She also suggests that spouses swap money duties occasionally to better understand the responsibilities involved. 

Ronit Rogoszinski, a financial planner for 25 years in New York City, says she tries “to educate women before these things happen,” and focuses on three areas:

First, says Rogoszinski, you should track cash flow. You need to know “what’s coming in, and where is it going out.” For example, you want to understand where the money is going, how much is allocated to food, clothing, electricity, gas, home insurance and health insurance. 

Second, discuss with your partner what happens if “you’re not here anymore? What happens if I’m not?”  Discuss wills, power of attorney, life insurance, disability insurance, financial advisors and bank accounts.

Third, understand your investments. Learn how they work, and what plans are in place for retirement. 

“Those three steps – that’s 99 percent of what you need to know,” says Rogoszvinski.

Ivy Menchel, who holds a special certification as a divorce financial analyst, stresses the importance of one other preventative measure to allow women (and men) control over their financial situation: pre-nuptial arrangements. She says, “It’s easier to come up with an agreement when everyone is happy and getting along.”

Moving On

Of course, even if a marriage turns rocky or a bread-winning husband passes away in his prime, that doesn’t mean that a woman – even one who has largely left the workforce — won’t find her way back to firm financial footing.

Take Rachel, for example. Five years after her separation, Rachel no longer worries about mountains of debt. She’s traded in her expensive home for a smaller one. She’s sold jewelry, silver and “worked like a dog,” taking on a job as an art counselor so her children could go to camp. She’s grateful for her parents’ generosity. And she’s also switched careers. These days she’s more focused on high-rise developments than developmental disabilities. She’s selling real estate. She’s making a living. 

I ask if there’s any advice she’d like to impart. She doesn’t hesitate:

  1. Keep an ongoing dialogue about money with your spouse.
  2. Keep some money in your own name.
  3. Sign a prenuptial agreement.

“We all kind of think, `Oh it couldn’t happen to me,’” says Rachel. “`I went to a good college. I married a nice guy from a nice family.’ But it can happen to you.” 

Seven Essential Retirement Planning Questions

“It’s never too late to take charge of your money,” says Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI vice president of programs and new initiatives. She has spearheaded JWI’s financial literacy training for teens and young women, and recently, in response to requests, organized two financial empowerment sessions for older women in the Washington, D.C. area. Guest speaker Talya Bock, a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch, encouraged the women attending to face down their fears in order to think about and constructively plan for their retirement years.

Even if you are years away from retirement, here are some essential questions that Rosenbloom recommends you consider and then discuss with your financial professional: 

  1. Are all my financial papers in order?
  2. How much money will I actually need for retirement?
  3. When should I plan to take social security?
  4. How can I plan a legacy for my family and/or causes that reflect my values?
  5. How do I talk to my partner and my adult children about my plans?
  6. How can I protect myself from inflation and market risks?
  7. Am I covered for the health and medical needs I may encounter?

“The answers are out there. A financial advisor can help you figure them out,” she says.

Elicia Brown is a freelance writer who lives in Manhattan.