It takes more than a six-figure salary, a closet full of Calvin Klein suits or a high-stakes trader's job to make a Generation X woman savvy about personal finance.

Just ask Vanessa Summers, who spent her youth as a model and five years in increasingly well-paid securities-trader positions before running smack dab into a surprising fact: Despite buying and selling millions of dollars of equities every day, Summers hadn't saved a dime. Money was no issue, and the eye-popping bonuses she received were icing on the cake.

So why no savings? Today, Summers, 31, says she was busy doing what most people her age were doing-consuming. In Hong Kong, where she worked for Jardine Fleming, that included buying Gucci and Hermes, driving a Volvo and renting a choice address. It never occurred to her that retirement was a goal that required a financial plan or desirable money habits, she says. In fact, she left the Hong Kong brokerage house just months before she would have been vested for a pension, without so much as a second thought. "I didn't understand what a retirement plan was," she says.

Just another tale of yuppie money woes? Not quite. Summers' attitude is all too representative of the 23 million Generation-X women in the United States today. In fact, more than 50% of her contemporaries say they live paycheck to paycheck and think they're more likely to accumulate 30 pairs of shoes before they accumulate $30,000 in a retirement plan, according to a new study. That is so, even though 30% of female Gen Xers earn $50,000 or more per year.

Those statistics are just the tip of the iceberg, says a study on Gen-X women and men sponsored by OppenheimerFunds, New York. The report finds that while a majority of Gen-X women (69%) believe that saving for retirement is important, less than 35% have saved even $100 in a workplace retirement plan. And fewer than 27% have saved anything, despite the fact that more than 50% have been offered an opportunity to do so by an employer.

The good news is this group of women wants to pay down its debt and begin investing. And the older the women are, the more likely they are to have started. The bad news is that a majority of them are having a hard time translating their good intentions into financial reality. Making matters worse: high debt levels, including credit-card debt with double-digit interest rates. The report, conducted for Oppenheimer by Yankelovich Partners Inc., surveyed 803 women and 402 men.

With nearly 10 years of studying women's investment habits under her belt, OppenheimerFunds CEO and Chairman Bridget A. Macaskill says it's the debt burden the study uncovered that is most troubling to her. Forty-seven percent of Gen-X women have credit-card debt (compared with 38% of men the same age). And as many as 50% of women have balances exceeding $5,000 (compared with less than 40% of men). At 18% rates, the interest alone on a $5,000 card balance is more than $150 a month. Gen-X women looking in their budgets for money to invest can focus on their credit-card costs, which is why Macaskill thinks paying down debt needs to be their No. 1 priority.

"Enlightened self-interest aside, how can you tell a 21-year-old that a 10% return is crucial when they're paying 18% in credit-card interest? It might be foolish to believe you can interest all of them in retirement planning in their early 20s, but it's very realistic to say, 'Start paying off your debt now, then start investing.'"

Macaskill says this group of women has opportunities and challenges that earlier generations just haven't had. "We know that with longer life spans and declining Social Security, this is a generation at financial risk anyway, but women will bear the brunt," she adds.

The light at the end of the tunnel? "These women know how important paying off debt (65%) and saving for retirement is (69%), but we have to get them to take action," Macaskill says. "They have plenty of time to secure their futures, but tomorrow is not too soon to start."

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