Whether women are eager to drive their financial lives or are more inclined to take a backseat, advisors who work closely with this cohort are helping them get more comfortable and involved in planning their journeys.

In a major effort to boost the financial confidence and security of women, TIAA, a leading provider of retirement services, hosts more than 74,000 one-on-one advice sessions with women every year and has engaged with more than 15,000 through its Woman2Woman workshop series. Its Woman2Woman online community, which includes an “ask the expert” feature, logged more than 174,000 visits in 2015.

Theresa Harezlak, a financial advisor with Savant Capital Management, a Rockford, Ill.-headquartered RIA firm managing nearly $5 billion in assets for approximately 4,700 clients, emphasizes that the time for women to plan is throughout their lifetime. “There’s nothing more tragic than women who become divorced or widowed and have no idea what life will look like the next day,” she says. And 80% of the time, women do end up handling their finances, she notes. 

“The thing that curls my skin is when they say, ‘I don’t want to get involved in that, my husband does that, or I have a financial advisor who does that,’” she says. However, she finds most women want to understand what’s going on, especially when they’re alone. 

Harezlak and her colleagues try to make sure married women are part of the process and always want them to attend meetings with their spouses—which she says was uncommon when she joined the industry 28 years ago. When both people in a relationship understand what they have and what needs to be done, there are fewer arguments, she says. 

Meanwhile, single clients (women and men) must be extra vigilant, she says, with planning for long-term care and disability care. They need to make sure they can take care of themselves and understand what would happen to them if they become disabled—particularly those who work part time and lack disability insurance.

In addition to educating clients individually, Harezlak conducts workshops and teaches classes at community colleges. At Savant Capital Management’s “suddenly single” workshops, she discusses how pension and Social Security benefits can change when women are left on their own, and how this can impact their spending and financial future. 

She has also taught classes on how the financial-planning industry works, how to make one’s money last a lifetime and how women in second marriages can protect themselves and accomplish things in a positive way for each half of a couple. “We’re not trying to make them investment experts; we’re just trying to help them make good decisions,” she says. “A well-educated client is the best client,” because that client is less likely to act out of fear or greed. 

Harezlak notes that asset allocations for men and women tend to be very similar; what’s different is how they get there, even if they take the same amount of risk. “Women get there very methodically,” she says. 

Life’s Transitions

Lucila Williams, founder and president of Denver-based Lotus Financial Partners, a comprehensive planning firm that’s part of Lincoln Financial Network, is big on community building. Last year she started Graceful Transitions, a networking group of female business owners who meet monthly and invite their clients to socialize with them once a month.

Graceful Transitions enables widows, divorcees and empty nesters “to connect as human beings, network and make business connections,” she says. Women often lose social connections as they go through life’s transitions, and widows can find themselves to be “strangers in a strange land,” says Williams, who was raised by her very resourceful widowed mother. She also points out that women are great referrers.

Williams, an advisor for a dozen years, shied away from efforts to attract women clients until about two years ago because she worried it would cost her credibility in this male-dominated industry. There’s a perception that “running a practice that does serious work but has a softer touch that would appeal to women clients is a little embarrassing,” she says. “Almost like it is some sort of admission of the inability to play in the big leagues.”

But recent research shows women “are far more in charge than we realize,” she says. They make many of the buying decisions among couples, earn closer to par with men and “ultimately outlive their husbands and inherit all the money anyway,” she says.

Williams, who served in the U.S. Army for five years as a Korean linguist and completed her college degree with the GI Bill while working as a mortgage broker, integrates education into her financial-planning process. “Women tend to move a little bit slower when making decisions,” she says, and often need more education and space.

At annual meetings with clients, she reviews their risk management, wealth management and financial strategy. This includes walking them through all their insurance coverage and the documents in their “financial life organizer” binders; re-examining their risk tolerance and investment performance and evaluating choices from a tax-optimization standpoint; and rerunning their original financial plans to see if they’re reaching their goals for budgeting, investing and other aspects of their financial lives.

The number one question women clients want answered is, “Am I OK?” says Williams. “The financial planning process often helps people who are prepared, but don’t know it, live with less stress,” she says. “Widows may have a couple million in assets and a house paid off but they don’t know if they can afford groceries.” She has also done reverse mortgages for a couple of widows who receive small Social Security checks. When clients don’t have what they need, “you have to get creative sometimes,” she says.

What women are looking for, says Williams, is an advisor to listen to them. “If it’s important to them, then it’s important to our larger financial plan,” she says. Her team—which will soon include an advisor who she says is passionate about servicing widows—is continuing to expand its skill set to meet the evolving needs of clients. “There are a lot of phases and iterations to being a woman,” she says.

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