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If women aren't money-smart by now, they are being given many opportunities to become so. No matter how much women earn, or inherit, or how little they earn or have, many are seeing the necessity, in this period of high inflation, of protecting what they have and taking control of their financial affairs. A rash of investment books especially for women has appeared in bookstores, along with more money-information columns in magazines and newspapers.

More women's banks have been organized to serve the specific needs of women. Community colleges are offering more courses in money management. And brokerage houses are giving far more thought to ways to attract women investors.

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But while more women are making and investing their own money, they feel a knowledge gap. In a recent survey of working women conducted by the Investment Company Institute, about 25 percent said they lack the education to make the right decisions, are afraid to lose money, and don't know who to trust. The new courses and seminars aim to help dispel doubts, although none can guarantee the making of wise money decisions or the selection of a "dream" broker or adviser who knows all the answers.

Merrill Lynch, Fenner & Smith Inc., the nation's largest investment firm, has offered seminars to more than 65,000 women since launching its national women's program in 1976. The seminars are refined each year and now cover such topics as how to get personal financial goals, understanding the language of investing, how to select a financial adviser, retirement planning, and tax-favored investment stategies. Merrill Lynch first launched a series of "fashion and finance" seminars through department stores. It's seminar called "Financial Freedom, Taking The First Steps," is now given at breakfast sessions, for the most part, and an advanced course in investing is offered to women who complete it.

"Don't protect me. Educate me so I can protect myself," is the plea of most of the women who take these seminars. Many of the women learn for the first time that in 20 years, if inflation continues, they will need 165 percent more income than they now have just to maintain their current standard of living.

Eighteen months ago, Bache Halsey Stuart Schields Inc. began taking its own "Especially for Women" seminars around the country. A recent seminar was given in Corpus Christi, Texas, to a standing-room-only audience of 500 women, and each month the response grows. The idea of this company is to give the basic precepts of investing in clear, simple language, and to step women through the investment process so that they can understand exactly what happens to their money and how the stock market operates.

Bache has found that the apprehensions of first-time investors are essentially the same for men and women. The question that those who conduct the seminars hear most frequently is, "I only have $2,000 to invest, so do you think anyone will talk to me, or answer my questions, or return my phone calls, or will I be just brushed aside?" Reassurances are given, but no guarantees of making a connection with a nice broker who loves small investors.

E. F. Hutton & Co., which launched an early women's program about six years ago, has now withdrawn for a season to think over its approach. It is now analyzing the women's market before developing a new plan. "We discovered that there was no women's block of a market," reported the company's information department, "but that there was a great diversity of women's markets. A single girl who has but $10 extra a week to save or invest, is far different from a wealthy widow, or a mature career woman, or a housewife who is struggling to put some of her housekeeping money into a family nest egg. Not all women are looking for the same financial service, so we are looking at new means of approach."

Other brokerages have worked out appeals to women investors at local levels.

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The advice at the core of these programs is "Don't feel that money matters and investments are such complex subjects that they can never be assimilated." They recommend that a woman begin her education process and define her financial objectives. Most of them show women that no matter how little or how much she invests, she must think through and tailor an investing plan to her own age, income, and financial responsibilities.

Statistics show that, already, 50.3 percent of stockholders are women. Many want to become more knowledgeable so they can make more responsible decisions.

The US Census Bureau estimates that 85 percent of all American women who are now married will one day be living alone, because of wodowhood, separation, or divorce. This is yet another reason for women wanting to take some of the mystery out of investment planning.

Another reason for increasing concern of women with money matters is that approximately 45 percent of all marriages now end in divorce. Only 14 percent of these divorced women are awarded alimony, and but 44 percent receive child support. This means that increasing numbers of divorced or widowed women are having to provide for themselves and their children.

Because so many women have missed out on pension benefits and have put off planning for retirement, the average pension of retired women in the US today is just $80 per month. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 50 percent of American women, 65 years old or older, have incomes of less than $3,000 a year.

On the more positive side, there are 41.2 million working women who bring home paychecks totaling an estimated $390 billion each year. And women today control the spending of about half a trillion dollars a year, so they know more about money than they usually give themselves credit for.

It may be a slow process. But women are waking up to their money responsibilities and are beginning to assume some control and to search out at least some of the approaches and answers to savings, insurance, and investment programs.

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