Smith College President Ruth Simmons

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (WOMENSENEWS)–President Ruth Simmons of Smith College can point to numerous accomplishments, including a doctorate from Harvard in Romance languages. Nevertheless, she’s still intimidated by the thought of tackling her own financial management.

“I think the average person has great difficulty with this, and especially women,” Simmons said in an interview about women, money and a new Smith College course on financial literacy for women–those at least who do not make their living in the financial services industry.

“Women often have the impression that there’s something magical about numbers and that you have to be a genius to be able to understand the financial page of the newspaper or to be able to invest in securities,” Simmons said. “That’s what we learn when we’re growing up; we’re socialized that way.”

With Simmons’ strong encouragement, Smith College this fall will launch the Women’s Financial Management Program. Smith is believed to be the first women’s college in the country to offer courses in basic money management. Simmons says giving young women financial tools should be a fundamental part of their undergraduate education.

Simmons said she hopes the new program will become a model for other colleges. The program is expected over time to include online courses, outreach to high schools and community colleges and the development of a think tank devoted to a woman’s financial life cycle.

The purpose of the course is “to put in the hands of every single Smith student the confidence to know that she could make decisions about her own money–how to acquire it, how to save it and how to invest it,” said Simmons, who will be moving on to Brown University in July after six years at Smith.

53 Percent of GenX Women Say They Live Paycheck to Paycheck

A new national survey commissioned by OppenheimerFunds illuminates the need to bolster young women’s financial acumen. The study of single women between age 21 and age 34 found that 53 percent live paycheck to paycheck, compared with 41 percent of married women and 42 percent of single men.

The study, released earlier this month, also found that 54 percent of those surveyed said they would be more likely to acquire 30 pairs of shoes before they saved $30,000 for their retirement.

Bridget A. Macaskill, OppenheimerFunds chairman and chief executive officer, said that trend could put GenX women at financial risk, in part because they are likely to live longer than men, they may not work as continuously as men, their earnings may be lower than men’s in general and therefore their Social Security payments are expected to be lower.

Many young women know they need to take money matters seriously–but they are just not doing it, the report suggests.

Young women are not alone.

Numerous studies show women of all ages lag behind their male counterparts in taking control of financial decision-making.

Many experts believe the key is in better educating women about money.

Topics Include Socially Responsible Investment Strategies

The director of Smith’s new program, Mahnaz Mahdavi, said that courses offered will include personal finance, the principles of investing, risk tolerance and socially responsible investment strategies.

New data show the number of affluent women in the United States is increasing rapidly, and in the next decade more women are expected to graduate from college, said Mahdavi, an economics professor. These circumstances mean that the new Smith College program is in the right place at the right time, she added.

“We are training women to be leaders in whatever they want to be. And an essential aspect of leadership is to be able to make financial decisions,” she said.

The Women’s Financial Education Program is being funded, in part, by Goldman Sachs and Co. and by Ann Kaplan, a Smith alumna and trustee, together providing $2.5 million in seed money.

Kaplan, a partner at Goldman Sachs and Co., said numerous magazines, Web sites and books are devoted to helping people become financially literate.

But the Smith program will cover new territory, Kaplan said, noting that most business schools don’t offer undergraduates straightforward financial planning, like strategies for retirement.

Increasingly, Women Are Responsible for Families’ Financial Future

“There are a number of programs that have been developed for younger women, and there are also obviously a number of programs at the college level. And this will be the first that we’re aware of at a women’s school,” Kaplan said.

President Simmons of Smith added that women are increasingly becoming responsible for their families’ financial outlook. Simmons said the course is an effort to make sure that women are prepared to weather those periods during which their families are dependent on what women know about their financial situation.

“So it’s not just that this is kind of a nice thing to have. It’s something on which your family will have to depend, probably, at some point in your life–and so, it’s life itself,” Simmons added.

Susan Kaplan is a public radio reporter based in Amherst, Mass.

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WEnews Update

Arson Fire Destroys Church Office for Latina Services

ATLANTA (WOMENSENEWS)–Federal agents are investigating a possible hate crime in connection with the arson fire at a church building which housed a program for battered Latino women and abusive men.

The fire last Tuesday burned a building that housed Caminar Latino (Latino Journey), program coordinator Julia Perilla said in a telephone interview. The program offers services to battered women and their children, as well as intervention with their abusers, she said. The building, located in suburban DeKalb County, was owned by the Catholic Mission. Dekalb County recently has experienced an influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia.

She said investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told her that the fire was deliberately set. Since a church was targeted, federal investigators were looking into the possibility of a hate crime, she added.

The burned building also housed programs for disadvantaged Latinos and those newly arrived in the area of DeKalb County. The building contained classrooms, meeting rooms, offices and storage for food and supplies.

Perilla and others reopened their offices today in another building owned by the Catholic Mission, after receiving donations from community agencies.

“We’re setting up makeshift kinds of things in the meantime, so that we don’t stop serving the people,” Perilla said. “The women and the children count on us. So, we’re back in business.” –Laurence Pantin