Women and Money: Slaying Stereotypes and Facing Reality

Do women need specialized personal-finance resources specific to our gender? That's what some financial advice books seem to imply. Slate writer Hannah Seligson points out that bookseller Amazon.com has a “money management for women” category, but no category specifically for men.

Some of the cheekier titles in the category include:

There seems to be a general theme around spending. Even as I was writing this post I saw an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where, to cover up his own overspending, Raymond blames his wife Debra for compulsive spending.

“I see the ways she dresses, and takes the kids to the mall,” says Raymond's mother right before pointing out Debra's “very nice outfit.” Everyone believes Ray's story that Debra is a compulsive shopper. But, in the end, it's Debra who stays up late to balance the checkbook and fix the family finances.

“And do you know why I do it, even though I really hate it?” she asks Raymond.

“Because you're an adult, and if it wasn't for you, all of this would be a big smoking crater,” he says. And that's true in many families. (It used to be true in J.D.'s family, for example.)

It's a prevalent stereotype that women love to shop, shop, shop — but is there any truth to it?

Not according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The survey measures the spending habits of U.S. consumers and includes data on expenditures, income, and demographic characteristics. Data shows that women and men spend about the same amount on wants — they just spend their discretionary funds differently. Women tend to spend more on their clothing than men, while men spend more on restaurants, audio/visual gadgets, and transportation.

Men vs. Women: Shopping Addiction
What about true shopoholics, or those with compulsive buying behavior? (Compulsive buying is characterized by uncontrolled urges to buy, and by adverse consequences from doing so.) Earlier studies have shown that compulsive buying affects from 1.8% to 16% of the adult U.S. population, with 90% of compulsive shoppers being women. (I was unable to locate the original studies citing these statistics — they seem to be widely reported without the original source listed. And, yes, that range from 1.8% to 16% is huge.)

In 2006, Dr. Lorrin Koran, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, conducted a nationwide random-sample household telephone survey. Over 2500 people rated their spending habits on a Compulsive Buying Scale. The study found that more than 5% of adults are compulsive buyers, and the incidence of compulsive buying behavior was similar between men and women (6% for women, 5.5% for men).

Where women are falling behind
The stats show that women aren't as flighty with their spending habits as commonly believed. At least, they're no more so than men. So what accounts for the female-focused personal finance advice?

One area where women do fall behind is retirement. It's not that they don't save or value retirement planning. TD Ameritrade's annual survey showed that 68% of women are resolving to save more money in 2011, compared to 62% of men. The Hartford Financial Services Group released hurdles women face in retirement before. Women live longer, yet they make less over their lifetimes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median weekly earnings that were about 80% of the earnings of their male counterparts. Women also are more likely to leave the workforce to care for children or family members. It's no wonder that many women feel less confident than men about meeting retirement goals.

Given this data, shouldn't personal finance books for women address the unique retirement issues they face?

Instead of advice on how to “shoo Jimmy Choo,” I'd like to see titles that offer advice like how to take off time to raise your kids without sacrificing your retirement. What about solutions to keep the stay-at-home mom abreast of changes in her industry so she isn't behind the times if she reenters the workforce? I'd like really focused, researched information about why women are less likely to negotiate their salaries, and psychological insights about how to overcome those fears and move up the corporate ladder. (Speaking of, I also found a book called The Girl's Guide to Being a Boss without Being a Bitch, yet no counterpart seems to exist for men. Instead all I found were books on how to work for a jerk and “manage your boss.”)

Of course there are money books for women out there with less cutesy titles, but to me, the sugar-coated personal finance books reinforce stereotypes and do the women who might pick them up a real disservice. Shopping isn't a problem unique to women, but lower lifetime earnings and longer lifespans are actual issues that need careful consideration.

My position is pretty obvious by now, so I'd love to turn this over to the GRS readers. What do you think about the types of personal finance books for women mentioned in this article? Are they valuable? Also, if there are any money books for women you've read, serious or silly in tone, share the titles and your thoughts on them.

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