Jane Caro: Forget fairytales and get savvy on your financial situation - Women's Agenda

Jane Caro: Forget fairytales and get savvy on your financial situation

Once upon a time marrying well was virtually the only financial hope a woman had. Now as Jane Caro writes, the riskiest investment you can make is handing your financial future over to a man.

There are a number of villains in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. All of them, except Mr Collins and Mr Wickham, are women.

Most of them richly deserve their lashing at the pointy end of Austen’s satirical pen but I would like to say a word in defence of one of the worst of them – Lizzie Bennett’s foolish, vulgar, mercenary and embarrassing mother.

In my opinion, the real villain in the Bennett family is not Lizzie’s mother. It is her lazy, indifferent, useless father.

Due to the Bennett estate being curtailed to the male line, Mrs Bennett knows that when her husband dies, she and her daughters will have no source of income and nowhere to live. Despite exposing herself to ridicule and censure (up yours Mr Darcy), she takes her parental responsibilities seriously and does whatever it takes to see her daughters safely married. Mr Bennett, on the other hand, abdicates all responsibility, gently mocks his wife and retreats to the high moral ground – namely his study. He even has to be cajoled into visiting Mr Bingley! Frankly, despite Austen’s affection for him, I have no time for him at all.

Austen is writing at a time in history when a man really was a financial plan. In fact, marrying well was virtually the only financial hope a woman had. Austen herself – who never married – lived with her widowed mother and unmarried sister on the charity of her wealthiest brother. Her books didn’t really earn her much money until after she died, but at least they were an attempt at supporting herself. The Brontes were forced to hire themselves out as miserable, resentful governesses, until the success of Jane Eyre gave them some independence.

This idea that marriage is the only legitimate way for women to seek financial security has lasted long past its use-by date. I believe it is still a major reason why many women persist in leaving their financial affairs to the blokes in their lives, even if they earn well and are fiercely independent in every other area. Many of us (and I include myself here) claim to find financial stuff boring but is this just an excuse? After all, cleaning the bathroom is boring but its still mostly women who do it. Why do we still leave the only potentially profitable chores to our male partners? Research from the Financial Planning Association indicates that only 20% of Australian women aged between 18 and 55 have sought professional financial advice, which means a terrifying 80% of us have not.

I can’t help wondering if our reluctance to engage with financial matters is oddly related to the resurgence in young women taking their husband’s name when they marry. Are we still trying to placate the men in our lives? Are we trying to reassure them (or perhaps ourselves) that we are not really the big, strong confident women we appear to be at work but fond, gentle, little wives in what appears to be the still regressive arena of the marital home? Are we still terrified of being seen as emasculating if we come on too strong? If so, according to the same Financial Planning Association research, it’s working. Men are much more likely to say they are happy with what they have achieved in life than women are – 49% to 35%.

Unfortunately our reticence about money costs too many of us a great deal. I have known far too many women who, when their marriages fell apart, found they knew nothing of their financial situation and so were very vulnerable when it came to the division of assets. Many now live financially constrained lives. They are angry, alright, but it is too late now.

One of the reasons I agreed to be the Financial Planning Association’s 2016 Ambassador for Financial Planning Week was to encourage women to take control of their own financial future and the earlier, the better. This does not mean you can’t have a joint bank account, if you have a partner, but it does mean you need to know what is in it and how your funds are invested. It doesn’t mean you suddenly have to be fascinated by the complicated fluctuations of the financial market, but it does mean you need to find yourself some good, professional advice – you can find certified financial planners via the FPA (http://fpa.com.au/about-financial-planning/dare-to-dream-campaign/). It doesn’t mean you have to become a high-flying investor, either. FPA research indicates women tend to be quite conservative and risk averse financially and a good financial adviser should take your comfort level into account. If they don’t, find another.

Tragically, as Mrs Bennett (and far too many women today) discovered to her detriment, the riskiest investment you can ever make is to assume that you can hand over your financial future to a man.

Jane Caro is a 2016 Ambassador for the Financial Planning Association’s Financial Planning Week.

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