Girls' Night Out With A Focus On Finance

When Marie Berk's neighbor, Louann McCurdy, asked her to join a small group of women to discuss personal-finance issues regularly, Berk jumped at the chance. Although she had no interest in the subject and left all of her family's money decisions to her husband, Berk looked forward to it as a girls' night out. "I saw it as one night a month without my children," says Berk, 39, a stay-at-home mother of four who lives outside Toronto.

But after Berk read the first personal-finance book the group recommended, she got interested in taking financial control. Her first action: doubling her husband's life-insurance coverage. "Now, my husband's nose is really out of joint, because I want to know everything," says Berk.

While she could easily have tapped any number of resources, it was the comfortable, interactive, and social environment of Berk's women's group that got her interested in learning about personal finance. "Our group is a stimulating, safe, and easy place to learn--and I can ask dumb questions," explains Berk.

But her group is different than the typical investment club. The members don't pool their money to invest jointly in group-researched stocks. Instead, Berk, McCurdy, 41, and Liz Stewart, 40, and Jane Corrigan, 39, both full-time high school teachers with two children apiece, come together to discuss such topics as attitudes about money, how household funds are spent, and how investment decisions are made. "We're all at different levels of risk and knowledge about finance and investing," says McCurdy, a part-time engineer and mother of three who launched the group. "While we talk about stocks or other investment opportunities, we will invest independently."

These four Canadian women may be in the forefront of a new trend. Women often learn best in groups but may feel uncomfortable restricting their discussions to stockpicking. By agreeing to broaden their scope and not commit themselves to investing as a group, these women are able to address their own financial needs and learn at their own pace.

The one thing all of the group's members agree on is the need to set up household budgets. After the group was formed, that was project No. 1. Beyond that, however, the group gets much more free-form. Every month, each woman completes a homework assignment and reports on her progress. Because everyone's needs are different, each picks a topic of personal interest. Last month's assignment for Corrigan, for example, was to open an online brokerage account, a longtime goal. She did, and recently bought her first stock via the Web. "Working as a group has forced me to learn about investing instead of procrastinating," says Corrigan. Stewart, meanwhile, has often thought about buying investment real estate. Her assignment was to start looking at investment opportunities. She is now scouring the Toronto area for deals.

Berk choose to read a popular personal-finance book by David Chilton, The Wealthy Barber (Prima, $14). The book taught her that her family was underinsured. "It was a real eye-opener," she says. For one April meeting, she photocopied a questionnaire from another personal-finance book and asked the members and their spouses to fill it out. The goal: to change the dialogue about money with their spouses.

McCurdy, who is a savvy online investor and manager of her household investments, had to update her will. She also had to follow and present a stock to the group. And she and Corrigan invested separately in Infowave Software, a Canadian company that soared and then hit the skids along with many other technology stocks.

Nonetheless, McCurdy is encouraging the other members to invest in the stock market. But she has also found it comforting to have the support of the group. "With Nasdaq crashing lately, we have all been commiserating together," she says.

Over the long haul, McCurdy hopes to earn enough money in the stock market to make up for the income she loses by not working full time. "As we get older and accrue wealth, it becomes more important to manage it properly," she says. Having a group of friends to lean on for knowledge and support makes the task a whole lot easier.

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