A Feast of Financial Seminars

Which offer women the most?

On a June evening at Founders Hill Brewing Co. in the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, Ill., Lisa Kueng ticked off sobering facts to some 50 working women. "The average age of widowhood is 56," she said, "and 25% of all women go through their husband's benefits in two months."

Breaking the silence that ensued, Kueng, who presents the "Smart Women Finish Rich" seminars for Van Kampen Investments, assured the women that they can take steps to prevent financial crises. Over the next hour, she gave tips on money management, from calculating net worth to boosting savings. Afterward, Suzanne Sterr, 38, a part-time nurse from Lisle, Ill., vowed to increase contributions to her tax-deferred retirement plan. "This really opened my eyes," she said.

A decade ago, investing seminars geared to women barely existed. Today, they're all the rage, thanks to a financial services industry eager to offer such events free or at minimal cost as a way to cultivate new business. Also contributing to the trend: Women of all ages and incomes increasingly are seeking information to help them make smart money moves. "I call it the New Feminism," says Alison Winter, who oversees women's seminars for wealthy clients at Northern Trust, a Chicago-based bank. "Freedom for women today means financial independence."

Exactly how good is the financial advice at these sessions? To find out, BusinessWeek reporters attended nearly two dozen women's investment seminars in the past three months. We played investing games with chocolate kisses at a Charles Schwab (SCH ) office in Staten Island, N.Y. We nibbled watercress and tomato sandwiches after Salomon Smith Barney experts talked stocks at a tony Fifth Avenue boutique in Manhattan. We heard TIAA-CREF speakers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor urge young women to start saving for retirement.

Our conclusion: The seminars are by and large useful. They're a terrific way to bone up on the basics or acquire more advanced knowledge on such topics as estate planning. To help you find a seminar suited to your level, we have assembled a list of programs from 20 groups (table). In addition to rating each seminar for beginner, intermediate, and advanced investors, the list offers contact information, locations and cost, and summarizes content.

How do seminars for women differ from those targeting retirees and other groups? In content, we found little difference, especially at the beginner level. The seminars tend to cover a broad array of topics important to any investor. Many provide worksheets to help you calculate net worth, gauge risk tolerance, and allocate assets. Fidelity Investments, for instance, reports high attendance by women at its seminars but sees no need to hold seminars just for women.

What sets the all-women seminars apart is their message. Virtually all stress the importance of women taking charge of their finances, whether or not they're married. The seminars also urge women to make the most of their assets, because they tend to earn less money than men and take time off from the workplace to raise children.

You can find similar advice in investment books and on the Web. But women often favor seminars because the learning is up-close and personal. "Many women prefer to learn in a group setting where they can bond; they like to hear about each others' experiences," says Barbara Fallon-Walsh, who oversees Vanguard Group's women's seminars, which began 18 months ago.

HARD TO FIND. Women we met at the sessions told us they appreciated the nurturing environment, as well as the general absence of men. "You want to be able to ask dumb questions and not feel men will be snickering behind your back," Carol Mateen, a 51-year-old nurse from New Rochelle, N.Y., commented at a recent AARP seminar.

Surprisingly, we never saw a financial services firm blatantly plug its products. In fact, some seminar sponsors go out of their way to make sure attendees aren't subjected to sales pitches. For instance, AARP asks the financial planners and securities brokers who teach its seminars to sign an agreement that they won't push products.

Sponsors typically get out the word about their seminars by inviting clients to events and asking them to bring a friend. However, you can often get on a mailing list for upcoming women's events if you call a local brokerage or mutual-fund office. Keep in mind that some seminars, such as those sponsored by Vanguard and TIAA-CREF, are open only to the employees of companies, universities, and other organizations that use the sponsor's retirement planning services.

Our biggest complaint: Not every firm makes it easy to find out about upcoming seminars. We contacted American Express (AXP ) and OppenheimerFunds; neither could find us a seminar to attend in a two-month period. The reason: Local financial advisers stage seminars on behalf of both companies, so the events aren't tracked at a central location.

Wealth may be required to gain entree to the most sophisticated seminars. Mellon Private Asset Management targets investors with at least $1 million in investable assets. Its women's seminars often feature high-profile financial experts. In May, attorney Natalie Choate spoke to some 70 women about retirement planning at a Mellon seminar in Manhattan. Northern Trust (NTRS ), J.P. Morgan (JPM ), and Salomon Smith Barney (C ) similarly offer seminars aimed at affluent women.

Not all events are sponsored by financial companies. One of our favorites, held in San Francisco, was offered by a women's investment club called Chicks Laying Nest Eggs. The seminar provides extremely useful information on how to analyze a company's prospects by reading its financial statements.

The best seminars were entertaining and informative. A clear winner was a TIAA-CREF event in June that drew about 35 women of all ages at the University of Michigan. "The consultants were smart, funny, and knowledgeable, and the information relevant," our reviewer said. "The hour passed before I knew it."

PACE VARIES. We were less impressed by a Salomon Smith Barney event in Manhattan. Our reviewer could barely keep up with a rushed presentation on technical analysis, the study of financial markets based on such arcane factors as trading volume and past price movements.

Sometimes, the pace seemed too slow. Our reviewer gave high marks overall to an AARP seminar consisting of four, two-hour sessions at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. But she thought the first session, devoted largely to outlining the course content, could have offered more substance.

Online seminars also are an option. We especially liked one at MsMoney.com. "The written material is very detailed," our reviewer found, "and the calculators, quizzes, and other interactive features add a lot of value."

Seminars can be a fun way to learn about finances. But their real value is in inspiring participants to focus on money matters long after the event ends.

By Susan Scherreik

With Pallavi Gogoi in Chicago and bureau reports

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