Single, Jobless...And Solvent

When I hung up from my interview with Mariann Cone, a 49-year-old former marketing executive from La Grange, Ga., one thought came to mind: What a model for women facing seemingly insurmountable financial woes. Last year, Cone's 26-year marriage ended in divorce, and she lost her $80,000-a-year manufacturing company job, along with the tuition reimbursement she was counting on to finish her undergraduate business degree and go on to an MBA.

With her son's college expenses to pay and a mortgage to cover, Cone's situation could have easily put her over the financial edge. Instead, she is meeting her monthly expenses and remaining in school until she gets her bachelor's degree in May. Then she will be ready to relocate for whatever job comes her way. What's more, she has managed to do all of this without touching her savings or retirement money.

Cone is one of the lucky ones. Single women comprise the fastest-growing segment of the population in bankruptcy. Indeed, the percentage of single women filing for personal bankruptcy rose sharply, from 17% of all filers in 1981, to nearly 40% in 1999, according to Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor and co-author of The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt (Yale University Press, $17.95). "We aren't talking about the chronically poor," says Warren, who adds that more than half of these women filers have college and graduate degrees and have been homeowners.

What's going on? According to Warren, the story has two parts. Women who are heading households have lower incomes, less secure jobs, and bigger medical bills than men, and they're raising the children. "They are economically fragile to begin with," she says, and when hit with a major life crisis they lose financial stability. Then credit-card companies and other lenders target them, "load them up with debt that they can never repay, and milk them for years, until the women finally give up in exhausted resignation," says Warren.

Cone could easily have become a bankruptcy statistic. Instead, she was able to avoid catastrophe by making herself money-smart. During most of her marriage, although she wrote out the household checks, "I had no clue about money," she says. But about five years ago, when her marriage started to deteriorate, Cone realized that "sooner or later, I would have to depend on myself." So she set out to establish a financial identity, opening her own checking and money-market accounts, applying for credit cards, and establishing an individual retirement account.

Next, Cone hired her own stable of professionals--a financial adviser, an accountant, an attorney, and a real estate agent. It's important to have already developed a rapport and trust with each professional, says Cone, "because the midst of a crisis is not a good time to start trying to put together a network." When she lost her job just six months after getting divorced, Cone immediately called on each of her advisers to review her six-month severance package, tax withholding schedule, and 401(k) rollover options. Together, they helped her obtain financial aid so she could finish school, cover her monthly $3,500 in expenses, and bank some money from her severance checks.

It doesn't matter how good your financial advisers are if you aren't disciplined, says Cone, who has never carried credit-card debt. She works hard to track her spending and routinely decides which expenses are necessary and which are not. For example, "a gym membership is unnecessary when I have a beautiful area to walk in," she says.

Finally, whether taking classes at a local college, reading up at the library, or subscribing to financial publications, Cone is learning even more about how to manage her finances. Says Bonnie Hughes, a Rome (Ga.) member of the Garrett Planning Network who is Cone's financial adviser: "If all my clients lived within their means and had a team of professionals they could turn to in a crisis, my workday would be short indeed." Not to mention the list of single women filing for bankruptcy.

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By Toddi Gutner

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