What do we want? Advice! When do we want it? Now!

Even without waving placards or burning bras, American women are sending the message that they need help planning for retirement yet don't know how to go about it, according to a recent Prudential Financial study examining women's financial literacy. The company surveyed 1,134 women between the ages of 25 and 68 who are either sole or joint heads of their households.

This is the third time that the Newark, N.J.-based company has conducted its bi-annual "Study on the Financial Experience and Behaviors Among Women," which it started in 2000 and next repeated in 2002. Many of the questions are the same, giving Prudential the opportunity to see how women's behaviors and attitudes have changed.

Notably, more women Baby Boomers, 88%, are assuming a role in financial decisions than in either 2000 or 2002. Watching their parents age has gotten the gears turning in their own heads, said Jac Herschler, senior vice president of marketing for Prudential Annuities.

"By caring for their older parents and [also because of increased] coverage in the media, they have become aware of women's longer life expectancy and have a keener sense of retirement issues," he said. "But beyond that, I think women are just taking a more active role in the decision-making process and are a more important contributor to critical family decisions about investments, not just balancing budgets."

Retirement is a top issue for women of all ages. Women were asked to assign a total of 100 points to 10 different goals. On average, they assigned 47 points to the three retirement security-related issues: 1) Income for a comfortable retirement (20), 2) Financial independence and avoiding becoming a burden to others (17) and 3) Avoiding a full spending-down of retirement savings (10).

The relative dominance of retirement, even over planning itself, came as a surprise, Herschler said. "That's really interesting to me when a total of 17 points were put toward preparing a plan, as opposed to 47 points assigned to these other retirement issues. Also, only six points were put towards leaving an estate."

The survey also showed there is an enormous gap between the number of women who feel maintaining their lifestyle during retirement is "very important" (78%) and the number who are "very confident" about their ability to do so (12%).

"That's an indication of a real opportunity for financial professionals who give advice to women. Women have a real need for advice," Herschler concluded.

Think Again

For those who think they have already tried to penetrate the women's market, think again: Women Baby Boomers' confidence in their understanding of their retirement needs decreased significantly between 2002 and 2004. Two years ago, 83% reported that they understand the amount of money needed for secure retirement "very or somewhat." In the latest survey, that figure dropped to 51%.

When it comes to specific products, the numbers are less dramatic yet still noteworthy. In all categories, including IRAs, 401(k)s, investment accounts and annuities, more women reported that they did not understand these very well or not well at all. The rise was most dramatic in the investment account category, up from 30% to 49%, and annuities, where it rose from 48% to 66%.

Thus, it is no surprise that overwhelmingly most women, 82% of the entire group, acknowledged they needed some kind of help, whether in a specific area or for soup-to-nuts advice. "Women are more willing, we think, than men to admit their insecurity in how prepared they are, but they still struggle to reach out to professionals to bridge these gaps," Herschler said.

Prudential is reconciling these facts through client seminars, which focus on helping retirees of both sexes become "savvy retirees," Herschler said. To identify gaps in preparedness, attendees answer questions in a workbook. The seminars address issues such as early retirement, which assets to use for retirement income, annuitization and optimal portfolio construction. Not surprisingly, the capstone to the seminar is the advice to seek professional help from a planner.

Prudential is also developing products targeted towards women. While annuitization may play a role, especially because of women's longer life expectancies, "solutions around income don't necessarily require annuitization of annuities," Herschler pointed out. "There are multiple ways to provide income using annuities, and part of security for retirees is not only monthly income but peace of mind to deal with expenses late in life." After all, long-term care insurance is great to cover expenses for personal care, but it will not help an 85-year-old who has to replace a water heater or leaky roof, Herschler said.

If Prudential's study shows nothing else, it is that women are ready to hear the message of retirement income security and are anxious to close the gap between their fears and reality. This issue affects men as well, but it could be similar to asking for directions, where women are just more willing to admit that they need to stop at a gas station and ask for help. This may just be the case, and with women making more financial decisions, it may open the door for planners to reach men as well, Herschler said. "We don't really care if it's the woman who causes the man to ask for the advice or he asks for advice on his own."

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