Why Banks Talk to Women Differently

Financial companies find that their traditional outreach needs updating.

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When it comes to reaching women, personal finance companies are rethinking their pickup lines.

A new study from Allianz Life Insurance Co. finds that most women want to learn about retirement planning and investing, but many don't know where to begin. It also suggests that women get their most useful financial information from other people, as opposed to the Internet. Those findings are inspiring Allianz to emphasize educational efforts through human contact, such as small seminars that focus on real-life success stories, in order to reach women, who will control 60 percent of the wealth in the United States by 2010.

"[Women] are telling us that materials out there are difficult to understand and that they find them boring. Some even compared them to reading a foreign language," says Sherri DuMond, vice president of marketing solutions for Allianz. She says the company is developing materials that focus on retirement and investment planning that financial professionals will use in groups of around a dozen women.

Small groups also encourage women to ask questions they might hesitate to bring up in mixed crowds, says Arika Larson, owner of Women Be Wise, a financial planning company based in San Jose, Calif. Larson says she noticed women weren't asking questions in front of men, even their own husbands. When she started hosting seminars just for women, "hands started going up," she says.

All-women's groups also allow Larson herself to be more candid. Women often think of themselves as one step away from living on the street, while men tend not to relate to that fear, Larson explains. (One reason for that difference may be that women are, indeed, more likely to end up in poverty.) To help women understand how to navigate the financial world, Larson employs an arsenal of female-friendly metaphors. Updating your 401(k) every six months, for instance, is like putting your winter clothes away in the summer, she says, and making stable investment choices is like purchasing your first black and blue suit.

Larson is also developing materials that focus on life events, because that is when she says women are most likely to want to learn more about their financial options. "Women only think about money when it intersects the stories of their lives—when they're about to get married...have a baby...funding their kids' education, when they're about to go through a divorce, and then they're widowed," Larson says.

Larson says she's also found that women are particularly interested in "safety oriented" financial products such as life insurance and annuities, an observation confirmed by a second recent study, commissioned by Northwestern Mutual, which found that women value financial security more than men do. The study also reports that women who say they are taking control of their finances are more likely to be healthier and happier than those who don't.

If clothing metaphors and segregating seminars sound like a dumbing down of the discussion for women, they're actually an attempt to do the reverse. Previous studies have suggested that women feel that the personal finance industry often speaks condescendingly to them or ignores them altogether, a problem that companies like Allianz and Women Be Wise are trying to fix. One 2007 Oxygen survey found that two thirds of women think they are more financially savvy than they're given credit for, and 44 percent of respondents said financial professionals didn't give women enough respect. One in four said financial ads speak down to women.

To help women take the first steps toward financial empowerment, Northwestern Mutual and the health experts network LLuminari outline the "seven financial habits of healthy and happy people," which include establishing long- and short-term goals and taking steps to protect one's family from financial bad luck—messages that apply to both men and women equally.