It’s Pam Elmi’s job to take the pulse of the community, identify areas where residents could use some help, and then put together programs to meet common needs. Director of program development at the Princeton YWCA, Elmi is all ears as she goes about her daily routine in the community and at work. One thing she has been hearing lately is the distress of 40-something, well-educated women, suddenly alone, who have to quickly figure out how to stay afloat financially.
“I don’t think any woman goes into marriage thinking of divorce, but 65 percent come out that way,” Elmi says. What’s more, she is finding, “in privileged families women don’t work.” Sometimes they don’t pay attention to finances, either, she says, adding “I would think we would be beyond that.”
Elmi is presenting the “Second Annual YWCA Financial Conference” on Saturday, October 7, at 9 a.m. at the Johnson Education Center at the D&R Greenway Trust. Cost: $30. Call 609-479-2100, ext. 307 for more information.
The conference is for all women, Elmi stresses, not just for those entering middle age. Topics include Social Security and retirement, the financial implications of divorce, and getting out of debt. But while everyone is welcome, if past experience is a barometer, the audience will skew toward the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation. “I held the first conference last year,” she says, “and they came in droves.”
Elmi has also inaugurated a series of career workshops for women who are re-entering the workforce or who are switching from the non-profit sector to the for-profit sector, or vice versa. The women who have attended these workshops also tend to be in their 40s. They, too, have financial issues, whether or not they have recently divorced.
Those financial issues, Elmi finds, are almost always tangled up with child raising.
“Everything stems back to motherhood,” she says. “Women who stay at home with their children feel rusty going back to work. Women in the for-profit sector are working a bazillion hours, and want to switch to the non-profit sector so that they will have more time for their children. Women in the non-profit sector say ‘I need more money for my children.’”
The presence of children also makes a divorce, and all of the financial issues that accompany the break-up, more difficult. She says that she is fortunate that she did not have children when her own marriage ended. Even so, she took away a new view of personal finance when she re-entered her single life, and she says that she drew upon it in putting together this financial seminar.
Draw up a pre-nup. “Women in their 20s don’t think about this,” she says, “but you want to protect the assets you bring into a marriage, and the assets you build up during the marriage.” Young women may not yet have substantial pension funds, inheritances, or six-figure year-end bonuses, but by the time that they hit their 40s, they could well have these assets. A pre-nuptial agreement can help to safeguard them.
Share expenses 50-50. “Married women can operate as independently as single women,” says Elmi. She thinks it is a good idea for women to pay half of all household bills. That way, should they ever find themselves on their own, they will be in the habit of meeting financial obligations and will be able to transition more easily into supporting themselves.
Keep your eyes open. One advantage of splitting bills is that doing so means that women know what those bills are, something she finds is often not the case with the divorced women she meets. Busy with children or work, they have no idea of the size of the family’s outgo — or income. They may not know much about bank or brokerage accounts, pension plans, insurance policies, or assets such as timeshares or coin collections, either.
This information is vital in the case of a divorce or a death, but also if a spouse is injured or becomes ill. Keeping track of these inherently dull details may seem like too much for a busy woman to add to her schedule, but is well the effort.
“It’s like running a business,” says Elmi. “You never want one person holding all of the cards.”
Don’t lose touch with work. Elmi, a graduate of the College of New Jersey (Class of 1991), who has worked for 15 years in the non-profit sector, seven of them at the YWCA, says that she had a relatively easy transition after her divorce. “I had a good job,” she says. That made it easier to “jump right into” a new, independent life.
Not everyone will chose to work after marriage, and especially after having children, but it is still a good idea to remain in touch with the 9-to-5 world. Part-time work, further education, consulting or freelancing, substantial volunteer roles, all of these things can pave the way for re-entry should that become desirable or necessary. If nothing else, these experiences build up networks and increase confidence.
Elmi’s key piece of advice to women is to “hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”