Early on a cold and dreary Saturday morning about 250 women filed into the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Hartford.
It wasn't the lure of steeply discounted designer shoes or a hot rock star that lured them out of their warm beds on a rainy November day. Instead, it was the mundane topic of money management that had them crowding eagerly around the coffee urns and perusing the bagels on banquet tables.
They had gathered, this broad cross section of women, for the Hartford YWCA's 8th annual Money Conference for Women, where a variety of speakers over the next several hours would teach them about the unique financial needs that women face and how even the lowest-paid worker can save money and take charge of her financial future.
The event has become so well attended that registration this year closed out within a few weeks. The popularity of the conference speaks volumes of the hunger many women have to learn more about money management and find ways to secure their financial future, says Deborah Ullman, who heads the Hartford YWCA.
"It's developed quite a reputation over eight years, a reputation that we give (women) good information," Ullman says. "I think they want basic information in a non-threatening, non-judgemental way. Often women don't want to talk about things like money. But women are comfortable with other women and we don't tell you you're bad or that you're stupid" for bad money choices.
"It's the only place where hundreds of women can come together and ask questions about one of the most important issues in our lives," Denise Nappier, Connecticut's treasurer, said at the conference.
So why do women in particular need a conference about handling money? Isn't money just money, regardless of your gender?
In a word, says Ullman, no.
First, there's that reluctance women share to talk about money. It means while men for years have talked to one another about things like interest rates, money markets and stocks, women have not and may not be as familiar with those issues.
And, despite all the workplace gains they've made in recent years, women still make less money than men, only earning about 75 percent, on average, of what men make.
Since they make less, "they have to worry about it more," Ullman says.
Adding to that burden, she adds, is that many women tend to be the heads of their household. Even if they're not, they're generally the ones who handle the household finances. At the same time, they oversee the management of the home as well and are often caregivers for other family members, such as aging parents.
"They're balancing too much" and don't have time to focus on money, says Ullman. "They have a lot more challenges in managing their money."
In general, women also tend to be more intimidated by the math involved with money management.
"They think it's a lot more complicated than it really is," she adds.
Demystifying money, Ullman says, helps empower them, which is one of the main missions of the YWCA.
"What better way to empower women than to help them make the most of their money?"
Toward that end the conference's main speaker, columnist Michelle Singletary, told the conference attendees that there are five basic keys to financial success:
• Find an automatic way to save money, such as through payroll deductions.
• Take advantage of time by saving early. Compound interest can work like magic over time and someone who starts saving at age 25 will accrue signficantly more money than someone who starts 10 or 20 years later.
• Eliminate debt. Just as saving early will build a nest egg over time, being in debt will drain your finances inexorably.
• Spend less than you earn. This is so common-sense that Saturday Night Live to a hilarious skit about it recently. But because so many of us have failed to heed the advice over the years we've reaped the benefits today of the Great Recession.
• Diversify. Put your money in a bunch of different places to protect it from the vagaries of the market.
While it isn't part of her 5-Step program to financial freedom, Singletary also urged the women to learn to say no to those in their life, particularly children, who want to spend money. One way she does that, she said, is by limiting the time her children watch commercial television, which bombards them with ads to buy things they don't need.
"Embrace frugality," she said. "Every penny you spend should have a purpose."