Bag-lady baggage

What do Oprah, Gloria Steinem and Katie Couric have in common? They’re all terrified of becoming penniless

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Last year at Christmas, Marlene*, a Toronto IT executive, was playing one of those after-dinner games that are the adult equivalent of Truth or Dare – pick a card and prepare to reveal to a table full of people the worst lie you’ve ever told, or whether you’d confess to your next-door neighbours that you’d just nicked their new SUV. When Marlene drew a card asking her to identify her greatest fear, she named it without hesitating: “That I don’t have enough money.”

Her sisters burst out laughing.

Recalling the evening now, Marlene allows that her response must have seemed ridiculous: She’s a highly successful fortysomething professional, married to a senior bank executive, and they live “a very nice lifestyle – probably in the top one per cent of Canadians,” she says. An astute investor who is actively involved with managing the family’s affairs, Marlene’s been contributing to RSPs “religiously, the maximum amount,” since she graduated from university. She and her husband recently purchased a vineyard in the Niagara wine region and plan to build a house there eventually.

Still, Marlene can’t quite buy into the dream. Her husband wants to retire there, and she worries that they won’t have enough to live on – that their idyllic retreat could lead to financial ruin. But ask her how much money she needs to see in her bank account to relax, and she can’t name a figure.

“What’s the magic number? I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t buy lottery tickets, but if I did, winning might change things. But I don’t know what the right number would be.

“It’s really quite debilitating at times. You can’t enjoy yourself as much as you should. You keep worrying that something’s around the corner. My sisters think it’s hilarious.”

Here’s something even funnier: Close to half of all women feel the same way. In a 2006 survey conducted by Allianz, a Minnesota-based financial services company, 46 per cent of respondents said they harboured a “tremendous fear of becoming a bag lady.” The number was even higher – 48 per cent – among women with an annual income of more than $100,000. Lily Tomlin, Gloria Steinem, Shirley MacLaine and Katie Couric have all copped to having bag-lady syndrome. Even Oprah Winfrey, whose net worth was recently estimated at $1.5 billion, once told a reporter she had $50 million in cash socked away as her “bag-lady fund.”

The fear of becoming penniless can be paralyzing. In Marlene’s case it prevented her from taking a planned year off work to spend more time with her seven-year-old daughter. She returned to the office after six months because the idea of not drawing an income unnerved her. “I’m afraid to stop making money,” she says.

It may sound like poor-little-rich-girl syndrome, but the anxiety is present to some extent in almost all women in all income brackets, psychologists and financial planners confirm. Ninety per cent in the Allianz survey described themselves as “insecure” when it comes to finances.

Is it a gender issue? Suze Orman thinks it is, and so do a growing number of financial planners who are launching workshops, seminars and courses to help women overcome their fears. Orman, whose big-sister-knows-best lecture style is well-known to hundreds of thousands of viewers of Oprah and CNBC, believes men and women demonstrate different attitudes toward money. While men typically express confidence in their financial decisions, and are often comfortable risking a little to gain a lot (the same Allianz study indicates men are three times as likely to take financial risks), women generally approach money matters from a position of insecurity. They fear the unknown, they question their ability to earn (and their right to bonuses, overtime pay and raises), and they’re reluctant to assume the role of decision-maker, even when they’re single and know that there’s no one else to do it. When they do assume control – as Marlene does – they’re still racked by worry about the future.

Orman calls it an emotional relationship – and a dysfunctional one.

“We never hear the phrase ‘bag man-syndrome,'” she says. “I believe it’s an innate part of our nature. On some level, all women have this fear that what they have will be taken away from them.”

Cristina Ambrosi, 48, can relate. The self-employed Burnaby, B.C., businesswoman has taken only two out-of-town vacations in 20 years because she’s afraid to spend the money. She has an impeccable credit rating, has never missed a bill payment and recently estimated her family’s net worth at $600,000. Her husband is in the midst of launching a new business, but they could still afford a holiday, and to somewhere farther than the Okanagan. She won’t allow it, though, because her fears of one day becoming impoverished “loom even larger than death.”

“We could have put a trip on a line of credit,” Ambrosi acknowledges, “but that money isn’t ours. What if we couldn’t afford to pay it back?”

While significantly more men than women eventually become homeless – street counts, although not a complete picture, show that only one-third of Canada’s homeless are female – the fears we face today aren’t entirely unjustified. On average, women in developed countries now live six to eight years longer than men, so many are conscious of the real costs of that extra longevity. As well, many are marrying later or not at all, and are choosing to become single parents without the benefit of a double income. And many are first-generation working women who were raised in a family environment that didn’t provide strong, financially independent female role models.

Marlene recalls watching her father hand her mother an envelope each week with the budget for their household. For a woman born at the dawn of feminism, it seemed a demeaning gesture, and she resolved never to need an allowance. “It made me absolutely determined to be independent,” she says.

As she raises her own daughter, she hopes to instill a similar sense of independence – without the anxiety. “I feel a strong need to pass on to her the idea that Prince Charming isn’t going to come riding in and look after you,” she says. “It’s just not a model that works.

“I’m not sure [my fear] is ever going to go away,” Marlene admits. “And I’m not entirely sure I want it to; it’s part of what’s made me successful in life. But I realize I may be missing some stuff in terms of building that new life because I’m so busy making money. I’ve got to figure out how to keep the anxiety in line.”