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The rich women who consider themselves as broke as bag ladies
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By Andrea Peyser
December 8, 2014

The rich women who consider themselves as broke as bag ladies

You might call Cindy a wealthy woman. But she won’t.

Until she retired last year, the 63-year-old divorcée, a former teacher and 30-year advertising-company executive, pulled down, for the last dozen years, nearly $500,000 annually. Sweet.

She paid off the mortgage on a two-bedroom waterfront cooperative apartment in the Whitestone section of Queens, and indulged herself in a few luxuries. “I do have a Valentino scarf!” she told me. She’s able to spoil her daughter, who is pregnant, and her 2-year-old granddaughter.

But late at night, Cindy harbored a terrible secret. She was afraid of going broke. “I don’t think it’s paranoia,” she said.

Stephanie, 57, works as a frontline fund-raiser for a nonprofit and hobnobs at soirees with millionaires and billionaires. She rakes in $150,000 a year — $230,000 if you include the $80,000 annual salary of her wife of one year and partner for 18, Jennifer, 62, who runs a substance-abuse clinic. They have no kids, and the mortgage on Stephanie’s one-bedroom co-op on the Upper West Side is down to $50,000. Jennifer owns a studio co-op on Staten Island, which she rents out.

Yet Stephanie sees little difference between herself and the women who babble incoherently on the streets of New York City, or wander near the house in North Carolina for which she and her spouse are paying off a $150,000 mortgage and rent out for $1,100 a month.

“Sometimes, I feel there’s one degree of separation between me and people who find themselves on the street,” she told me. “I think life’s circumstances can change in a moment.”

Like Cindy, Stephanie asked me not to print her last name. It seems that talking openly about money remains taboo — a subject more shameful to discuss than sex. But there is a name for the affliction that has held these two women in vise grips: Bag Lady Syndrome. It’s real.

Despite enormous professional and financial gains made by American women, nearly half of more than 2,200 females surveyed between the ages of 25 and 75 — 49 percent — fear becoming penniless and homeless in old age, forced to carry their worldly possessions in plastic bags, according to the Women, Money and Power Study released last year by the Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America. All women surveyed had household incomes of at least $30,000. Surprisingly, of respondents who enjoyed incomes exceeding $200,000, 27 percent shared the same fears.

“I had a meeting with a fashion executive, an attractive 50-something woman who made $500,000 to $600,000 a year in 1985 or ’86,” Lance Drucker, a wealth-management adviser for 30 years, told me. “I asked her, ‘Why are you here?’ She told me, ‘I’m afraid I’m going to become the best-dressed bag lady. I make a lot of money, and I don’t have anything to show for it.’

“I have clients with $200,000 in assets, clients with $20 million in assets, average age 50-plus, 73 percent of them female,” said Drucker, 51, part-money guru, part-head shrinker, the president and CEO of Drucker Wealth Management. The women on his client list, who include Cindy and Stephanie, all have one thing in common. They dread that an accident, illness or, in the case of Stephanie, sudden unemployment will wipe out everything for which they’ve worked. Is this a chick thing?

“There are three things men think they don’t need help with — with directions, with money and in the bedroom,” he said. “They all need help! But women won’t think less of themselves by saying, ‘I don’t understand this.’ ”

He’s written a new book, “How to Avoid Bag Lady Syndrome (B.L.S.): A Strong Woman’s Guide to Financial Peace of Mind.” It’s directed at women, who statistically live longer than men and need more money.

The first of seven steps, said Drucker, is “define your pain and goals.” Then create a budget plus a balance sheet of expenses and income. Review health insurance and long-term-care insurance. Develop an investment strategy and address estate planning. And hire an investment coach.

If all this makes ladies’ heads hurt, I’m with you.

After going through the program, Stephanie and Cindy are able to relax a bit. Cindy regularly takes big trips with friends — hiking in Italy near George Clooney’s house on Lake Como in September. On Friday, she traveled to Iceland. (She flies economy class.)

Isn’t that what wealthy women are supposed to do?

©2007-2024 Andrea Peyser and; No Reuse without permission.
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