Margaret McMahon cannot recall a time in her married life when she wasn't handling the family's budget and investments.
It wasn't a conscious decision, Mrs. McMahon explains. "It just sort of evolved that way. He really didn't want to do it," she says of her husband, Joe.
Jo Ann Linck and her husband, Henry, decided she would be the one to manage the family's investment portfolio and household expenses. "We made that decision before we got married," Mrs. Linck says.
When a stockbroker telephones another family, the Links, with investment tips, Karen Link takes the call and decides whether to buy, sell or hold. "Joe trusts me," she says of her husband. "I usually just tell him what stock we bought."
What's this? Hillary Rodham Clinton isn't the only female half of a couple who is making financial decisions for her family. In fact, these days it is often a "she" who is managing the family's long- and short-term investment decisions.
Although they may be growing in number, women who call the family's investment shots are still far from the majority.
"Women in general -- but married women in particular -- are more involved with day-to-day finances than they are with investment decisions. But that will change," says Bridget A. Macaskill, president of the New York-based Oppenheimer Management Corp.
In a nationwide survey of 2,021 adults, the company found that 60 percent of the women who were married or living with someone were solely responsible for balancing the checkbook, 56 percent paid the bills and 38 percent were responsible for developing and maintaining the family budget.
Of the 1,018 women surveyed, 90 percent said that investing is not a man's job -- and 85 percent of the 1,003 men surveyed agreed. But the poll found that only 17 percent of the women handled the insurance and 12 percent were solely responsible for making investments.
A study of 800 people by the Investment Company Institute, a trade association for the mutual fund industry, found that women made the financial decisions in 44 percent of households surveyed that had mutual funds, says John H. Collins, a spokesman for the Washington-based group.
A study six years earlier by the association showed women as the financial decision-makers 25 percent of the time.
However, Richard Rist, a financial consultant for Merrill Lynch, says his company's research paints a slightly different picture.
"Our research has shown that 80 percent of the family finances is handled by men, although more women seem to be taking it over," says Mr. Rist, who adds that his female clientele is growing.
Lack of education, confidence or both are keeping too many women from wading into investment waters, says Ann B. Diamond, who wrote "Fear of Finance: The Women's Money Workbook for Achieving Financial Self-Confidence" (HarperBusiness, 1994).
Most never learned
"Most do not learn in home or school," she says. "Although they may keep the budget, pay the bills, do that stuff, they don't do the investments."
Men may not learn investment strategies in school, either, Ms. Diamond admits. "But they realize they are going to have to be in charge of finances, so they learn."
Madeleine Greene, who works for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Howard County, says it is often older women who suffer the most from lack of a financial education.
"Think back, when women in their 50s and 60s were growing up. They were told to become a teacher, a nurse, a secretary -- but most of all, a good wife. They were told that someone was going to be there to take care of them the rest of their lives.
"In the real world, they found out that is a lie. I've found that women who do have the resources and do control a lot of money don't necessarily have the know-how to do it," says Ms. Greene, who does financial counseling.
Margaret McMahon, JoAnn Linck and Karen Link didn't stop to think that they were going against the trend by controlling their families' investment portfolios.
They just did it.
Mrs. McMahon, a consultant with Mary Kay cosmetics, took over the family finances by default when the couple married nearly 24 years ago.
"When we first got married, my husband was in the service, and then he went back to school," says Mrs. McMahon. "He really did not have the time to handle the money. Not that we had that much to work with back then, either," she says.
"But things progressed. And when we started making investments, he just wasn't interested," Mrs. McMahon says of her husband, who is a Baltimore police officer. "But it fascinated me."
For the Lincks, who have been married 28 years, handling family finances was always seen as the woman's domain.
"My mother handled the money," Mrs. Linck explains. "My father would deposit the check in the bank and my mother would take care of everything else. My husband's mother handled the money, too. I know that's unusual," she says.