When she was 25, Elizabeth Bryan fell “wildly in love” with a famous — and wealthy — comedian. “He waved a magic wand” she says, “and my life went from working in an art gallery in New York to flying around the world first class, hot air balloons in Italy, yachts in Greece, this unbelievable, incredible life.” But 12 years and three children later, that life came crashing down. Bryan’s husband had always called the shots, financially and otherwise. Like many women, she was fine with that arrangement. But it would cost her dearly. When they divorced, what he called “defecting from the monarchy,” she learned they were $4 million in debt, the result of bad business deals and lawsuits she had known nothing about. Now 50, Bryan is still recovering financially and emotionally.

 

She had learned a painful lesson — “a man is not a financial plan,” the motto of WIFE, the nonprofit Women’s Institute for Financial Education. Carlsbad wealth manager Candace Bahr co-founded the organization 25 years ago with Ginita Wall to teach women skills they’re not always familiar or comfortable with: how to handle money. “The sad truth is no matter how great your marriage is, all marriages end,” says Bahr. “We’re all mortal. There’s a 70 percent chance that you will be widowed because we tend to outlive our husbands, even in the best of marriages, and 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.”

 

“If you’re not involved in the finances, it may not mean anything today,” Bahr insists, “but it can have significant ramifications in the future when you have to manage your money on your own, and you’re managing it when you’re in an emotional turmoil.”

 

WIFE grew out of experiences Bahr had while working with clients at a big brokerage firm in Rancho Santa Fe. “I had five women come to me over a period of about three months who were distraught, not because the market went down that time, but because they had lost their husbands either through death or divorce.” The women knew little about investments, taxes, and other issues needed to handle their money. Bahr realized then how crucial it is for money managers to include both spouses in financial decisions.

 

WIFE now has 55,000 members in the United States and abroad, offering free, non-biased, financial resources and support on its Web site, dealing with issues ranging from cutting expenses to reducing credit card debt. The Money Clubs, recently launched on Facebook, provide a way for women and couples to connect and share online, exploring such topics as estate and retirement planning, insurance, mortgages, and Social Security. In the “Money Zone,” members can learn how their financial lives have been shaped by money attitudes from childhood or “money styles” (do you hoard, avoid, or splurge?)

 

The organization has long sponsored “Second Saturday” seminars, separate divorce workshops for men and women at the San Elijo campus of Mira Costa College. “You’ll be sitting in that divorce workshop with someone living out of their car next to someone who is looking at $5 million in assets,” says Bryan. “None of them knows what to do. None of them has a financial education.”

 

It is here that Bryan speaks frankly about her personal experiences in hopes of helping others. After going through a rancorous divorce, founding a clothing company that went bust, and losing a house, among other trials, Bryan says she has learned from very painful mistakes. She is now making a “good living” on her own, and is remarried to a man who is a “complete, equal partner in my life, and completely supportive of everything I do.” While they are building a financial future together, Bryan says it is with “the understanding that I must have my own stability that is aside from his. I must.”

 

The co-author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings, Bryan is now working on a new book, Soul Models, due out around Mother’s Day. In the book, she tells the stories of women who’ve turned tragedies into triumphs, by reaching out to others. Writing the book helped Bryan crystallize her own story — one of financial ruin, forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption. “This journey of financial empowerment has become my mission, my passion and my story that I’m committed to sharing,” she says. “If my story helps somebody else, it makes it less terrible to me on some level. It’s a gift.” (www.wife.org) ANDREA NAVERSEN