Women’s confidence that they can successfully retire has taken a hit in the past two years, but working with a financial advisor tends to boost female investors’ outlook on their future, according to a new Prudential Financial study.

The study entitled “Financial Experience and Behaviors Among Women” found that the so-called confidence gap, or the difference between the goals women set and their belief that they can achieve them, rose to 69 points from 62 points in 2008, when the survey was last conducted.

That comes as 53% of the women surveyed indicated they are the primary breadwinner of their household, either because they contribute more than partners or spouses or because they are they are single. About one-third of the breadwinners who earn more than their spouses said that the economic downturn forced them into that role.

But those women who are serving in the breadwinner role still expressed a lack of confidence when it comes to investing. Those breadwinners were less likely to say they are the primary financial decision maker in their household, and also feel less prepared to make financial decisions in comparison to men.

Female investors’ crisis of confidence comes as they are already managing the household finances, moving money and monitoring purchases, noted Deborah Owens, chief executive of Owens Media Group and author of the book A Purse of Your Own, at a presentation of the study in New York on Wednesday.

“That’s the same kind of muscle you’re using when it comes to investing,” Owens said. “Women really do know about finances.”

The Financial Advisor as a Confidence Boost

Working with a financial advisor can help women turn around that crisis of confidence, Prudential’s study found.

The women surveyed who are working with financial advisors expressed more confidence that they can successfully retire, will not run out of savings and can maintain the standard of living they desire.

Women who work with financial advisors also showed they are more likely to take the advice they are given than male clients. Forty-four percent of women took an advisor’s advice into account when making decisions, versus 33% of men.

Overall, women are also more likely to use a financial advisor, with 35% of female respondents indicating they already work with a financial professional versus 33% of male respondents. At the same time, 35% of women who currently have no relationship with a financial professional said they would consider working with one.

Lessons on Investment Products

Both financial services companies and advisors can do more to help women, to understand different financial products, the survey also found.

Many of the female breadwinners surveyed indicated they have a lack of knowledge in this area. Products female breadwinners said they did not know “too well” include long-term care, with 35% of respondents; annuities, 34%; stocks and bonds, 33%; estate plans, 32%; mutual funds, 29%; and IRAs, 26%.

Products female breadwinners said they did not know “at all” include annuities, with 21% of respondents; mutual funds, 15%; estate plans, 14%; stocks and bonds, 12%; long-term care, 9% and IRAs, 8%.

Part of that lack of understanding comes from the way financial services companies market those products, according to Sarah Thompson, vice president, global market research at Prudential.

“What women want to know is how will this financial product help me meet my goal or what’s the solution for me,” Thompson said. “They don’t want to know about the product features as much.”

Women’s widening confidence gap also comes as they have been more deeply affected by the economic downturn, Prudential’s study showed. Seventy percent of women said the downturn has hampered their progress versus 65% of men.

At the same time, just 39% of women reported having a full-time job versus 55% of men. Women are also struggling more, with 37% of women indicating they are either just making ends meet or not able to keep up with their bills, versus 34% of men.

The 2012 survey polled 1,410 women and marked the first time that Prudential included men, including 604 male respondents. All participants were between ages 25 to 68.

It is also the first time Prudential included women with household incomes less than $50,000, and broke down results for different ethnicities since the firm began conducting the biennial survey 12 years ago.

Those survey results found that the confidence gap varied among ethnicities. The majority of African American investors surveyed, or 94%, were worried about maintaining their lifestyle in retirement, while 87% cited reducing debt as a top concern. Likewise, most Caucasian investors, or 93%, cited keeping their lifestyle in retirement as a concern.

Most Hispanic investors, or 92%, indicated they are worried about becoming a financial burden to loved ones, while 73% said they want to take care of their extended family. And both Asian American and African American women want their families to have the same living standards should they die or become disabled.

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