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women and retirement

Financial planner Tina Tehranchian, right, meets with her client , Anna Zsolnay. Ms. Tehranchian, 49, is a certified financial planner who helps other immigrant women steer the challenging path to retirement.

When she moved to Canada from Iran in 1990, Tina Tehranchian had much to learn about financial planning.

She and her husband had immigrated here for a better life for their son. But like many newcomers, the family took a financial hit, from the cost of living and relocating in Canada to the fact that Ms. Tehranchian couldn't find a job in her field of corporate communications and television production.

Finding the right money advice, getting a sense of how Canadians save and spend, and learning about credit and debt as well as insurance, tax and retirement planning were all unknown elements.

Today Ms. Tehranchian, 49, is a certified financial planner and the branch manager at Assante Capital Management Ltd. in Richmond Hill, Ont. Among her clients, she helps other immigrant women navigate this new financial world and steer the challenging path to retirement.

For many people from the developing world in particular, "the whole system is so different," she says. "It's a tough hill to climb for immigrants, and it's even more necessary for them to do proper financial planning and pay attention to their retirement."

In some countries, for example, debt is taboo and death is not talked about, Ms. Tehranchian explains. People often pay cash in full even for major items such as houses, so they have no concept of borrowing or the need to establish credit ratings. There is little tradition of life insurance, disability insurance or retirement planning when extended families are expected to care for the sick, the elderly and those left behind after death.

When they first arrived in Canada, for example, Ms. Tehranchian's family had the funds to buy a car, but a bank manager suggested they take out a loan for part of the payment to establish a credit history.

Credit is one of the most important elements new immigrants learn about in settlement programs offered by the YMCA of Greater Toronto, says Rudy Purwanto, 45, who immigrated with his family from Indonesia three years ago and now works at the YMCA as a newcomer information specialist.

Women especially have no credit history or "the slightest idea what it's all about," Mr. Purwanto says. In a popular two-hour Y workshop called "Your Financial Rights," newcomers learn about credit scores, the banking system, financial products, investments and services, he says. "Gradually they understand."

Maryam Neshin, 31, who immigrated to Canada in 2008 from Denmark and now has a job as a customer service representative in a branch of the Bank of Montreal, says that too much credit can be a problem for newcomers. "If you're not careful, you can suddenly spend a lot of money," she says, adding that immigrants don't always pay attention to payment due dates and can hurt their future loan prospects by defaulting. "It's easy to get into trouble."

Newcomers looking for a better future for their families inevitably face a financial setback. Those who arrive with nothing have to start from scratch in a complex language and culture. Ms. Tehranchian estimates that even those with means can still face up to a 10-year financial setback after they arrive. "It's not an easy path to take."

Women are especially hard hit. Many have no choice but to work, and they are often underemployed because of language limitations and their lack of Canadian experience. As they move into the work force women are also thrust into roles, such as financial decision-makers, they didn't have in their old countries.

Professional advice from certified financial planners is available for those with considerable assets, and in some cases it should be sought quickly, Ms. Tehranchian says. For example, immigration trusts can shelter investment income for five years in offshore vehicles, but they should be set up before or shortly after arrival in Canada.

Many immigrants send money home, which comes from their savings and can be draining on fledgling investment and retirement funds, says Mr. Purwanto. He sends funds to his family in Indonesia twice a year but is careful to take it from investments in good products here, while continuing to put money into RRSPs, RESPs and a tax-free savings account. "It's a discipline."

Dealing with Canada's tax system can be especially tricky for immigrants, he adds, particularly those coming from countries with less stringent tax regimes - or none at all. Tax shelters and education savings plans are especially interesting for those coming here to look after the next generation, he says.

His 16-year-old daughter is planning to be an investment adviser when she is older and is already learning a lot in school, he says. "I want her to be financially literate, it's important."