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Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash Excerpt from Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash

by Liz Perle

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What is so troublesome about our relationship with money that we're so elusive or dishonest about it -- to ourselves, to others? When it comes to money, many of us are completely contradictory, often evasive, and irritatingly indirect. We won't ask people about their incomes, yet we peg our social positions by where we think we stand comparatively. We disguise our appetites by manufacturing "needs." We never reveal how much money we make, or what we have in the bank. We defiantly spend when we know we shouldn't. We're reluctant (sometimes afraid) to negotiate for better salaries and find it humiliating to haggle over prices. We amaze our husbands, lovers, and friends with reports of the things we bought on sale that never ever were, and we routinely shave a few bucks off the cost of something as minor as a lipstick so we won't appear irresponsible.

Not only that; we've developed a whole moral vocabulary to describe our supposed disdain for money: greedy, miserly, moneygrubbing, gold-digging, dirt-poor, nouveau riche, stinking rich, well-off, well-to-do -- the list goes on and on. But we can come up with only a few sympathetic descriptors: self-supporting, independent, generous . . . self-made and enterprising can cut both ways. These adjectives reflect our emotions about money: greed, envy, guilt, even shame. It turns out we feel that liking money is somewhat immoral.

We need money and resent the fact that we do. We want it, we like to spend it, and we know that just admitting that qualifies us as potentially superficial and materialistic people. We may condemn our wants as crass consumerism, yet we can be stopped dead in our tracks at the thought of losing our lifestyles. We regularly want more than we can afford, which leaves us in a semipermanent state of deprivation. Buffeted by alternating currents, we either engage in debt-defying impulse spending or plunge our heads in the sand in an effort to drown out our financial anxieties.

We can deny that money matters to us as much as we want, but then how do we explain the degree to which we've endowed it with all sorts of superpowers that can transform our emotional states? We've granted it the authority to single-handedly make us feel safe and cared for. We twist ourselves into impossible shapes to please and stay attached to the people and institutions that dole it out. Put it this way: If we behaved at work, with our friends, or with our husbands as indirectly, ambivalently, dishonestly, dependently as we do with money -- we would immediately go into psychotherapy.

When it comes to our concerns about cash, we live in a land caught between our fears and our appetites. What do we do with this money anxiety? For many of us, our response has been a kind of voluntary blindness. We don't mind making money. We don't mind being in charge of our financial destinies. We just don't want to have to think about it too much.

This twisted relationship -- and the guilt, embarrassment, reluctance, and avoidance that are involved -- can have some serious consequences. In the course of my research, I heard stories from women like Amanda, a nurse who felt so badly about leaving her ten-year marriage to her first husband (who would routinely loan her car, her clothes, her books, and her jewelry to others because, after all, he said, he paid for them, and so they were his to give) that she didn't ask for a dime. She had so much baggage around money, she said, that she didn't want to face the fight and put a price on her life with him. Rather than ask for alimony, she enlisted in the army to pay for her college education. Now, as a single mom with a set of young twins, she can be called into conflict at any minute. Or women like Nancy, a stay-at-home mom who entertained lavishly in a beautiful home that she renovated or redecorated every five years but who hadn't had sex with her husband in ten.

Although I met some women who were truly direct about and in control of their finances, most of the rest of us clearly aren't. More women will file for bankruptcy this year than will graduate from college, suffer a heart attack, or be diagnosed with cancer. More than half of all retired women live in poverty. A family with children is 75 percent more likely to be late paying its credit card bills, and according to the work done by Harvard's Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, the single biggest predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse is the birth of a child.

So with all this at stake, why is it that so many of us don't just "get over it" -- as my friend Carole suggested to me one morning over coffee -- and deal with our money issues? Why do perfectly brilliant and sensible women admit that their eyes glaze over when individual household budgets and broader financial matters are discussed? Why the drive to spend beyond our means, why the willed insecurity about investing? Why the inability to ask to be paid what a job is worth? Why do we want to earn money and still be "taken care of" by someone else?

I did meet women who, usually because of big reversals due to big debts, divorce, death, or illnesses, had come to grips with their financial demons. Some attended seminars; others bought books by the pound that told them more or less the same things: make a budget, learn about investments, be proactive. These books promise to catapult us from our present paycheck-to-paycheck life into the stratosphere of the most wealthy and privileged. Who wouldn't want to be a millionaire?

But for many of us, these self-help tools backfire. There's no surer way to feel woeful about our financial situations and our financial prowess than to compare our bank accounts and fiscal habits with those of the most disciplined, wealthy people in the world. These personal finance books often seem like an extension of the ads and magazine articles boosting cellulite-reducing creams and ab machines. They all imply we're inadequate on some level. (Otherwise, why would we need their products?) Just below the surface they send the subtle message that whatever we have, whatever we've saved, it's not enough. Almost all the women I spoke to seemed pretty susceptible to these messages of insufficiency and their subtext of peril.

Copyright 2006 Liz Perle

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