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Video: Breaking the silence of women and money

updated 3/20/2007 12:49:45 PM ET 2007-03-20T16:49:45

Long ago, and not entirely consciously, Liz Perle made a quiet contract with cash: She would do what it took to get it — work hard, marry right — but she didn’t want to have to think about it too much. Sound familiar? Well, after talking to over 200 women as well as researchers and psychologists, Perle found that she was like many women who have similarly complicated relationships with their finances. She shares those stories and her own in a new book titled, "Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions and Cash." Perle was invited to discuss the book on "Today." Here's an excerpt:

Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, I realized I’d better count my money. There’d been no time in the airport. I’d been too busy wrangling a four-year-old and wrestling with my own mix of numbness, efficiency, and sorrow. I’d checked my luggage — a box of toys, a suitcase filled with tropical clothes — and turned to see my husband kneeling by his boy, both of them in tears. My son and I were leaving Singapore, where we’d moved five weeks earlier from New York City to join my husband. He’d been working there for six months. But by the time we’d arrived, he’d changed his mind about wanting to be married.

“Please go home,” he said, concluding a tearful discussion we’d had during my first week.

I pointed out that this would be tough since we’d sold our apartment, expecting we’d be in Asia for three years.

“Go. Please,” he repeated.

Four weeks later, having exhausted any hope of salvaging our marriage, I stood listing against the Singapore Airlines counter as everyone around me scurried purposefully to somewhere or away from someone. I was having trouble focusing on what was happening. In one hand, I clutched two passports, and in the other, a fistful of bills that had been peeled from a thick wad. Snapping to, I stuffed them in my pocket and took my son in hand, pausing before my husband. Do we hug? Kiss? There was no way for our bodies to say goodbye. I mumbled that I’d call from San Francisco when I got to my friend Sue’s house, and headed down the gangway to the waiting plane, tugging my bewildered child.

There were fifteen $100 bills.

I had just lost my marriage and my home, and I had fifteen hundred bucks.

Henry Holt
Since this is a book about money, I won’t go too deeply into the losing-the-marriage part. Suffice it to say that the first thing on my mind as I flew thirty-five thousand feet over Guam while headed back to the States was not cash. But putting the heartbreak aside, I did have a few concerns: My companion was a four-year-old, I was unemployed, there was no place called home, and every single household possession I owned was in a sealed container on a huge cargo ship steaming its way toward Asia through the Suez Canal.

For as long as I could remember, I’d lived with a kind of chronic anxiety that something like this would happen. That I’d lose my financial footing and end up shuffling around in bedroom slippers pushing a shopping cart down an alley. On the surface of it, this was not a rational fear. Since I was born a relatively middle-to-upper-middle-class girl with all the privileges, experiences, and options that come with membership in the Club of Disposable Income, the chances of my remaining in one end or another of that income bracket were probably going to be pretty good. (That and the fact that, in my saner moments, I did know that my husband was an unhappily married—not bad—man and that he would not leave me and his son high and dry.) But that hadn’t stopped me from worrying that one day, without warning, I could plunge from the safety of my nice life into—if not poverty—a quality of life so diminished that I wouldn’t be able to bear it. These stubborn fears had persisted through years of economic independence, and they regularly woke me up at 4:00 a.m. disguised as regret over an unnecessary impulse purchase, sure that it represented the first step on the steep path to sheer ruin.

Then, one day, quite suddenly, my worst fears were realized. Without warning, my marriage collapsed, taking with it my financial security. After all, I had (quite willingly) handed over my economic life to my husband. Now he and all our assets were retreating at five hundred miles an hour.

Here’s what was clear: that I wasn’t getting my marriage back.

Here’s what was not so clear: how I was going to afford my life.

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There’s nothing like losing just about everything to lay bare what’s important.

Long ago, and not entirely consciously, I made a quiet contract with cash. I would do what it took to get it — work hard, marry right — but I didn’t want to have to think about it. I simply wanted to know I would be financially secure. This intentional avoidance eventually exacted its price. In the service of sidestepping, whenever possible, my anxious feelings (if not my facts) about money, I’ve signed over a lot of power to anyone or anything that promised to make me feel financially safe — no matter what the consequences. I’ve left my emotions about money — the fears and ambivalences — largely unexamined. I’ve avoided facing my contradictory feelings about the whole subject, such as the fact that I want to have my own money with the independence it gives, while simultaneously hoping someone or something will step up to the plate and take care of me. I’ve invited these highly emotional and unstable sets of feelings into every relationship I’ve had, and they have silently accompanied and influenced each one — with my father, my work, my friends, my bosses, and my husbands. (There have been two — oddly, both named Steve.)

My nonspecific fears of financial ruin have led to some good things, too, though. They’ve pushed me to work hard, which propelled me into some good jobs, which, in addition to nice salaries, gave me a sense of identity, some freedom, and extended periods when I felt pretty good about myself. Anxiety about my future has put money in my IRA, has helped me save enough for a down payment on a house, and, in the hopes that the sins of the parents aren’t visited on the kids, has prodded me to impart to my children a respect for cash and a sense of its importance. In fact, I’ve always paid my way, not just out of financial need but because emotionally I’ve needed the freedom that a decent income ensured me.

None of these facts, however, made a dent in my anxieties.

My financial solvency — like most things in life — has come with a few strings attached. In order to keep the real and imaginary wolves from my door, I’ve occasionally acted in ways that haven’t made me feel too swell about myself. I’ve been silent when I should have spoken up. Stayed ignorant when I should have paid attention. I’ve remained tethered to unhappy and unhealthy work and personal relationships. I’ve been complicit in bad business practices and poor management.

My agreement to trade bits of myself for security has had personal side effects — eruptions of rebellious immaturity where I haven’t paid my bills or lived within my means in spite of very real consequences. I didn’t change my IRA portfolio from all those tech stocks I’d invested in hoping to get rich quick (whoops). I didn’t balance my checkbook and ended up paying 18 percent interest on the overdraft that bounced over to my Visa card. I’ve left jobs purely because I’ve hated them, even though they paid me well. Each of these incidents resulted in big reversals in my financial fortunes, and if you graphed my net worth over the course of my life, it would look like the mark of Zorro. Embarrassed and occasionally unnerved by my own tendency toward erratic fiscal behavior, I’ve stubbornly refused to examine it, instead choosing to pin my hopes on that white knight, dream job, unknown dead rich uncle, or winning lottery number that would rescue me.

This kind of magical thinking — if not downright denial — has allowed me to maintain a remarkably constant approach/avoidance relationship with this most fundamental part of my life—with the emphasis on avoidance. I’m no stranger to the financial fantasy realm. My daydreaming drew heavily and rather unimaginatively on the run-of-the-mill Disney model. It involved the acquisition of a husband who would present me with a “happily-ever-after” life by taking away my money fears. Yet despite my most strenuous efforts, I didn’t manage to find one until my midthirties. Buried inside my increasingly frantic search for he-who-would-be-solvent was the fantasy that once married, I would have the security I craved. Insistent feminist that I was (and remain), I still wanted the option of knowing that I, alone, would not have to be the steward of my financial destiny.

I married the first guy I dated who owned a really good suit. (Okay, to be honest, I also married the first guy who asked.) He was handsome and powerful and had an impressive job. He also made more money than I did, which I admit was a total turn-on. (Well, he had some debts and some overvalued real estate. But I overlooked these departures from the script.) On our first date, he told me to get out of the street and go stand on the curb, that he could hail us a cab. He was an alpha male, a self-made man, and clearly comfortable with finance and investment. I exhaled.

In spite of years of paying my own way, I couldn’t hand over the checkbook fast enough. He liked to control the cash, pay the bills, invest the money, and govern the expenses. That was more than fine with me. I had a little money in my IRA, a bit more in a 401(k), and some profits from selling a home I’d bought with a small inheritance from my grandmother. We both had good jobs; we both made good money. He managed it. I spent it. That worked for me. I settled into domestic life all too happy to place my financial future in the hands of someone who would show his love for me by paying for everything.

The dream took some unexpected turns — the first being a period when I was out of work. The balance of power shifted quickly, almost toppling our marriage then and there. But when I found a new job with an even better salary than before, things seemed to even out. But then my husband’s company reorganized dramatically as it prepared to go public. He’d worked for this firm for twenty-plus years and had many stock options that would be worth a substantial payout if he stayed on. The only hitch was that continued employment meant we’d have to move to Singapore for three years. Since I now had what I craved — a child and financial security — it only seemed fair to support my husband’s part of the dream, which involved early retirement, golf, and general relaxation.

I swallowed hard and painted a pretty picture for myself of a life of adventure. I couldn’t hold a traditional job in Singapore (there was no way I would get a work permit), so instead I looked forward to reading the classics, settling into a routine as a full-time mom, traveling, and writing. Except for that earlier three-month period of unemployment, I had never depended on someone else for money, so a part of me wasn’t keen on a repeat performance. But there weren’t a lot of options, and I figured the dependency wasn’t for too long. I trusted that at the end of the trip, we’d have enough money for my husband to do what he wanted, and for me to feel secure. I was more than willing to trade three years of ungovernably frizzy hair on the humid equator for a lifetime of financial ease. My husband transferred our finances, we sold our home, and after a six-month separation — he’d had to move earlier than I could — my son and I packed that box of toys and suitcase full of shorts and T-shirts, and we moved to Singapore.

We already know how that turned out.

So it was that five weeks later, at the age of forty-two, I bumped down on the stormy tarmac of  San Francisco International Airport with no job, no home, and no clue what was going to happen. I had those hundred-dollar bills and, as it turned out, a small savings account, but almost everything else — even the joint credit card I carried — was in my husband’s name and under his control half a world away.

This could have been my Scarlett O’Hara moment when I turned draperies into finery and pulled my metaphoric carrots from the earth, proclaiming, “I’ll never be hungry again!” But that’s not what happened. Instead, I collapsed on my friend Sue’s sofa with a box of tissues and didn’t move much for quite a while. As I lay there, my predicament slowly came into focus. I — who had devoted much of my life to making sure I would be financially safe and secure both through work and marriage — had handed my husband that power and now found my economic stability vanished within a matter of weeks. Just like that, I’d fallen through my carefully crafted safety net.

In my stunned and prone state, something became very clear: I could no longer afford the murky and oblique relationship to money I had maintained for most of my adult life. I had to admit that I held a good deal of responsibility for my situation. It was the price I paid for not wanting to think about my financial state, and it explained how I, an independent woman with twenty-plus years of career behind her, had come to be splayed on a couch in San Francisco, watching as El Niño dumped buckets of water down the steep hills and the gray streets.

My reluctant examination of my convoluted relationship with money began in earnest that day. It ultimately led to conversations with hundreds of other women — Americans, Brits, Australians, Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Central and South Americans. I talked to women from twenty years old to eighty. I met women online, through financial self-help groups, and through friends of friends of friends. It didn’t take much prodding to get them talking. It turns out that when it comes to money, women everywhere have so many fears and fantasies in common. Some differences in behaviors existed due to both generational and cultural differences, but studies backed up my impression that basic similarities existed under these disparities. One 2004 study commissioned by a Japanese investment bank showed that a forty-nine-year-old Japanese woman had the same priority as her forty-nine-year-old American counterpart — saving for retirement because she feared the man in her life took too many risks with money and was putting her old age in jeopardy.

When I would begin an interview, the woman would inevitably start out by sighing really deeply. “Money,” she would say, pausing. Then she would tell me that while she didn’t care about money for its own sake, she did care about what it could purchase: freedom, peace of mind, identity, social position, a nice life for herself and her family, some good things, and real independence. Not to mention really nice shoes. “How much do you need in order feel secure about those things?” I would ask. The answer rarely wavered; it was some version of “I don’t know. All I know is I don’t have enough.”

It didn’t matter what a woman’s age was or whether she lived in a trailer or gated community; when it came to “enough,” no two dollars were created equal. Some women believed that $100,000 would solve all their problems, and others were convinced that if they had $1 million, they would experience the same fears, only bigger. “Enough?” one woman echoed when I asked her what number represented that concept. “There’s no such thing as ‘enough.’”

Excerpted from, "Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions and Cash." Copyright 2006 by Liz Perle. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.

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