Money, A Memoir
1SECRETS AND LIESTHE ONLY TIME I EVER HEARD MY ELEGANT GRANDMOTHER use a Yiddish word, I was nine years old. Sitting on one of the twin beds in her bedroom (it had been years since she'd slept anywhere near my grandfather), I watched her search through one of her bureau drawers as she kept up an uninterrupted monologue detailing her version of the facts of life. These had nothing to do with biology, but with an unwritten but inexorable code of behavior to which all young women must militantly adhere. My mother had died a year earlier, and ever since that bewildering August day, I had been the regular recipient of tokens of my grandmother's philosophy: white gloves, random costume jewelry, a sanitary napkin belt that looked like a medieval torture device, embroidery lessons, and other flotsam that reflected her sense of what a girl needed in order to survive and triumph. Mostly this involved serious training in the artof becoming a marriageable young woman (that being the end goal of everything).This day, she was on a tear. Drawers opened, stockings shoved aside, scarves pushed into corners, each new thrust released the scent of Chanel No. 5. Her search took on a kind of urgency I hadn't seen before. Finally, she pulled out a strange and tiny woven metal sack from the bottom of a drawer of underwear. The object fit in her hand and seemed to be made of spun gold. It had some kind of cap on the top and a pin so a woman could securely attach it to her clothing."It's a reticule," she said, opening the mouth of this misshapen and minute bag. Seeing my completely blank expression, she continued. "It's something a woman wears to keep her valuables hidden."This I had never seen.My grandmother went over to her pocketbook, a black patent leather rectangle with a silver clasp that I liked to snap open and shut. She removed a $20 bill, folded it twice, and stuck it into the bizarre purse, which she then handed to me."This is the beginning of your knipple," she said, pronouncing this alien word "kah-nipple." "It's a woman's private stash. Every woman needs one. A just-in-case account. Every woman needs money of her own that her husband never knows about. So she can do what she wants. What she needs. Remember that."Long after my grandmother died, I recalled thisconversation and its promise of secrecy and peril. It would be thirty years, though, before I would really understand what she meant.
SO IT WAS that before I learned the facts of life, I was instructed in the facts of money. Money would take care of me. I should do whatever it took to get some and squirrel it away. Money would come from my husband and possibly protect me from him at the same time. With it, I would be safe. But this path to security was indirect, extremely secret, and very, very important.I received one other explicit money instruction from my grandmother. It had to do with not talking about it. On one of my frequent afternoon visits spent playing with the earrings and necklaces in her white leather jewelry box, I asked her if she and my grandfather were rich or poor. "You never talk about money," she pronounced. "It's private."End of story.In my grandmother's hierarchy of what mattered in life, money silently reigned. She believed that at the end of the day, a woman's safety and security (not to mention social position) depended on it. It clearly didn't matter by what desperate or devious means a woman acquired this money--just so long as she had it. But God forbid anyone should talk about it. This big important thing that would be so critical to my safety and freedom.Until a few years ago, my grandmother's message satpristinely in my gray matter, intact and unexamined, largely because I wasn't even aware of its presence. But that didn't stop her perspective from informing my thinking. Sure, my understanding of money and income had been updated. On the surface, I behaved like a financially responsible and frequently rational fiscal creature. I worked, saved, and paid my bills (well, most of them). Experience had taught me that my grandmother was right--that with my own income, I was sovereign over my life. But emotionally, my feelings about money's importance hadn't advanced much. Unfortunately, my stubborn refusal to look at these feelings led to occasional outbreaks of indirect, often manipulative behavior around people who could supply cash, erratic episodes of compulsive spending followed by anxious hoarding, and a general and omnipresent lack of trust about who could best provide for me.
WHETHER WE WANT to admit it or not, each of us has a relationship to money that goes beyond the getting and spending. Money is never just money; it's our proxy for identity and love and hope and promises made and perhaps never fulfilled. It's our social sorter. It's the ticket to our dreams. Yet there's a conversational force field around the topic that repels discussion. "Don't count your money in front of the poor," a friend once snapped at me after I'd mentioned how much I'd paid for a leather skirt. For the life of me, as I looked around, I couldn't see the poor person to whom shewas referring. But all these many years later I can still feel the sting of humiliation at being exposed as insensitive, selfish, and greedy. Few topics are as guilt inducing and taboo as this one.Our silence doesn't serve, however. It seals in dubious advice (like my grandmother's), allows outdated moral prejudices to persist (money is filthy lucre)--not to mention gender roles (it isn't ladylike to be materialistic)--and protects serious social inequalities like the fact that men and women remain unequally compensated for the same jobs. The need to be secretive robs us of a way to examine our ambivalent feelings about our materialistic and emotionally dependent attitudes and impulses. Silence shields us from seeing how, unconsciously, we broker invisible deals to make sure we get what we want and stay safe and secure. And it keeps us from examining the toll those agreements exact. Finally, our silence means women can't be released from the low-level and often undetected feelings of anxiety, guilt, envy, anger, hunger, and fear that money inspires.There's nothing I want as badly that I'm more ashamed of wanting than money. No wonder I don't like to talk about it. Yet how will I ever address my relationship with this forbidden subject if I don't?
WOMEN RELATE TO money much differently than men do. There are many reasons large and small why this is true. When I ask Stephen Goldbart, a prominent psychotherapistand codirector of the Money, Meaning, and Choices Institute, about these differences, he tells me that they are ancient and deeply embedded psychologically and biologically in both sexes. These differences are so old, so deep, and such a part of our basic wiring that they cannot be ignored. "There are strong gender differences when it comes to money--differences of identity and of historical roles. For men, the interplay of money and love and power has not really changed in thousands of years; they have always been the providers, and their identities and power come from this old survival-based role."Goldbart has spent years observing how both men and women commingle money and power, which, he says, they need to do in order to survive. While men directly equate money and power, women, who have traditionally had no access to money, combine the two in a very particular way that has a lot to do with romantic love."Historically, money was melded with being provided for and taken care of. Thus it's a challenge for women to separate out love and money," Goldbart points out. "The degree to which a man provided for a woman has been her sustenance and her life. Therefore, for a woman, a man's success and his sharing of that success financially is more than just what we see in her lifestyle. On an unconscious level, it has to do with knowing that she and her children will survive. When we talk about money, we're talking about providing for basic human needs; this is basic human wiring. And while these providing and dependent roleshave changed in the last seventy-five years, to brain stem psychology, that is no time at all."The way we're raised also has much to do with the different approaches men and women have to money. Somehow I sincerely doubt my grandmother pulled either of my male cousins into her boudoir and handed them a secret sack with a $20 bill in it. They weren't told that their social and financial security would be determined by their marriages or that talking about money was "not done," immoral, selfish, tacky, or just plain bad manners--quite the contrary. Joline Godfrey, the CEO of Independent Means and author of Raising Financially Fit Kids, reassures me that my family experience is far from unusual. Godfrey, a financial educator, feels that our culture remains stuck in the belief that we must take care of girls. She observes that we still expect too much from boys financially and too little from girls, and explains that for boys, the issue around money is shame because money is more directly tied to their manhood, whereas womanhood is still very much connected to a girl's beauty and to her ability to connect to others in relationships. Godfrey believes it is easier for women to disconnect from financial responsibilities because our identities aren't at stake if we do. But for boys and men? Money and providing determine their feelings of self-worth.My male cousins understood quite clearly that they'd be judged by their abilities to go out, club the money dragon over its head, and haul home that cash. Holiday dinner conversations centered on what happened in the stock market,other people's (lousy or lucrative) investments, football, and "Did-you-see-the-Shermans'-new-Vista-Cruiser?-Someone-must-be-doing-well" observations of others' good or ill fortunes. We all absorbed the import of these conversations, but as in most families, the emotional impact of these messages differed depending on whether you were the girl cousin or the boy cousin. All of us learned that money would determine our social standing and whether or not we were perceived to be "successful." Indeed, we all went on to have good jobs and good careers. But looking around the table, it was clear for the girl cousins that we had two paths to this achievement: We could get there by work or by marriage.For the most part, men know that society sizes them up rather two-dimensionally by how much they do or don't make. Most (if not all) men grow up with the lurking suspicion that the job description of "manly man" still includes the task of being the classic "provider." "How do men rank their self-esteem?" Goldbart asks. "By their productivity in the world and whether or not they are successful. Most men would still define success in terms of their work and their finances first and their families second." Goldbart feels that the way men view their purpose and judge their value remains unchanged by the fact that women now contribute to family income. "There was a women's--not a men's--revolution," he concludes.Although this bottom-line assessment of a desirably successful man is broadening in tiny increments to include the unquantifiable (and uncompensated) nurturing skills offatherhood, men still understand that their very worth is measured by their financial prowess. They think--and not unjustly--that women evaluate them by how much wealth they can create and how much money they can provide. This is something women don't like to admit they do, but Pamela York Klainer, a financial consultant and the author of How Much Is Enough? has seen it for years in her clients. "Many men tend to want to exaggerate their differences through money. Someone has to be 'top dog,' 'alpha man.' It's clear that men use money as a differentiator. They will show their power by buying expensive gifts for those around them to show that they have 'made it.' It's a form of power. Whereas women will use money to form bonds and friendships."But it's different with women. We may keep a beady eye trained on the wardrobes and kitchen appliances of those around us, but part of keeping pace with our friends lies in the fact that we don't want money to separate us. Put six women together in a room with a range of incomes, and all will find a safe middle ground in order to minimize our differences. We intuitively know that nothing divides us faster than money.Where men use money as shorthand to determine who has the power in a relationship, women will let it be a surrogate for love and attention. This frequently shows up in divorce settlements, where, as Stephen Goldbart has seen, a woman will want a certain amount of money because, psychologically, that money represents all the love the husbanddidn't give her. In this way money compensates for emotional disappointments.Obviously, a continuum of these money behaviors exists on which women and men inhabit both ends of the spectrum and all points in between. But the gist of their comments is clear: With money, men do more than provide; they create social and political hierarchies. They draw their power and position from these fiscal disparities. (It doesn't even have to be their own money. All they need is access to it and the power to dispense it.) But women will downplay their financial differences for the sake of harmony and connection out of the basic female biological and psychological drive to be connected to other women in order to feel safe and to survive. We do this even if it means denying or minimizing our fears and desires.I have one friend I'll call Magda, whom I admire deeply. She's one of the smartest women I've ever met. She's no-nonsense, and she tells it like it is. We enjoyed (and still do) one of those friendships where we could and did tell each other everything, knowing we would call each other on anything where we were kidding ourselves.Then she inherited $60 million.I would be lying if I said her windfall had no effect on me. I started walking on eggshells around her for fear she might think I was her friend only because she was so damn rich. At the time, I was mid-divorce, still homeless, sleeping on the lower half of my best friend's youngest daughter's leftover bunk bed. Magda's sudden abundance short-circuitedme for a while. My first thought on hearing of these astronomical millions was "Gee, can't she spare one of them? She'd never miss it, and I could really use it." The truth is, all I could see was her wealth and my neediness. Her money mirrored back my own emotional feeling of scarcity. I was ashamed of these feelings, and our friendship became, for a time, stained by the secret I now kept from her--that of my envy and my fear of how she'd suddenly see me.As Cyndi Lauper sang, "Money changes everything."
THE THERAPISTS OLIVIA Millan and Karina Piskaldo take these observations one step further. "Men are raised to see the world as hierarchical and competitive," they say. "There's always a one-up and one-down position, a winner and a loser. Women see the world as cooperative and democratic; they share. In addition, they are allowed--even encouraged--to be needy and vulnerable, while men are discouraged from such display." 1These may be gross generalizations, but that doesn't make them any less true.Needy and vulnerable. Two red flags that create a state of alert in me. I don't want to be either one of those things. I don't know a single one of my girlfriends who wants to be one of those things either. But as I push aside my irritation at the adjectives, underneath I feel a bit caught out. Needy and vulnerable apply to me more than I would ever like to admit. In fact, it's precisely my fear of being either one thathas done the most to spur my economic autonomy. Yet it's exactly these two qualities that are my inheritance, because I learned how to be a woman from someone who, like all her ancestors, had to depend on men to survive.It's as simple as this: On the one hand, as a creature of the postwar, baby-boom, women's-movement times of the latter half of the twentieth century, I grew up defining myself as an independent, self-supporting woman. I don't even question it. It's my identity, it's my economic reality, and it's my right. I depend on my independence.And yet there's still that other part of me--the one that wants to reserve the option of depending on someone else. That ancient desire may have primitive roots in survival, but it also feels familiar. Growing up in my mother's and grandmother's worlds, I learned that part of being a woman meant taking care of the children and home while husbands took care of the financial security. In that world, it feels normal to maintain the illusion of financial dependency. It's a place where I can step away from my worries about whether I am smart enough or interested enough to properly invest my IRA or whether I have enough rainy-day money set aside for when I'm laid off or fired. Because I have often confused care with cash, there have been times when, sitting in the middle of a semicircle of income tax forms, I want nothing more than to pack it all in and let someone else show me how much they love me by taking away all my financial burdens.Besides, women worry about money more than men do. A survey conducted by Redbook magazine in conjunctionwith Smart Money magazine found that fully one out of every three women classified themselves as worriers, versus less than one in five men.2 Much of this has to do with our legacy as women and the fact that, for most of recorded history, we weren't allowed to have money of our own. (In many cases, we were the money.) Instead, our currency involved beauty, strength, health, and the ability to reproduce like bunnies. Because we were forbidden to own or inherit property, our path to financial security lay through men. The better we were at the womanly arts of nurturance and care, the more attractive we were. The larger our fathers' fortunes and thus our dowries, the better our chances were of survival and safety. Law and custom ensured that we had to depend on men, institutions, or families to provide for us. We did whatever we could to be safe and guarantee our children's safety. We learned to trade ourselves for cash in the most direct of ways.But in the last fifty years, all that changed. Sofia, a nurse in her midforties, remembers growing up in the 1970s in New York. "My mother was a part-time switchboard operator; my father was a bartender. I watched my mother beg my father for money as he lied about where his paycheck went. He drank and gambled, so sometimes nothing was left even the day he got paid. But as I was growing up with all this, the women's movement was going on in the background, and it informed my feelings about how I was going to be as an adult. I swore I would never be a victim like my mother. All of a sudden, there were alternatives."Any woman born after the end of World War II experienced an explosion of role models, whether or not she or her mother actively participated in the women's movement. The simple fact that women began to gain economic independence and equal status was enough to thoroughly upend the economic model that had been the norm for the middle class. Suddenly, women's lives and financial realities changed radically--but much of the rest of how we defined and valued ourselves as women did not. No revolution erased my grandmother's admonitions or my mother's stay-at-home-wife life or those brain cells of mine that at age six recorded Snow White singing, "Someday my prince will come."Reconciling roles and expectations hasn't been so easy for Claire, a tall, stunning brunette in her early thirties. She's on her third "career" (speech pathologist) and digging out from credit card debt from "career" number two (Internet writer). "I was raised not to think about money, and then there was this vicious backlash where I was supposed to generate it," Claire says with an edge in her voice. "We weren't rich or anything. I went to public schools and had to babysit and all that. But we weren't poor either. My mother stayed home and raised us. Until I was in my teens, I never saw her earn a cent. Instead, it seemed that money flowed in and out and wasn't a big issue," she remembers. "Then one day it became clear that to be a success in my parents' eyes, since I hadn't gotten married to a handsome, rich man, I had to earn a certain income. I've never felt I've measured up to theirexpectations, even though I kind of blame them for not clueing me in earlier."Claire felt a sense of betrayal when she realized she was completely unschooled in how to take care of herself financially. As a girl, she watched as her father drilled her older brother on the need to make money. "Your sisters will get married, so they will be okay," he would say to Claire's only brother. "But you're going to have to make it on your own." Claire shakes her head as she remembers this. "My sisters and I never got that message. It was assumed that someone would take care of us."When Claire was in high school, her mother started teaching. "She wasn't terribly interested in business, but she liked to shop, and she liked not having to ask my father for money," she recalls. "But really, I saw two very different approaches to money growing up." Now Claire is trying to navigate between the two roles. "It's left me with a real love/hate thing when it comes to money. I need to make a living, but part of me resents the fact that it isn't ever going to be for me like it was for my mother.""We are still at the very beginning of a huge transition in sex roles, and the result is confusion," Stephen Goldbart observes when I tell him about the women I'd talked to who, like Claire, felt both unprepared and torn between historical gender roles. "The outcome of this confusion is anxiety, identity confusion, and depression. Obsession with money can also be a symptom of the difficulty of feeling solid in one's identity. All this," he concludes, "makes it allthe more urgent for women to come to terms with their money issues."
ALL I HAVE to do is take a look at my own family tree to see how rapidly financial roles have changed. Two generations back, my maternal grandmother catapulted out of poverty by marrying my grandfather. When we were little, she would tell the story of her marriage as though it were a fairy tale. "I was a great beauty," she would tell her granddaughters (the rest of the sentence went, "too bad none of you inherited anything from me"). "Your grandfather fell in love with me at first sight." From there, the story went downhill rapidly since it turned out that, while they lived a materially comfortable life, they never really liked each other very much. But never mind, the lesson went, make yourself as beautiful and as marriageable as possible so that you have financial means.One generation ago, my mother went to college (something my grandmother never would have dreamed of for herself), married my father, found a job, but stopped working when I was born in the mid-1950s. She, like most middle-class women, expected that she'd depend on my father for money. When my grandmother took over for my mother, she taught my cousin, Ginger, and me how to cross-stitch so we could embroider our eventual husbands' pillows and hand towels. According to her script, this dubious (actually ludicrous) talent would ultimately convert intomarriage and, thus, financial security. But within fifteen years of my first sampler, I assumed something she'd never dreamed of: that I would be my husband's full and equal financial partner.That's a lot of territory to traverse in a few short decades--from financial dependency to self-sufficiency, indirection to direction. In the 1950s, the number of women who outearned their husbands was so small that the information wasn't even systematically gathered. But fifty years later, almost one in three women do and our numbers rise every year.3 We control $4 trillion in yearly consumer spending. We make 62 percent of all car purchases. We take 50 percent of all business trips. We control more than 50 percent of all personal wealth in this country.4 And we do this while shouldering the majority of family responsibilities. We've gotten caught in a time warp where our economic realities have changed faster than our expectations and identities.We may be the first generation to experience widescale economic independence, even as old behaviors die hard. We keep quiet about any pride we take in the money we earn for fear of losing not only our feminine appeal but also the relative high moral ground on which we base our sense of un-materialistic identity. It's no longer our parents who silence us. We've taken over the job ourselves. We give ourselves the mixed message that money is simultaneously vitally important and something we shouldn't show we care about. Or if we must, it should be in the service of caring for our families.The fact is that we are caught between two different identities and value systems when it comes to money. As Lois Frankel states in her book Nice Girls Don't Get Rich, "On the one hand, we're taught about the value of money and the need to spend and save it wisely. On the other, we're implicitly or explicitly taught that it's equally important to be kind, nurturing, and collaborative; that our real roles revolve less around money and more around relationships." 5 This double set of money instructions follows us into every situation--work, love, family--and, because of the mutually exclusive nature of these two paths, ensures that no matter what, we feel we've done something wrong with every money decision we make.Most of us go to work every day in rigid environments that were designed for and by men--ones that our presence hasn't changed all that much. It's not surprising that the making of wealth is prized in that environment since that's how men have historically judged their success. But this definition causes a real conundrum for women. In a landmark study on women's quality of life conducted by the Whirlpool Foundation, women overwhelmingly concurred that money and materialism were too important in people's lives. They felt that "materialism, greed, and selfishness increasingly dominate American life, crowding out a more meaningful set of values centered on family, responsibility and balance in their lives." While women weren't "anti" money, those studied felt it should be brought into proportion with "the nonmaterial rewards of life."6The disconnection between a material measurement of our success and a more relational, spiritual one creates a painful emotional conflict for women, one that shadows everything we do. Ask a woman about what truly defines her, and money rarely enters into the equation. But ask her about the center of her worries, and money is always present. A 1995 study by the Merck Family Fund that examined women's work/life balance issues succinctly summed up the problem: "Women are deeply ambivalent about wealth and material gain. While we decry the crass materialism of our society and its consequences, we also want 'success' for our children and ourselves. Most people express strong ambivalence ... they want to have financial security and live in material comfort, but their deepest aspirations are nonmaterial." 7Ten years later, the impact of materialism shows up on our emotions. Too much focus on the material can lead to depression, which makes sense if a good deal of our time is spent worrying about what we can and can't afford. When we think about everything we want or what we could have if we only had the money, it necessarily leaves us in a hungry state of mental deprivation. Yet we also must devote time and energy to making money and caring for ourselves financially, or dire consequences result. As we try to balance these material needs and material desires, we must constantly negotiate between these competing urges, even if we don't realize it. "Any conflict can create tension and anxiety," says Louann Brizendine, a psychiatrist and the director ofthe University of California's Women's Mood and Hormone Control Clinic. "And we all naturally want to avoid those feelings. It's no wonder we don't like to focus on something that leaves us feeling so unsettled." And, according to Brizendine, women experience depression more than twice as much as men do.
THERE'S ANOTHER ANXIETY that often stops our investigation of our relationship with money: Nothing worries us more than the fear of going broke. Anne Richards, the former governor of Texas, once said that her number one worry was ending up living in a trailer in her daughter's driveway. When I asked women about their top five nightmares, winding up a bag lady featured in almost all their scenarios, right along with not having enough money to retire safely. Yet when I asked those same women how much time they spent focused on investing for their retirements, almost all of them said either that they didn't have any money to invest or that they left the management of what they had to husbands or professionals.Here's something that keeps us up at night, that we spend most of our days trying to procure, that we don't care about for its own sake, and about which we either lie with regularity or are completely silent. And too often our response to the conflicted feelings we have is to avoid taking care of ourselves. We bury our feelings at quite a price, however. The fact is that we spend more on face cream and shoesthan we do on our retirement funds. Women routinely don't save enough to survive on when we become widows--which 50 percent of us will be by the age of sixty.8 Women still earn only 78 percent of what men earn for the same jobs,9 and only a third of us have positions that even offer retirement plans.10 And because about half of all working women take time off at some point in our work lives to care for our families, the value of what retirement funds we do have is lowered even further by these interruptions.11 Sometimes the only way to do everything on our plates is to cut back to part-time work. So it doesn't come as a great surprise that 61 percent of all part-time workers are women with little or no access to 401(k) plans.12 More than 58 percent of female baby boomers have saved less than $10,000 in a pension or 401(k) plan. 13 Between one-third and two-thirds of women now thirty-five to fifty-five years old will be impoverished by age seventy.14 The average female born between 1946 and 1964 will likely be in the workforce until she is seventy-four years old due to inadequate financial savings and pension coverage and will not have the resources to maintain the same standard of living she had prior to age sixty-five.15No wonder we get anxious about the whole subject.
LIKE THESE WOMEN, I want to know the money is there. I want to know I won't be on the street at seventy. But I have no desire to read Barron's or follow the stock market. To sayI'm contradictory or irrational on this topic severely skirts the issue. I'm in plain old denial.These fears were my real inheritance from my grandmother. According to her, I wasn't supposed to have to worry about all this. According to her, it was my right as a woman to be cared for, or, if I wasn't, to have secretly cared for myself. But when I had to re-create my life from scratch, it became clear that I literally couldn't afford those ideas anymore. I realized that all that time, I'd been toting around more than a $20 bill in that little sack she gave me. Her very value system was pinned to my metaphoric undergarments. But I no longer had a choice about opening up that magic bag and examining the silent instructions, prejudices, and values it held.Copyright © 2006 by Liz Perle Liz Perle, who worked in book publishing as an editor and publisher for more than twenty years, recently joined the nonprofit world where she is the editor in chief of Common Sense Media, the nation's leading nonpartisan organization designed to help families make the best media choices for their children. She is also the author of When Work Doesn't Work Anymore. Perle lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children.