Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, and Cash, by Liz Perle
Review by ARIEL LEVY
Published: January 29, 2006
MONEY, A MEMOIR
Women, Emotions, and Cash.
By Liz Perle.
269 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $23.
I was not the first girl to hear from a grandmother (or a mother or an aunt) growing up that it's just as easy to marry rich as to marry poor, and I'm not the first woman who's discovered that this is less than the whole story. Many of us start out with a fantasy or a plan, conscious or not, that revolves around a husband whose materialization will swiftly dissolve all financial confusion and lack. Even if we are ambitious and self-possessed, even if we consider ourselves feminists, something may come to pass at some point in our lives that forces us to admit that we've been operating as if making money were a side effect of following our passions rather than the cure itself.
In "Money, a Memoir," we learn that Liz Perle came to this realization many days late and many dollars short. She'd quit her job (as a book publisher) and moved herself, her young son and all their possessions to Singapore because a husband who she already suspected was out of love with her had taken a job there. Shortly after her arrival, she was unceremoniously dumped: "Prince Charming had left the building," as she puts it. Perle returned to the States to crash on a friend's couch with her child and her worldly possessions: $1,500 and a box of toys.
Gone was the San Francisco youth she'd spent in a cheap apartment in the Mission, rooming with a guy who greeted her every morning with the words "Hail, Comrade." Perle had come to lust after six-burner stoves and elegant clothes and found herself "facing the equivalent of sticker shock for what I'd come to call my normal life," which she could not begin to afford.
One wonders why she was suddenly quite so broke after a successful 20-plus year career as a publishing executive and a split from a man who she tells us was a bad match but not a bad guy. (Perle remained friends with her first husband and thanks him in the acknowledgments of this book, calling him "supportive in all ways.") But the specifics of her circumstances remain murky and these questions go unanswered because, despite its title, "Money, a Memoir," isn't so much an examination of Perle's own muddled relationship with money as an amalgam of anecdotes, wild assertions about the inherent nature of women and strained conclusions about the intersection of the two.
Perle tells us, approvingly paraphrasing one financial consultant, that "on top of our basic nature, the culture has not encouraged or prepared women to ask for money with the same ease as men." The cultural part is almost certainly true and helps account for why women still make less than men do, but I have to wonder whose basic nature she's referring to: mine? hers? Zsa Zsa Gabor's? Shirley Chisholm's? These are not all the same. Even if we were to accept Perle's conviction that all women are hard-wired to prioritize human connection over personal gain, we would still have to question her assumption that these things are at odds. There is another name for making human connections in the business world: networking.
At times, Perle's allegiance to the idea that men are one way and women another is undercut by her own subjects' testimony. Perle says she interviewed nearly 200 women, and at least a handful of men are also quoted in her book, along with scads of "experts" who range from the predictable (the financial editor of "The Today Show") to the dubious (a "financial stress reducer") and for whose ideas Perle reserves roughly the same level of skepticism I might for words from the verifiable voice of God. To illustrate that men supposedly don't resent supporting their spouses while women do, for instance, Perle gives us this quotation from a stockbroker about his jobless wife: "I once calculated that if she ever died, even after paying a sitter for the kids and whatnot, I'd be saving money." Perle interprets this as a humorous bit of fluff that belies this guy's pride that he's made it, in contrast to her own experience of "irritation bordering on downright anger" toward her second husband, who makes less and spends more than she does. Perle is strangely blind to the fact that she's just told us about a man who fantasizes about his wife's death as a cost-saving measure. Surely we can detect at least a trace of irritation in his feelings too.
What's frustrating about Perle's tropism toward generalizations and evasions is that her subject matter and, at times, her writing about her own fiscal experiences and feelings are so interesting. But whenever she gets too close to nuance and specificity, Perle seems to run for cover under pronouncements about womankind rather than continue on the unmarked path toward insight.
"Money, a Memoir," by Liz Perle: $23. A book that really nailed the meanings and mysteries of money as it relates to gender: priceless.
Ariel Levy is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the author of "Female Chauvinist Pigs."
Two takes on personal finance and conquering the high cost of living.
By Reviewed by Anya Kamenetz
Sunday, February 5, 2006; BW08
MONEY, A MEMOIR
Women, Emotions, and Cash
By Liz Perle
Henry Holt. 269 pp. $23
YOUR MONEY AND YOUR MAN
How You and Prince Charming Can Spend Well and Live Rich
By Michelle Singletary
Random House. 275 pp. $19.95
A middle-aged woman who has given up her career to mind her small child and moved around the world for her husband's job suddenly finds herself divorced, homeless and unemployed. This is the doozy of an opener to Liz Perle's intriguing yet frustrating meditation, Money, a Memoir , which she calls, "my reluctant examination of my convoluted relationship with money." This very personal task takes her into conversation with hundreds of women as well as a raft of experts of varying credibility, including an evolutionary psychologist who calls it "basic human wiring" for women to expect men to be providers and to equate money with love. I guess this basic wiring kicked in sometime after the hunter-gatherer phase, when both sexes divided the essential work of providing.
Perle also employs sheaves of statistics, not always well-organized or well-chosen, to bolster various points along the way: "Women comprise a horrifying 87 percent of the impoverished elderly," she proclaims with little context. For its socioeconomic analysis about the precarious position of the middle class, this book leans heavily on some excellent works: The Two-Income Trap , by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi; The Overspent American , by Juliet B. Schor; and The Price of Motherhood , by Ann Crittenden. Perle interviews and quotes these authors as well, which makes this book a good cheat sheet if you don't have time to read the originals.
Yet the heart of this book -- the actual memoir part -- is compelling. Perle takes us back to her grandmother's bedroom, where she learned that a woman always needs a knippel -- a secret stash (the Yiddish word, incidentally, also refers to a woman's virginity). Since then, she confesses, the issues of getting and spending have been fraught with secrecy, anxiety and ambivalence. She pined for a man to take care of her even as she ground away at publishing jobs, afraid to ask for a raise. She stole cash from her husband to pay for a painting of the family gamboling in an apple orchard -- a symbol, she says, "of my tangled dependency of safety and love and cash." She articulates internal contradictions that many women will recognize: covetous of good things yet afraid of showing it, outwardly independent yet expecting dates to foot the bill, self-indulgent in the short term yet willfully negligent about investments and savings. "We spend to feel safe, but in the spending, we chip away at the ground beneath our feet," she writes, a diagnosis that could take in our entire culture. It's not until she finds herself back on her feet as a single mother with a new, albeit slowed-down, career, a smaller house, and a happy relationship with a less well-off man that she learns to trust in her own abilities as a provider and to realize this simple fact: "Money would help support the people I loved. Nothing more and nothing less."
Michelle Singletary could have told Perle that. "There are a lot of women who don't think they can become prosperous on their own," she snaps in the first chapter of Your Money and Your Man. "They think a man is a plan." Singletary is a syndicated financial columnist for The Washington Post and a font of no-nonsense financial wisdom, much of it dispensed in the name of Big Mama, the grandmother who raised her. The book is bursting with excellent and clear instructions for women both single and coupled on everything from budgeting to investing to handling taxes. Reading it, I was inspired to improve my investment profile with some certificates of deposit, beef up my savings regime and exchange credit reports with my fiancé, a prenuptial step she calls absolutely necessary. She also has plenty of good advice for women on spotting an overspender, lending money to boyfriends (don't do it) and otherwise protecting themselves financially.
Taking Singletary's advice does require a grain of salt. Some readers may be turned off by her frankly Christian outlook, with scriptural quotes throughout. And some of her rules, summed up at the end of each section, seem more like moral judgments. She's against cohabitation, even for engaged couples; she thinks soliciting cash gifts for your wedding is "avaricious," and she doesn't like prenuptial agreements. You may or may not agree with her (I'm with her on the last two), but surely these choices are usually financially neutral.
Fascinatingly, the emotional subtext of the book presents exactly the sort of muddle that Perle explores. While extolling the virtues of trust and openness in relationships, Singletary addresses the reality of wives who squirrel away money from their husbands and hide purchases, boyfriends who want you to cosign car loans and then evaporate. She pooh-poohs separate accounts for married couples, saying, "When you get married, it's not about you anymore. 'You' cease to exist. Your life is now about the two of 'you.' " Then, 50 pages later, she asks, "But what if he turns out to be a lying dog?"
Those contradictions aside, while Perle's books is a good headscratcher for women interested in pondering the higher meaning of money, Singletary's guide is for a much wider audience -- those who simply could use more money to spend. ·
Anya Kamenetz is a freelance writer in New York whose first book, "Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young," is out this month.
from the January 31, 2006 edition -
For too many of today's women, money remains a scary and emotional topic.
By Marilyn Gardner
Money: A MemoirWomen, Emotions, and Cash
By Liz Perle
Henry Holt272 pp., $23
Liz Perle was only 9 years old when her elegant grandmother started teaching her what she considered the financial facts of life. Lesson One began, "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."
Lesson Two soon followed: "You never talk about money. It's private."
Years later, after a series of financial ups and downs, Perle realized that her grandmother was right about that bank account of one's own. But she also knew that Grandma had been wrong about remaining tight-lipped on financial issues. Women's reluctance to talk openly and honestly about money - with friends, husbands, children, bosses, divorce lawyers - harms marriages, careers, and retirement, she warns.
Perle lays out the sobering facts in her illuminating book, Money: A Memoir. When it comes to finances, she observes, women are in denial, big-time.
They often lie about what they spend, even shaving a few dollars off the price of something as mundane as lipstick.
Many are afraid to ask for a raise. Some invest more heavily in wardrobes and homes than in IRAs and savings. Lured by the siren call of marketers selling an unattainable American dream, they spend defiantly.
Whatever their financial status, women cling to conflicting dreams: They want to be independent, yet long to be taken care of.
As Perle writes, "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."
Prince Charming, where are you?
Such dreams begin in childhood. Boys are still raised to be providers, girls nurturers.
When a girl starts baby-sitting, Perle notes, the parents hiring her may ask, "What do you charge?" "Whatever you want to pay me," the girl might reply.
If she does a good job, someone will say, "You're so good with children." By contrast, if her brother mows lawns to earn money, he's likely to win praise for being enterprising. No one will tell him, "You're so good with lawns."
Even in adulthood, women continue to give themselves mixed messages that "money is simultaneously vitally important and something we shouldn't show we care about."
Yet when Perle asks women about their top five nightmares, becoming a bag lady ranks high, along with not having enough money in retirement.
Women are typically more conservative investors than men. At the same time, their track record is often better because they don't trade stocks as often as men.
For everyone, the complexities run deep. "Money is never just money," Perle observes. "It's our proxy for identity and love and hope and promises made and perhaps never fulfilled."
Marriage, especially, can become an economic testing ground and power struggle. Massive social changes in recent decades have left many couples confused about who is supposed to supply what in a marriage.
Perle emphasizes that this is not a how-to book of financial advice. Instead, it could be considered a how-not-to book, showing how not to fall into financial peril and ruin.
With candor and self-deprecating humor, she offers herself as Exhibit A. Although she came from an upper-middle-class family and held well-paying publishing jobs, she often ignored basic principles of money management.
When she married, she turned over her economic life to her husband. The arrangement appeared to work until they moved to Singapore for his job. He decided he wanted a divorce.
As he put her and their 4-year-old son on a plane to San Francisco, he stuffed $1,500 in her hands and said goodbye. So much for fiscal stability.
Perle has met women who are very comfortable with money, who understand what money can and cannot do to their lives.
Still, so pervasive are the challenges that a majority of her readers will probably see themselves somewhere in its pages.
To call the book a memoir is to stretch the conventional image of that genre. It is autobiographical, to be sure.
But it also contains the voices of other women who make cameo appearances to share their own financial tales, along with the voices of financial experts.
Whatever its classification, the book contains a message that needs to be heard and heeded, not only to benefit women but also to give their offspring a better financial example.
As Perle cautions, "We're raising a generation of children with high lifestyle aspirations but no concept of how to achieve them."
Nine out of 10 women will be financially on their own at some point in their lives. Yet more than half of American women have no pension coverage, compared to a quarter of men.
Underscoring the urgency implicit in statistics like these, Perle says, "There comes a point in all women's lives where we have to take command of our economic destinies."
As her book makes abundantly clear, today would be a good time to start.
Marilyn Gardner is a Monitor staff writer.
The Journal News
FOR THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original Publication: February 7, 2006)
Walk into any bookstore or flip on any daytime talk show, and you'll come across women dissecting their relationships: with their partners, their kids, their mothers, the entire male population. But you won't find them discussing their relationship with one of the most essential parts of their lives: money.
Sure, you'll find endless pep talks and how-tos about managing money. But before a woman can get to that point, author Liz Perle argues in "Money, a Memoir: Women, Emotions, Cash" (Henry Holt), she first needs to understand how she feels about money, what it means to her, how it defines her. That's something most women are loath to do; after all, good girls aren't supposed to focus on such crass material topics, right?
Except, of course, they do, from the surprisingly prevalent (albeit largely unspoken) belief that someone else will take care of them financially, to the ambivalence many women feel about leaving home to support their kids. Women's complex emotions about money show up in their marriages and divorces, their job negotiations and investment portfolios. In Money, Perle reflects on her own lifelong struggles with the M-word and interviews social scientists and regular women to get a sense of how women really feel about money, and how those feelings too often get in their way.
The Journal News: There's a raft of these — to use your term — Smart Women Finish Rich-type books, and it sounds like you've probably read a lot of them at various points in your life.
Liz Perle: I've also bought a lot of diet books, with the same results.
JN: What did you get from those books?
LP: I usually got a headache, followed by a panic attack; shortly on the heels of the panic attack I'd just feel completely ashamed of how uninterested I was in doing all the things they suggest. It's like a diet book — they tell me exactly what I already know. You want to lose weight? Move more, eat less. Not rocket science. You want to have more money? Make more, spend less, save more. But then you do a budget, write down everything you spend in a week, put away 10 percent for this, 2 percent for that. I felt very insufficient and not up to the task. And it wasn't brain power. I don't know a single woman on the planet who's not up to the task. I just didn't want to do it, and I wanted to figure out why. …
I had a very different goal than teaching people how to manage their money, or even face their spending habits. What I wanted women to see was that very often we make financial transactions for emotional reasons and that our finances and our emotions are all bound up together, and until we separate out the two consciously, we're going to be trying to purchase something that money can't buy.
JN: Even as women have become more a part of the workplace, the economy, and seen our earning power go up, even if not on par with men, it seems there has not been a corresponding trend of women taking charge of their finances.
LP: It's not just women. You read in the paper about how people just aren't putting anything away; we had negative savings last year, as a country. We're so infatuated with debt and our credit cards, and impulsive about [spending].
There are many levels to this. One is not putting enough away, but one of the greatest mistakes women make is not negotiating for a better salary. … Not negotiating a salary offer on your first job, the statistic is you're likely to lose more than half a million dollars by the time you're 60. Men are four times as likely to negotiate than women. …
Part of it is, if you ask a woman if she cares about money for its own sake, she'll say, "Absolutely not." And that's because our identities don't incorporate material measures as much as other things. There's a material measure in there, but there's a much wider range of yardsticks for women, in terms of their worth and identity and whether or not they've achieved success. I think that creates a lot of conflict around the material side. ... Society's got a double standard when it come to women, and women have internalized that. … Women feel vaguely shameful to like money. If that emotion, shame, is fueling salary negotiations, that half-million dollar wage gap starts to look more realistic.
JN: One striking thing from your book was how many women on some level still have the idea that they can avoid dealing with their finances because they'll have a partner some day who'll take care of them — Prince Charming.
LP: That Prince Charming can be a job, a parent — it's anything that can bail you out and fill the gap between what you have and what you want. … For many years, women struck a bargain: You can have my free labor as long as you take care of me. That bargain was in full force just a few generations ago. We were the money, we bartered our free labor to people who had money. Then we took that form into work with us.
JN: You write about how your "inner stewardess" sabotaged you, in your career and your personal relationships.
LP: I refer to her purposely by this very outdated term, because it is this culture ideal that I think has always been more a fantasy than a reality, this submissive and pleasing person, the one who takes care of other people so she'll be taken care of in return. The idea that I will connect to you no matter what the economic price to me. That is what you see in salary negotiations with young women. They're so happy to just be given a job, and so afraid to lose the connection, or the job, they're willing to give up economically for it. Men don't do that.
JN: What baggage do men carry about money?
LP: Men have a harder time of it, I think. Society judges them very narrowly, still, by what they do and how much they make. Everything else is seen as sort of accessories — the artistic urge, the familial urge, all those other wonderful things men absolutely have don't really register in how society values you, and I think it's very unfair. … My husband is home for dinner every night; we have family dinner every night. He's not valued in society for that. He's treasured by his family. If he wanted to double his income, he could take a job that made him travel constantly, but he's made a decision that has a financial impact, that this is how he wants to live his life.
JN: You write about how many of us belong to the "emotional middle class" — what does that mean?
LP: When I interviewed these women, they would say they're middle class — whether they're making $35,000 [or] they're making $350,000. I'd ask women, "If someone died tomorrow, how much would you need to inherit to feel good about your life?" and it would go from $100,000 to $100 million. And yet all these people self-identified as middle class. I thought. what is this? And I realized that what they were talking about wasn't a financial place; it was an emotional place. It is what money can buy you emotionally, and that is a sense of security, a sense of being taken care of, a nice home, good schools for your kids … travel, toys, a nice car. All these things add up to the picture of the life people wanted to live that would make them feel they had succeeded and emotionally were satisfied.
I realized the reason they were all middle class is they were all judging themselves against this uber-luxury that we can all now buy little bits and pieces of with our credit cards. That's the life of the most wealthy. And they were all afraid with the way they were spending they could drop into penury and fall below the economic safety net. They're in the middle — not in the middle income-wise, but in the middle of two emotional states, one where they'd never have any worries again and one where all they'd do is worry. I'm a card-carrying member of [the emotional middle class].
JN: You acknowledge that the kinds of fears you have about money still reflect a privileged status.
LP: You bet. As a matter of fact, it almost stopped me from writing the book, because I felt so guilty about it. … I don't ever want to pretend that my problems are anything other than high-class problems. As I say in the book, my fears are a pale shadow against the tyranny of need. The gap between rich and poor in this country is continuing to grow. That is a whole other issue, and one that I don't ever, ever want to lose sight of.
Women And Money
By ANDREA SACHS
Feb. 6, 2006
At a time when memoir writers have become ever more extravagant in their claims (calling James Frey), you wouldn't think Liz Perle's confession that she had never balanced her checkbook would cause a ripple. But Perle, the author of Money, a Memoir, has a résumé that commands attention in the publishing world--and among the fiscally responsible. At various points in her career, Perle has been the publisher of Prentice Hall, Addison Wesley and William Morrow/Avon. Given how high she rose in the book business, how could she be so neglectful of her personal finances?
She wonders about that too. In her new book, subtitled Women, Emotions, and Cash, Perle explores the disconnect between her work life and her personal life. "I was fearless about making decisions for corporations but totally full of fear about making my own," she admits. As far as money was concerned, she says, "I would do what it took to get it--work hard, marry right--but I didn't want to have to think about it."
Not a good strategy, Perle discovered when her husband walked out with all the family finances in his name. In the aftermath, Perle was forced to confront her fiscal shortcomings. "Disappointments, reversals, divorce or death have taught us that we have to take direct responsibility for our financial lives," she writes.
Perle is not a traditional financial writer in the school of Suze Orman but rather a keen psychological observer of her own guilt, magical thinking and emotional dodges when it comes to money. Using herself as an example, she offers rules for how women can resist the fiscal wrongheadedness dragging them down. Among them:
Get Real It took Perle years. "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," she writes.
Examine the State of the Union Marriage is a financial contract, like it or not, says the author. "Most of us steadfastly refuse to look at it that way--until we have to."
Keep Your Eye on the Bottom Line Perle says ruefully, "I had drunk the cultural Kool-Aid that told me that having a husband meant social and fiscal security and that I wouldn't have to deal with my own financial well-being."
Resist Your "Inner Stewardess" "During those panicky episodes when I feel the urgent need to stay connected to money at any cost, she pops out with her jaunty little hat and white gloves," she says.
Perle's take-home message: stop trying to please other people when your wallet is at stake.
Liz Perle's memoir is about what money can do to women
by Lynn Andriani -- Publishers Weekly, 12/19/2005
Liz Perle is already seated at the table when I arrive at Fleur de Sel, a small, elegant French restaurant on 20th Street in Manhattan. She smiles, shakes my hand, and we're off chatting as if we've known each other forever. She's easy to talk to and we compare notes on New York, where Perle lived and worked in publishing for years, and about San Francisco, where she lives now.
But the conversation comes to a full stop when, in a riff about shopping, Perle tells me how she got a fabulous pair of boots at Payless for $39 and I say "Good for you!" Perle raises her eyebrows at me and says, "See what you just said? 'Good for you'? We're all programmed that way, as if there's a virtue in that fiscal anorexia!" And so begins in earnest my conversation with the author of Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions and Cash.
My lauding the fact that Perle (pronounced "Pearly") found a good deal on a pair of boots is just one example of the kinds of behavior she dissects in her book, which Holt will publish in February. The memoir (of sorts) addresses the guilt, fear and embarrassment that come with spending; women's lack of confidence when it comes to negotiating for a higher salary; the non-interest many women display when it comes to managing their finances and investing for their future; and the conflicting set of "money instructions" women learn: spend and save money wisely, but remember, a woman's "real role" revolves less around money and more around relationships. It's a fascinating, anxiety-inducing, ultimately eye-opening book that defies categorization.
"I think I realized how much time I was spending worrying about money," Perle says when I ask what drove her to write the book. "I was worried on a level that was not healthy. I realized that I didn't open my statements from the mutual funds people, that I didn't open my Visa bills. I thought, 'You have run companies and managed their budgets. Why can't you look at your own?' I have never balanced a check book in my life. I do it by touch and feel. Not because I'm too busy; not because I'm cocky. But because I don't want to think about it. And I thought, 'There's something really wrong here.' " So Perle started to examine her own life through the prism of money, and the ensuing book is very personal. But it's not just about Liz Perle (who is editor in chief of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that reviews media for kids). She also interviewed 200 women, as well as financial education experts, financial consultants, sociologists and therapists.
The book's wide-net approach is its strength; anyone reading it will recognize themselves and people they know. Perle, who wrote When Work Doesn't Work: Women, Work, and Identity in 1997, and was vice-president and publisher of several publishing houses, including William Morrow/Avon Books, Addison-Wesley and Prentice Hall Press (Simon & Schuster), and associate publisher of Bantam Books, explains, "What I found, as both an author and a publisher, is that when you're dealing with emotional issues, there's no substitute for sharing stories." So she talked to women of all stripes whom she met in financial support groups online and learned some surprising things. One of her most startling findings, she tells me, was "how quickly women sell themselves out. How little women really value their time and their contributions. And it broke my heart." Perle spoke with women who were getting divorced and believed they didn't deserve a cent from their husbands, women who undercharge clients for services, and women who don't negotiate for fair salaries.
Perle acknowledges that she's guilty of the third offense (not asking to be paid what you're worth). Her first "real" job was as an editorial assistant at Canfield Press, a division of what was then called Harper & Row. It was the late 1970s; Perle's salary was $6,500 a year and she spent her days "typing and filing and covering for a textbook editor who had trouble finding his way into the office every day." Within a few years she'd taken a new job, as an assistant to the associate publisher of the trade-book division of the same company, and learned that "good work alone didn't guarantee anything. We were all expendable." So she adopted a "supportive and silent and self-effacing" attitude when it came to co-workers, bosses and money. "If I didn't demand," she rationalized, "they'd like me and be less inclined to fire me." At her annual performance appraisals, she'd think to herself, "Gee, Matthew is making ten thousand dollars more than I am for the same job," but out loud, would say, "Thank you. Thank you so very much."
Perle believes that this reticence to speak up is about power—or lack of it. "We all take potshots at people like Arianna Huffington, who I think the world of, or Judith Regan. But I'd like to celebrate [their power] instead. I would like to celebrate it until it stops being an issue and we can get on with our lives." Perle herself had a powerful female figure growing up: her grandmother. Perle's mother died when she was eight years old and it was her grandmother who schooled her on life's important lessons, the main one being the importance of looking out for yourself. The old woman handed young Perle a tiny woven metal sack, called a knipple in Yiddish. Inside was a $20 bill. "It's a woman's private stash," she explained to Perle. "Every woman needs money of her own that her husband never knows about. So she can do what she wants. Remember that." Of course, it took some 30 years—which included marriage, motherhood, a move to Singapore, a divorce, a move back to the U.S., a remarriage and a wide range of jobs both high-paying and low—for Perle to really understand what her grandmother was talking about.
Perle put herself under the microscope for this book, which she admits was not easy. She called her agent, Richard Pine, last August, and said, only half-joking, "I'm sending the money back. I can't do this." But Perle did do it, and the result is an unflinching look at how irrational a rational woman can be when it comes to money. "The reason I put my story in the book is because I was willing to stand up and be the first fool. If you're the first fool, you give permission to someone else to feel foolish."
One thing Perle's book is not is a personal finance self-help book. The author leaves that booming market to the Suze Ormans of the world. In fact, Money, a Memoir is what Perle says she wanted to write: "the book you bought before you bought one of those." She agrees that guides like The Total Money Makeover and You Can Be a Stockmarket Genius have their place, so long as "you realize what money can and can't do for you emotionally." But when Perle was at her lowest point, financially speaking, when she had just lost [her] marriage and [her] home, and... had fifteen hundred bucks," she was "like Teflon. I had an emotional force field around me that deflected all that information." Yes, personal finance books have valuable information. "But I was not in any emotional shape to actually use any of that information," Perle remembers. "I just wasn't honest."
Now that she's finished writing this book, Perle says she's "hyperaware" of her own "paradoxes." While Money, A Memoir may not teach readers (or its author) how to balance a checkbook, it teaches some things that might just be more important: there is nothing morally wrong with buying a pair of boots full-price. Shopping at Payless need not invite comments encouraging "fiscal anorexia." And most of all, as Perle concludes over dessert, it teaches that "women need to really realize that they're trying to buy an emotional condition a lot of times, with something that's just... just..." She searches for the right word, finally settling on "just cash."
last unmentionable -- money
Are gender and generation linked to finances, emotion, identity?
Reviewed by Jonathan Kiefer
Sunday, March 5, 2006
Money, a Memoir
Women, Emotions and Cash
By Liz Perle
HENRY HOLT; 269 Pages; $23
Why Now Is a Terrible Time to Be Young
By Anya Kamenetz
RIVERHEAD; 265 Pages; $23.95
Believe it or not, some of us are a little screwed up about money. We want to earn more than we do. That's fine. We want others to think we earn more than we do. That's human. Sometimes we want them to think we earn more than they do. That's not very nice. Or we actually do earn more, and feel guilty about it, and then pretend to earn less. That doesn't help. Root of all evil or not, money must certainly be the prime mover of most middle-class anxiety. As it turns out, true solvency requires a highly sophisticated mode of accounting -- a nimbleness with the manipulation of cultural, political and even sexual variables. It's understandable if we want to keep this messy business to ourselves, but unrealistic. Reticence seems only to be making things worse.
From her grandmother, the San Francisco writer and editor Liz Perle learned two things about money: that every woman should have some of her own, unbeknownst to her husband, and that it's too private to talk about. If the very existence of Perle's book, "Money: A Memoir," seems to flagrantly violate the second rule, it's because her experience of the first had been so devastatingly instructive. The memoir begins with Perle, by anyone's account a self-actualized success in the publishing industry, discovering herself suddenly husbandless, jobless, homeless and broke. She realized that because she'd made marriage a means of deferring financial responsibility, divorce would be a money-management crash course. Later that reckoning seemed like good fodder for a book, and this particular moment in American literary history, mad for memoirs and also for some accounting of the lies we tell ourselves, seems to afford an ideal opportunity for Perle to cash in.
But her book's subtitle -- "Women, Emotions and Cash" -- reveals Perle's project as at once more contentious and more ambitious than the cynical view would have it. "Money is never just money," she writes. "It's our proxy for identity and love and hope and promises made and perhaps never fulfilled." How her poor grandmother, not to mention more than a few striving feminists, would be scandalized to hear it. But Perle has good cause to press on, and good instincts about where to press. It occurred to her, for instance, that she knew more about her friends' sexual affairs than their financial affairs, and while that may only prove that the former are inherently more interesting than the latter, it also touched a nerve.
"I've met more than one woman who had invested more heavily in her wardrobe and home than in her IRA and savings," Perle continues. "These fears and desires are so strong that women will often lie about their money habits rather than change them." Dutifully, she backs herself up with psychiatrists and sociologists stating the obvious -- that financial prowess is a core component of the American dream; that financial conflict creates a bashful kind of anxiety; and so on. But she also does the uneasy work, however anecdotally, of unpacking identity and security as functions of dependence and extrapolating the money-influenced issues of power and trust and respect that hang many women, and many men, up.
Perle's best material is the really personal, presumably unspeakable stuff. (A defensive-sounding "Speak for yourself" will probably be the most common critical shot fired at her, but the book is, after all, a memoir.) She allows useful if discomfiting admissions of feeling entitled to prosperity and dismayed by the changing role models, both familial and cultural, of recent decades. "This may be the final legacy of families and money," she decides. "In their attempts to make us safe, and to show us they love us, our parents inadvertently created a legacy of insecurity about our ability to take care of ourselves. Even as we live our lives as adult women, some of us still remain financial children so we can stay attached to those whose control, if not financial largesse, makes us feel loved and secure."
Among the more vocally dissatisfied inheritors of that legacy is Anya Kamenetz, whose book is titled "Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time to be Young" and who doesn't mince words. "Today," Kamenetz writes, " 'quarterlife crisis' has entered the lexicon for a generation whose unbelievably expensive educations didn't guarantee us success, a sense of purpose, or even a livable income." Kamenetz, a Yale-educated woman in her 20s whose book originated as a series of columns for the Village Voice, risks accusations of spoiled-brat bellyaching to challenge some standing judgments against her generation, and to illuminate its dire financial straits. "The system we have is one that promises the world to all young people," she writes, "and delivers very little to very few."
Looking back at a recent era in which personal bankruptcies exceeded college graduations, Kamenetz confirms the self-destructive fiscal habits inculcated from her generation's forebears, and the burdens left over from them. She also demonstrates that with inflated living costs and financial predators and low-quality rampant, stakes are higher and securities fewer for young people now.
Thankfully, the liveliness of Kamenetz's mind mitigates the bleakness of her portrait. A 24-page bibliography reveals her as a wide and careful reader, and she performs an energetic if procedural diagnostic on the decried, double-crossing system. She has a dizzying array of figures, but also an occasional flair for pithy description ("credit cards are the piranhas that swim behind the shark of student loan debt"), and a real commitment to a prosperous future. It will take some work.
Kamenetz sometimes echoes Perle, as with her own observation that "money in America is more private than sex," and with what seems like a corresponding awareness that "women my age are finding that the feminism of the 1970s is an unfinished revolution." She seems game to finish it, but not without help.
That the younger woman's book is the more self-evidently industrious may reflect less a generation gap than the difference between typically Manhattanite and San Franciscan worldviews -- a mutually illuminating contrast between outward ambition and inward reflection. Each writer seems too humbled by her own experiences, and too humane, to come off as a full-blown polemicist, but they're both driven to expose the most shameful, presumably unmentionable aspects of our financial disappointments, with the shared conviction that frank discussion is essential for progressing beyond them.
They also agree that from deciding who picks up the check to dividing the joint-checking account, our money baggage seems heaviest in matters of domestic union. Whereas Perle writes of how "money can trap people in marriages," though, Kamenetz shows how it can shut people out of them: "Just as young people finding real estate too expensive are forced to rent, we're also choosing a less permanent form of relationship," she writes. "It's a catch-22. As long as their relationships lack the stamp of permanence, members of Generation Debt have trouble making plans for the future. But as long as our financial houses are not in order, it's hard to conceive of marriage."
And yet, screwing up a kind of courage not unlike that with which Perle got divorced, Kamenetz got married anyway. The lesson seems to be that if we're ever to distinguish our financial needs from the emotional ones, as is increasingly imperative, the time has come to talk turkey. Or, to reiterate the deeply meaningful words of Gloria Steinem: "We can tell our values by looking at our checkbook stubs."
Jonathan Kiefer is the associate arts editor of the Sacramento News & Review.