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Why women and money don't add up

Money and women make uneasy bedfellows in this eye-opening memoir by Liz Perle -- who discovered, at 42, that "there's nothing like losing just about everything to lay bare what's important."

Perle's personal epiphany -- that she had just spent four decades equating money with love, security and happiness -- is salient to the rest of us for one reason: It sent Perle, with 20 years of editing and publishing experience behind her, on a sometimes groundbreaking search for answers to heretofore forbidden questions about women and money.

"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," Perle writes, then offers, in just one paragraph, these alarming findings:

"More women will file for bankruptcy this year than will graduate from college, have 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."

Later on, Perle notes, "61 percent of all part-time workers are women with little or no access to 401(k) plans. More than 58 percent of female baby boomers have saved less than $10,000 in a pension or 401(k) plan. Between one-third and two-thirds of women now 35 to 55 years old will be impoverished before age 70. The average female born between 1946 and 1964 will likely be in the work force until she is 74 years old due to inadequate financial savings and pension coverage."

How this is possible in 2006 is both cultural and historical -- despite nearly a half-century of strides for women, according to Perle's findings.

"Long ago, and not entirely consciously, I made a contract with cash," she writes. "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," she says, "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 consequence."

Until the divorce that prompted this book, Perle says, she had abided by her grandmother's admonishment: "You never talk about money. It's private."

Perle's interviews with psychologists and financial experts are compelling. Her phrase "emotional middle class" -- to describe what she considers the country's now-mythic middle class -- may enter the lexicon.

Perle is particularly fine in her depiction of the affluent 1980s as an agent of America's current penchant for seeing certain luxuries as needs. She is downright frightening when she warns that today's marketing to children and our own indulgences toward them are contributing to this desires-as-needs fantasy.

"If we adults may be experiencing a dawning awareness of money's emotional limits, we sure haven't given our kids the same message," Perle says. "In fact, just as we're beginning to see the limits of money, our children are embracing their material sides with full ardor."

Her hope with this book, Perle says, is that it will "encourage women to take a look at their own complicated feelings about money and what money means to them. Perhaps that way we can move closer to liberating ourselves from the fears and fantasies that keep us from asking to be paid what a job is worth, or saving for our retirement, or that leave us mired in debt."

Karen Brady covered higher education for The News before her retirement.


>Money, A Memoir

Women, Emotions and Cash

By Liz Perle

Henry Holt, 269 pages, $23

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