Women accepting financial realities

Consuming Interests


A successful husband is one who makes more money than his wife can spend. A successful woman is one who can find such a man.

-- Lana Turner

Surely, more than a few women have daydreamed about snagging the sort of man with a mega-million dollar portfolio, a Mediterranean villa and a private jet to spirit them away from tiring and sometimes tiresome lives.

Oh, how easy it would be to join the class of women who don't worry about bills, bank accounts and budgets, who spend their days shopping and lounging by the pool or sharing martinis with girlfriends at a chic watering hole, like all good Ladies Who Lunch.

Then, of course, the phone rings, and they return to reality.

"It's one thing fantasizing about a sugar daddy," says Tabitha Scott, a correctional officer from Annapolis with whom we struck up a conversation while she lunched with her husband, David. "It's another thing to bank on it. No woman, at least none of the women I know, really believes a man will solve all her money problems. That's crazy.

"I was raised to take care of myself."

Liz Perle, however, missed that crucial wake-up call.

Perle tells us in her recently released Money, A Memoir, that "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."

So despite years of success as a book publisher and paying her own way, Perle "couldn't hand over the checkbook fast enough" when she got married. She writes, "He liked to control the cash, pay the bills, invest the money, and govern the expenses. That was more than fine with me. ... We both had good jobs; we both made good money. He managed it. I spent it. That worked for me."

Until, that is, her husband moved to Singapore for his job and she quit her own to follow him. When he suddenly wanted out of the marriage and sent her home at the age of 42, she left without a job or a home and with their 4-year-old son, a box of toys, a suitcase of tropical clothes and $1,500 in her pocket.

Part of us applauds Perle for honesty in sharing her life-changing, fiscal experiences. The other part wonders: What planet did she come from, with such archaic views on women and money?

Perle admits to not paying her bills or living within her means. She sneaked cash from her husband's wallet when she was laid off from her job. She fibbed about how much she spent on clothing. She didn't balance her checkbook and ended up paying 18 percent interest on the overdraft.

None of that is truly horrifying. What is distressing is Perle's sweeping generalization that most women have the same abysmal relationship with money: That "perfectly brilliant and sensible women admit that their eyes glaze over when individual household budgets and broader financial matters are discussed." That women are much worse with money than men.

That's news to many of us women who've been balancing our checkbooks and budgeting expenses since our first jobs as teenagers.

Tell that to all the single women who bought about 20 percent of the homes sold in 2003, according to the National Association of Realtors. That rate has doubled in the past 15 years.

Or the 10 million female business owners in America, who generate more than $2.5 trillion in annual revenue, according to msmoney.com.

Even Perle says in her book that women control $4 trillion in yearly consumer spending. We make 62 percent of all car purchases and take 50 percent of all business trips. We control more than 50 percent of all personal wealth in this country, Perle writes.

And yet, "We spend more on face cream and shoes than we do on our retirement funds," she adds.

Last time we checked, the personal savings rate for all Americans -- not just women -- dipped below zero last year for the first time since the Depression, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. Men are just as guilty about consumption, except they're buying cars and electronics (if we're going to keep perpetuating stereotypes).

Still, we can't ignore other statistics that Perle offers. More women will file for bankruptcy this year than will graduate from college, suffer a heart attack or be diagnosed with cancer. More than half of all retired women live in poverty. One in four women are broke within two months of a husband's dying, according to msmoney.com.

If women have so much more control over money nowadays, then why are some suddenly broke after retirement or after the death of a husband?

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