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October 23, 2000

The Million-Dollar Question

We're better educated, better read, and better at launching a business. So why, when it comes to managing money, do women lag behind?

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I know this sounds positively sick, but I've never been more anxious and miserable than during the two years when I had a surplus of cash. I won't bore you with the numbers, but let's just say that in my early 30s, after years of financial struggle, I suddenly landed a gig that earned me a sizable chunk of money. Now, before you get all jealous or take offense at my bringing up the subject, I must emphasize that prior to this windfall, my income was so pitiful (the year before that I grossed $12,000 — you heard right, grossed) that if you added my new bundle of cash to my previous decade's earnings, the yearly income would probably average out to the salary of an entry-level postal worker. The money was life-changing, and after paying off my considerable debt and opening a retirement account, I had enough left over to burn a hole in my pocket the size of a lunar crater.

Problem was, I felt like my skin was charring off from the stress of financial success. After more than 10 years of worrying about money on a daily, if not hourly, basis — we're talking collection calls, electricity shutoffs, waiters sheepishly informing me of "a problem" with my credit card — the experience of handling an ATM receipt with a robust positive balance was not unlike the pressure (I imagine, though I can't verify) of running a small, industrialized nation. Too paralyzed to either invest it or buy a big-ticket item, like a sports car, I splurged on a lot of sushi and expensive hand cream. Depression ensued.

I tell this story only by way of trying to figure out what it is about money that makes women so uncomfortable. That's not to suggest that women are genetically incapable of handling financial matters (for the record, one in five women feels "solid" in her investing skills, according to a new study by Allianz Life Insurance — they just don't happen to live in my neighborhood). Nor do I mean to imply that I crave the salad days of my 20s (though salads might not be such a bad idea, considering the average American woman will be outearned by her male counterpart by $500,000 by the time she retires). But as time goes on, I realize that, for me, financial insecurity has itself been a kind of security blanket. Sure, I hated being broke, but I was more comfortable developing an identity around fiscal irresponsibility than I was running with the big dogs with even bigger bank.

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