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October 23, 2000

The Million-Dollar Question

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It was only two years after my influx of funds — when I bought a house, drained my accounts, and signed a mortgage three times the size of all my previous debts combined — that I realized how insidious this pathology was. With a bank balance back at zero, I began to feel like myself again.

Granted, I may be in the upper tier of recklessness. Not only can I overspend with the best of them, I've also had the distinction of avoiding steady jobs for the better part of 15 years, which makes my monetary life something of an extreme sport. But when I look around at the women I know, it seems that along with the sofas and ottomans and shabby-chic lamps we purchase with our hard-earned income, there's a very large elephant in the room (no, that's not a footstool) that we'll do anything to avoid talking about. That's right — according to a poll in Money magazine, only 22 percent of us want to discuss investment decisions; a mere one in four is willing to broach retirement savings with our spouses. As willing as we are to gab about plastic surgery, urinary-tract infections, and sex, we just don't like to talk about money.

Like a mysterious bug in an otherwise high-functioning hard drive, women's reluctance to face money issues head-on belies the degree to which we've become experts on managing almost every other aspect of our lives. Let's face it: In a lot of areas, we're leaving men in the dust. We go to college and graduate school in greater numbers, we read more novels, we're starting our own businesses at twice the rate of men. We've always lived longer, which you'd think might motivate us to take a projectional view when it comes to money. But instead, many of us remain willfully clueless about the whole enterprise.

We've all found ourselves out to dinner with a group of intelligent, articulate women who ably dissect political poll numbers and debate the Sunday Times book reviews over grilled salmon and chardonnay — and then, when it's time to split up the check, transform into silly girls who'd rather repair to the ladies room than participate in a very public money moment (looking cheap being the one sin worse than looking poor). It's a powerful contradiction — almost as if our ability to handle our own money represents the final frontier of feminism — and perhaps we're more afraid of crossing into that frontier than we realize.

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