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October 23, 2000

The Million-Dollar Question

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On the other hand...maybe we're just bored by the whole subject. Unlike men, for whom money is an extension of masculinity and therefore a source of endless fascination, some of us would rather be home feeding our fish than talking about stock options and interest rates. As banal — and even insulting — as it sounds, we (OK, I) would often rather spend our money before we have a chance to think too hard about what else we might do with it. And while there's some evidence that the bulk of our spending tends to be on smaller things — manicures and shoes and fish tank accessories — we can more than hold our own against the boys when it comes to unleashing our load on the largest investment most people make in their lives. Single women now purchase homes in far greater numbers than men — 21 percent of homes in 2005 were bought by single women versus 9 percent by single men, according to a National Association of Realtors survey.

It goes without saying that you've got to pile up more money to spend more money, so it's a peculiar phenomenon that many of us would rather witness our own invasive surgery on cable TV than gaze into the abyss of our IRAs and stock portfolios. Moreover, how can we be so famously "detail oriented" while shying away from crucial financial details that directly impact our well-being?

I offer as an explanation the fact that some details (nail-polish colors, types of olive oil) are inherently more entertaining than others (see "stock portfolios," previous page). It's also possible that we suffer from something you might call Cinderella-Syndrome Backlash. Not so long ago, many women — including those who read Erica Jong novels and wore shoulder-padded blazers to work — operated (sometimes unconsciously) under the mind-set that keeping a balanced checkbook was less important than finding a man to balance it for us. Today, even those of us who scoff at such retrograde thinking are still aware of its implications: If I take an active role in my financial future, does that mean I'm no longer banking on meeting my prince? Can an act of self-preservation become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

This is not something most of us express out loud. I'd deny it if you asked me, but I'd also be lying if I said I didn't imagine my future as something that will be at least partially funded by someone else. (Though I'm nothing if not realistic; by "partially" I mean "part of an ice cream cone.") It's a psychological need as much as a practical one: Even women with high incomes are more likely to get a divorce if their paychecks exceed their husbands'. (Of course, that's largely because women in bad marriages are better able to get out of them if they have the means to do so — but there may be other, subtler factors at work, too.) Moreover, in 60 percent of households where women are the primary earners, men still make the financial decisions, according to a CNN survey. How's that for irony?

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