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October 23, 2000

The Million-Dollar Question - Page 4

model's eyelid with dollar signs reflecting under her eye

Photo Credit: Karin Catt

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Susan Stewart, chairman and president of Charter Financial Group, Inc., a Washington, DC, investment firm, says she sees plenty of clients who run into marital troubles when the wife is making more cash.

"A paradigm I witness a lot," says Stewart, "is women earning a substantial amount of the household income, plus taking care of children and quarterbacking the household duties. That can emasculate men. It's not so much that the women are outearning their husbands, but that they're also doing everything at home." In fact, once women have money, says Stewart, they become self-sufficient machines in ways men never could. "At a certain point, it's easier for women to do it themselves than ask their husbands to help out." So, by leaving men in charge of the finances — even when those finances are largely generated by the women — it softens any potential threat to the species known as "house husbands."

For my money (what's left of it), I think our uneasy relationship with our finances has a lot to do with our self-image — specifically, the premium placed on keeping up the external image of success. From a very young age, women are given the message, in a way that men just aren't (by parents, advertisements, movies), that being successful means looking successful, and the older we get, the more money we think we have to spend in order to meet the standard. Forget about feeding our 401Ks; it's the expensive haircuts and personal trainers that are the real investments with immediate payoffs — namely, earning us our rightful place in the social pecking order. And while we know it's not such a great idea to tap into our overdraft-protection lines of credit to buy a new pair of calfskin boots that are only slightly different from the pair already in our closet, there is still that niggling question: What if the new pair is the perfect thing to wear to the highfalutin corporate blah-blah? What if attracting the right people at the blah-blah could lead to a long-awaited promotion and a raise?

And so the cycle continues: We earn a bit, we spend a lot, we soothe our guilt by buying even more (new boots, new briefcase, new pair of breasts?), with the vague idea that these accoutrements will land us the job or the husband or create the momentum that will save us from ourselves. I would like to tell you I've discovered the solution — but even as I write this, I can't bear to open my Visa bill (though I really, really dig the brocade coat I bought with my card). But I can share with you an epiphany I've had during my roller-coaster ride through the world of money: Everyone tells you that they are afraid of being poor. And that makes sense, logically, but it's not really true. The women I know (and I consider myself leader of the pack) are afraid of money itself. We are ballsy go-getters in our careers and our social lives, not afraid to pursue the best title in the company or reservations for the toughest table in town. But deep down, success that arrives in the form of a fat paycheck is cold comfort. Easier to spend it all the way down to a familiar zone of zero and focus on the things we've been raised to think matter — good looks, rich man, right job. As determined as we are to have it all, maybe it's time we learn what it means to have enough.

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