Cheap Thrills

A story of American women in financial jeopardy

Apparently it’s the last post-feminist taboo. So let’s violate it. Just for you, my friend, today I’m going to open it wide … My pocketbook, my purselet, my hidden portmonee … Yeah, I’m going to push aside all the secret velvety folds and show you that most intimate of female parts: my money.

Because oddly, in this age of the blinding white Oprah pantsuit, when everything is illuminated, it seems a Victorian lace curtain still hangs over the delicate womanly matter of our personal expenditures. But unlike most urban professional females, I’m going to rip back that curtain, I’m going to bare all, I’m going to feed you raw numbers like oysters—My husband? Him? Oh, he won’t mind. As usual on weekends, he’s with his favorite dominatrix, PBS’s own Hell’s Angel, Suze Orman. There he stands in the kitchen, obediently chopping vegetables, as from the small TV the saber-toothed blond androgyne berates him in her jacket of leather: “So you’ve been ‘too busy’ to figure out how a Roth IRA works, or what a FICO score is? Buddy, wake up and smell the 401(k)!”

In eras past, financial punisher Suze Orman would be a man, feelings negotiator Dr. Phil would be a woman … But no, in the ’00s, sex roles, finance roles, power roles, domestic roles—they’re all up in the air! Yet still, women don that AmEx-hued fig leaf. In Money, A Memoir, Liz Perle describes a divorcing girlfriend seeking her advice about such complex issues as property division, child support, income lost, college funds. Perle asks—but gets no answer to—what her friend actually spends in a month. After hemming and hawing, the friend finally admits: “I do know, and I’m too embarrassed to tell you. What I need and what I spend are two different things.” Writes Perle:

As I hung up the phone, it struck me that I know more about my friends’ sexual assets than their financial ones. They’ve never hesitated to tell me all about love affairs, dreams, disappointments—even their husbands’ most minute physical, moral, mental, and sexual failings—but I have no idea what any of them earn or spend each month.

Of course, here’s the rub: after reading Perle’s “tell-all” memoir, you still have no idea what Perle earns or spends in a month. Yes, she writes candidly about how her own divorce brutally exposed her girlish financial illusions. She confesses to a host of characteristic female frailties, soil previously tilled by Lois P. Frankel in Nice Girls Don’t Get Rich (duly credited). Craving not just the convenience but the metaphorical stability of a double oven, Perle admits to being a member of “the emotional middle class,” to experiencing downward mobility as a kind of “egocide,” to caving in professionally to her own acquiescent “inner stewardess” (who’s too polite to protest a bad job assignment or lobby for a raise). It’s fertile, relatable territory—what woman, feeling blue, hasn’t practiced retail therapy (during PMS, how often have I fondled aromatherapy candles named “Tranquility,” rosemary soaplets startlingly named “Refresh!”)? What XX-chromosomed human hasn’t hoped her dreadlocked spoken-word barista may one day transform into a (still soulful) stockbroker with a bulging portfolio? (For one singletess in Perle’s book, saving money is actually painful—it’s an admission that “no one is coming to take care of her.”)

Over this garden of female neuroses is laid the larger template of American Women in Financial Jeopardy … a topic I’m finding increasingly troubling, gnawing. Just the previous week, I’d been reading Getting Even, by a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Evelyn Murphy, with E. J. Graff. Until then, I’d considered myself pretty well versed in the depressing rills and contours of the gender wage gap. I knew that almost fifty years after Betty Friedan sounded the gender-equality alarum, U.S. women still make just 77 cents to the dollar of U.S. men … I knew about the lifetime million-dollar “Mommy Tax” (Ann Crittenden, The Price of Motherhood) … I knew about the glass ceiling, either real or self-“chosen.” But what does a woman’s “choice” really mean, Lisa Belkin of The New York Times Magazine, when the job demands eighty hours a week? And how many dual-Harvard-M.B.A. divorce settlements could have gone so much better if the female Harvard M.B.A. had just stayed working? I was already seeing us women in a whirling estrogen maelstrom, Perils of Pauline–like, greenbacks flying madly about our heads as though in a wind tunnel—I pictured us like in that scene in Thelma and Louise, where the money whips from a tearful Geena Davis’s hands right out the car window.

But here was yet another layer I’d not even thought of. A laudably thorough examination of sex discrimination in the workplace, Getting Even probes the subtle distinctions that still exist among collars blue and pink. Have you noticed that at elite restaurants, waitpersons tend to be men (better tipped and paid than waitresses at truck-stop diners)? In the aisles of Home Depot, do you see more male employees than female ones? (Salesmen make more than cashiers; cultural biases remain around which sex excels at selling paint chips.) Are you aware that on construction sites, even women fully capable of operating those … Caterpillar … thingies … must fight much harder to get those good union jobs by proving they’re physically strong enough to pull up (down?) that gearshift … clutch … dealio—argh!

I felt horrible frustration reading Getting Even, both because of the social injustice and because, with my imperfect attention (I kept thinking of that money whipping out the car window!), I found the book itself so hard to concentrate on. It was a trip to Barbara Ehrenreich Land without Barbara Ehrenreich. I felt awful for the minimum-wage-earning women in their Wal-Mart vests, standing exhausted under the fluorescents; I felt sorrow for their unremitting bad luck, both in life and in literature. It seemed unfair that slogging through their book required ropes, huskies, snowshoes. By contrast, here I was devouring Liz Perle’s middle-class confessional divorce memoir like it was a piece of porn, a Harold Robbins beach book. Even Money’s Women in Financial Jeopardy statistics mesmerized me: more than half of retired women live in poverty, 58 percent of Boomer females have less than $10,000 in a pension or 401(k) plan. (My own “retirement funds” currently stand at a mere $6K—down from $12K—in a wheezing little IRA. I call him “my Ira,” my little Jewish codger who keeps yelling “Feh—my knees!” while osteoporosis shrinks him yearly.)

In the end, however, Money fell short of satisfying me. After all those hazy female anecdotes, metaphors, and statistics, I wanted the Money Shot—I wanted to look at it, to see Perle’s own Quicken Bill-Pay file open spread-eagle before me. The only numbers she let drop were $2,500 a month in San Francisco for “a dark two-bedroom shoe box on the ground floor in a dicey neighborhood” and $5,000 for her son’s “sweet hippy preschool.” Five thousand, eh? Per month? Per year? Do they pay more for organic? What?

Presented by

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.

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