Monday, March 02, 2009

Book Review: The Secret Currency of Love

Back in December, I posted a link to an essay I really liked called The Accidental Breadwinner. That piece was excerpted from a book called The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships. A sharp-eyed publicist picked up on the interest the book generated here, and was kind enough to email me the manuscript so I could review it.

If you like reading personal finance blogs, you will find a lot to like about this book-- some very talented writers tell their money stories with a lot of introspection and candor. But I have to say up front that if you like reading personal finance blogs, you may also be slightly disappointed in the book, as I was.

The book is divided into 3 sections: Money and Romance, Money and Family, and Money and Self. I thought the Romance section would be the most interesting, as relationships are such fertile ground for money issues, but as I made my way through it, I came to a realization: the problem with some books is that they are written by WRITERS. I found that too many of the relationship essays ended up being very similar: young struggling female writer is trying to make ends meet, always falls hard for the type of guy who is not a big earner, anguishes over inner feminist voice telling her it's okay for her to be the breadwinner while inner not-feminist voice tells her it would be really nice to have the man pay for things so she won't have to have a day job and can still enjoy an upper-middle class lifestyle while writing full-time.

Not all writers come from the exact same socio-economic background, but let's face it-- many are well-educated and come from families with some level of comfort and privilege, though usually not the kind of great wealth that allows total freedom from having to make a living. Writers want to spend lots of time writing, but it's hard to make it pay the bills-- hence that insidious desire for a man to swoop in and take care of them. (All the women in the book seem to be heterosexual.) And sometimes writers seem to embrace a supposed freewheeling artistic personality, happily professing ignorance about the nitty gritty of finances while reveling in the sensual pleasures afforded by expensive things. I would have liked the book better if there had been some "as told to" stories from women who represented a broader spectrum of society.

But if you can get beyond that, there are some great moments in this book, and a wide variety of money dilemmas are explored. Publishing exec Joni Evans writes about her high-profile divorce from a man who had been her boss. Ann Hood writes about keeping separate accounts in her relationships: after being married to a man who obsessively tracks their spending and makes her pay for her share of everything, she finds love with someone else who just has different financial priorities and budgets only $5 for family Christmas presents.
Lucy Kaylin loves a man who is pursuing his passion, but then she finds herself wondering if she can handle his disregard for money:

Kimball was the sort of guy who'd sooner gouge out his own eyeballs with a fork that publicly split a check and figure out the tax. And he found the unseemly settling up one is expected to do each month with the utility and credit card companies to be such an unremitting buzz-kill that he tended those relationships haphazardly.
After she and Kimball marry, she makes repairing his finances a pet project, trying to remind him about late fees and questioning him about whether he can afford all his purchases:
Having thrown my lot in with his, I made it my mission to put his financial affairs in order and transform him into a fit life partner.
But it backfires. He eventually tells her she has to get off his back:
I'm 39 years old; I've been taking care of myself for a long time. And maybe I'm not perfect with money but I'm not irresponsible. I've always had a roof over my head and everything I needed. I'm fine. And you can love me or not-- that's your choice. But you have to stop trying to change me, because it's not going to work.
In the end, Kimball manages to turn his low-paying passion into a more lucrative job and the couple now owns a 3-bedroom coop in Manhattan-- happily ever after!

I actually found the second section of the book the most powerful: Money and Family. The best pieces explore the shifts in financial attitudes that can occur when people have children. Jennifer Wolff Perrine tells a wrenching story of having a baby with a surrogate mother. Lori Gottlieb's piece, called Planned Parenthood, will resonate with those who have wondered how that mother of octuplets could contemplate bringing more children into her family. Gottlieb has a child as a single mother, via expensive inseminations. Then, with her finances even shakier than they were before the first child, she debates with herself about having another one.
This section of the book also gets into relationships with parents and other family members, including a piece by Yolonda Lawrence about how she dealt with her family looking to her for handouts since she'd achieved a level of success above their own:
Though I'm single, I wasn't alone when I spent my money. In my head, my family was always along for the ride. Every time I threw down a credit card at Barney's, I'd see my mother's face. Or hear my stepfather's voice, "Things have been a little slow. They cut back on my hours, so your mother and I can't take a vacation this year." I'd sign my name and my throat would choke with guilt. A tape played in my brain on a constant loop. "Guess what Yolonda, you're not just a disgusting daughter. You're a disgusting human being. How can you achieve financial freedom without giving your family the same opportunity? Yes, your work is sporadic, and you haven't saved for retirement-- but it's up to you. Free your family from the binds of middle class life."
Unfortunately, the real problem isn't her parents-- it's her drug-addict brother, who borrows money from her until the author finds herself getting into debt.

There's lots more quotes and interesting stories I found myself jotting down, but I don't want to spoil it for you! And I'm also skipping that step a real book reviewer is supposed to do, where you check the advance proof against a finished copy of the book, so I don't want to risk including any more quotes that might not be 100% accurate!

But bottom line, whether or not you find yourself sympathizing with every writer in this book, there is a lot of honesty here. These women rarely cite hard numbers for their earnings or expenditures, but they express feelings-- pride and shame and delusion and insecurities-- that all of us have felt, which is, in the end, what makes the book a compelling read.

It's available at Amazon here.


Anonymous said...

if you don't like it, why spend an entire column discussing it?

Madame X said...

if you don't read the whole post, why comment on it?

TeacHer said...

I'm working my way through the same book, and I'm finding a lot of your comments to be true. I was just telling my friend about the book, and I raised the same issue, about all of the contributors being writers. Their backgrounds are all very similar, and it can become a little redundant.

Another similarity between a lot of the stories that was very surprising to me has been the number of women who very honestly admit that, as young women, they envisioned one day being supported by a man. I found this surprising because I honestly don't know anyone my age who feels the same way. I actually started asking around (only choosing my most honest friends, of course) and, although few of my friends expect be going it alone financially, no one admitted to expecting a man to support them.

Perhaps a generational difference? Or just personalities?

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