Geneen Roth learned price of financial ignorance is high, writes about Madoff

Michelle Singletary
Columnist May 7, 2011

What would you do if, in one day, 30 years’ worth of life savings went poof?

Geneen Roth found herself in just this situation. She and her husband became two of the many victims of Bernard L. Madoff, investing nearly $1 million with the con man, who is serving a 150-year prison sentence for running an estimated $65 billion Ponzi scheme.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

How could you not lapse into a catatonic stupor after such a catastrophic loss?

Some of Madoff’s victims may never recover mentally.

Now, on the other side of her frightening loss and after much self-analysis, Roth has written “Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations about Food and Money” (Viking, $25.95). Her book is the Color of Money Book Club selection for May.

Roth is the best-selling author of “Women Food and God,” in which she examined her relationship with food that led to her being both overweight and dangerously underweight. In her latest book, Roth provides an intimate look at how she found her way to a healthy relationship with money by using the skills she honed battling her compulsive eating.

Roth is courageous in her honesty. She admits that in many ways, she helped Madoff victimize her because she was unconscious about her finances much like the way she unconsciously ate.

“Although I never would have chosen the path of losing our life savings, it is forcing me, in the way that my suffering around food forced me, to wake up, pay attention, question the automatic and reactive trance in which I usually live,” Roth writes.

Roth says she never understood the investment strategy that Madoff said he was using to deliver to investors consistently good returns.

“I chose ignorance again and again,” she writes.

On reflection, she says it’s clear to her now that the adviser who recommended she invest with the swindler also didn’t understand how Madoff was supposedly making money for people, “because I’d leave our meetings still unable to explain to anyone else how it worked. But that didn’t deter me.”

Roth is hard on herself, but it’s a necessary self-examination. Describing the first weeks after her financial loss, we see a person who cries, feels sorry for herself and at one point nearly buys a $1,000 pair of glasses before she realizes the purchase is just another escape from reality.

“When I wasn’t crying, I desperately wanted to turn back the clock 10 years, two months, even two weeks,” she says. “I wanted to know then what I knew now and make different decisions about what to do with our money.”

Roth’s overall message is that you won’t develop better financial habits — or eating habits — until you address what’s driving your decisions to do what you know isn’t good for you. She believes people don’t do the work to address their issues — addiction to shopping or overspending, or fear of anything financial — because it’s comfortable and easier to stay in their misery than the effort it takes to become more aware.

But that comfort is an illusion.

“When Madoff confessed, I was faced with the financial equivalent of my early relationship with food: disaster,” Roth says. “The shock of losing every penny of life savings, coupled with my ignorance, greed and obvious unconsciousness, shattered my financial haze.”

Roth said she had to finally deal with the same feelings she had about food — of “not having enough while refusing to see how much I actually had on my plate or in my closet.”

Often when I’m helping people set up a budget for the first time, we don’t end up talking about money. We spend hours dissecting what’s causing them to make bad financial decisions that prevent them from living within their means, which is what a budget helps you do. The insight is important because without it, people won’t change what’s keeping them from becoming better money managers.

“Lost and Found” is a book about deliverance. It’s learning to forgive the financial mistakes you’ve made. It’s about stopping the shopping sprees that leave you broke. It’s about ending your obsession with watching every penny because you fear poverty.

Roth, through the success of her books and workshops, says she’s on her way to being wealthy again. But this time, she understands that it’s not money that makes her rich.

I’ll be hosting a live online chat with Roth at noon ET on June 1 at washingtonpost.com/discussions . Every month, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book or books, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of “Lost and Found,” e-mail colorofmoney@washpost.com with your name and address.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Lost and Found:

Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money

by Geneen Roth

. Viking, 224 pp.

$25.95

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