All Too Personal Finances

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, April 6, 2008

Cyndi Lauper is right when she sings, "money changes everything." The abundance or lack of it does change everything.

But if money is so important, why do so many people avoid talking about their finances?

Couples get married without discussing their financial history. Families fight about inheritances even before the deceased is six feet under. Why? Because Mom, Dad and Aunt Grace never discussed their wishes.

And when it comes to debt, some people keep so quiet that by the time they seek help their situation is dire. found that 47 percent of survey respondents would rather fess up about their weight, age or monthly mortgage or rent payment than discuss how much credit card debt they are carrying.

It's understandable why cash confessions are hard to wrangle from people, say writers Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell.

"To shine a light on how much we make, how much we spend, how much we owe, and how much we've got secretly socked away is to give others a potent glimpse into the values we live by," according to Offill and Schappell. "Admitting to money troubles can often feel like admitting to a weakness of character."

Talking about money often means having to face an ever-widening spiral of self-recrimination, the women write in the introduction to a compelling collection of essays, "Money Changes Everything" (Broadway Books, $14.95). This book is my April pick for the Color of Money Book Club.

Schappell is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. Offill teaches in the Master of Fine Arts programs at Brooklyn College and Queens University of Charlotte, N.C.

The two women have put together an anthology of acclaimed authors writing on the pocketbook issues we all face: debt, poverty and wealth. The 22 essayists include a widow from the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the author of the popular Lemony Snicket children's books. This isn't an all woe-is-me collection. Some essays are humorous, others heartbreaking.

One author, Ruth Konigsberg, shares the internal frustration of being raised by broke parents in her essay, "Nouveau Poor." Her family was "auction-off-the-heirlooms broke" she writes.

Konigsberg's essay should be required reading for every middle- and upper-income spendthrift parent trying to feign wealth.

"I would decide, with a certain amount of bitterness, that this tendency to become paralyzed by financial downturns was a family trait."

Marian Fontana received letter upon letter filled with checks and change from adults and children all across the country after her firefighter husband, Dave, died in the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York.

"More and more checks arrived," she writes. "I threw them into a drawer of my desk, hiding them under stacks of mail like they were porn. I didn't want anyone to know of my secret wealth."

In her essay, "A Dollar a Tear," Fontana talks about enduring attacks from some who began portraying widows as out-of-control rich women spending money on fancy cars and breast implants.

"I am not ungrateful for the money, but in a way it's been as much of a burden as a blessing," Fontana writes.

In a pair of essays, a husband and wife discuss how financial fights have dogged their marriage.

"My wife thinks all I care about is money," writes Fred Leebron. "I want to save every cent, not for the sake of enhancing our current life, but for the sake of securing it until death do us part and maybe beyond that."

Leebron's wife, Kathryn Rhett, in turn writes: "It was a startling moment when I realized I had ended up not with a rebel artiste but with a man who was obsessed with making money and socking it away."

Later she admits that she may have subconsciously chosen her husband because of his frugality.

"I knew," she said, he "would not let me end up poor."

"Money Changes Everything" takes you on a journey that is both entertaining and enlightening. If you cannot open up yourself, at least live vicariously through others willing to say what you won't.

To become a member of the Color of Money Book Club, all you have to do is read the recommended book. I invite you to join me online to chat about the book, especially if you've got a cash confession you want to share. Join me for a live discussion with Offill and Schappell at noon Eastern time, April 24 at

In addition, every month I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of "Money Changes Everything," send an e-mail to Please include your name and an address so we can send you a book if you win.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at

· By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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