Liz Perle was only 9 years old when her elegant grandmother started teaching her what she considered the financial facts of life. Lesson One began, "Every woman needs money of her own that her husband never knows about. So she can do what she wants. What she needs. Remember that."
Lesson Two soon followed: "You never talk about money. It's private."
Years later, after a series of financial ups and downs, Perle realized that her grandmother was right about that bank account of one's own. But she also knew that Grandma had been wrong about remaining tight-lipped on financial issues. Women's reluctance to talk openly and honestly about money - with friends, husbands, children, bosses, divorce lawyers - harms marriages, careers, and retirement, she warns.
Perle lays out the sobering facts in her illuminating book, Money: A Memoir. When it comes to finances, she observes, women are in denial, big-time.
They often lie about what they spend, even shaving a few dollars off the price of something as mundane as lipstick.
Many are afraid to ask for a raise. Some invest more heavily in wardrobes and homes than in IRAs and savings. Lured by the siren call of marketers selling an unattainable American dream, they spend defiantly.
Whatever their financial status, women cling to conflicting dreams: They want to be independent, yet long to be taken care of.
As Perle writes, "Because I have often confused care with cash, there have been times when, sitting in the middle of a semicircle of income tax forms, I want nothing more than to pack it all in and let someone else show me how much they love me by taking away all my financial burdens."
Prince Charming, where are you?
Such dreams begin in childhood. Boys are still raised to be providers, girls nurturers.
When a girl starts baby-sitting, Perle notes, the parents hiring her may ask, "What do you charge?" "Whatever you want to pay me," the girl might reply.
If she does a good job, someone will say, "You're so good with children." By contrast, if her brother mows lawns to earn money, he's likely to win praise for being enterprising. No one will tell him, "You're so good with lawns."
Even in adulthood, women continue to give themselves mixed messages that "money is simultaneously vitally important and something we shouldn't show we care about."
Yet when Perle asks women about their top five nightmares, becoming a bag lady ranks high, along with not having enough money in retirement.
Women are typically more conservative investors than men. At the same time, their track record is often better because they don't trade stocks as often as men.
For everyone, the complexities run deep. "Money is never just money," Perle observes. "It's our proxy for identity and love and hope and promises made and perhaps never fulfilled."
Marriage, especially, can become an economic testing ground and power struggle. Massive social changes in recent decades have left many couples confused about who is supposed to supply what in a marriage.
Perle emphasizes that this is not a how-to book of financial advice. Instead, it could be considered a how-not-to book, showing how not to fall into financial peril and ruin.
With candor and self-deprecating humor, she offers herself as Exhibit A. Although she came from an upper-middle-class family and held well-paying publishing jobs, she often ignored basic principles of money management.
When she married, she turned over her economic life to her husband. The arrangement appeared to work until they moved to Singapore for his job. He decided he wanted a divorce.
As he put her and their 4-year-old son on a plane to San Francisco, he stuffed $1,500 in her hands and said goodbye. So much for fiscal stability.
Perle has met women who are very comfortable with money, who understand what money can and cannot do to their lives.
Still, so pervasive are the challenges that a majority of her readers will probably see themselves somewhere in its pages.
To call the book a memoir is to stretch the conventional image of that genre. It is autobiographical, to be sure.
But it also contains the voices of other women who make cameo appearances to share their own financial tales, along with the voices of financial experts.
Whatever its classification, the book contains a message that needs to be heard and heeded, not only to benefit women but also to give their offspring a better financial example.
As Perle cautions, "We're raising a generation of children with high lifestyle aspirations but no concept of how to achieve them."
Nine out of 10 women will be financially on their own at some point in their lives. Yet more than half of American women have no pension coverage, compared to a quarter of men.
Underscoring the urgency implicit in statistics like these, Perle says, "There comes a point in all women's lives where we have to take command of our economic destinies."
As her book makes abundantly clear, today would be a good time to start.
• Marilyn Gardner is a Monitor staff writer.