The Secret Currency of Love — Hilary Black

A Time magazine interview called “The Truth About Women, Money and Relationships” with Hilary Black, the editor of The Secret Currency of Love: The Unabashed Truth About Women, Money, and Relationships inspired me to buy the deceptively titled book, which has little if any truth in it and no useful financial advice save that it’s not a bad idea to play defensively with one’s cash, lest it come to affect other aspects of one’s life. As Terry Teachout recently quoted from Dickens’ David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Black solicited essays about money from a bunch of women and published the results, which are less than the sum of their parts. The confessional tone man adopt often seems forced, as one’s partner might after having paid for an hour or two of time, and the reductive nature of the problems—am I selling out? If so, should I? And why is it so nice to sell out?—grates by halfway through; you’re better off reading the interview and skipping the book, thus avoiding the trap I fell into. Black says, “One thing I noticed over the many years I worked at More was that although people often wrote about divorce and Botox and sex, they didn’t really talk about money in a way that was as profound or exploratory.” That’s still true. To read profound and exploratory discussions about money, try Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life. Or, hell, try Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Martin Amis’ Money, which tell you more about the issue through fiction than The Secret Currency of Love does through superficial fact.

The openings of two essays might help convey the genteel banality, which smother, like wrapper over an eggroll, the insight that genuinely exists in sections of The Secret Currency of Love:

I didn’t have a regular cleaning lady until I was thirty-seven years old. I would have loved to be free of the daily drudgery of sweeping, dusting, and the Saturday scrubbing of the toilet, but paying another person to clean up my mess felt wrong. Overindulgent. Spoiled. Excessively first world.

(Ah, the joys of wealth: worrying about how one’s wealth functions on a symbolic level more than on a practical level. Is the overly examined life really worth living?)

Some women wake up at forty-five and realize they forgot to have children. I realized I forgot to make money.
I’ve never given much though to personal finance. Truth be told, it hasn’t been a serious problem: I’m grateful I’ve never had to worry about having enough or finding a place to sleep. Nor has money ever been a major goal, accomplishment, or dirty secret: I did not get an M.B.A. or go public with a company, and I don’t worry about having to hide my wealth for fear of attracting the wrong friends.

Another woman opens with a generic-seeming description of a playdate for a son at a new school, only to find that the friend’s family is loaded to the point of Google-level wealth. And it’s hard to care about another fish out of water story, or another story about the tortures of picking between money and love. Although each essay is well-written in a way that lets the seams show, many authors tell tales of financial deprivation by way of their profession, since writers are not as a rule remunerated highly. Consequently, I begin to suspect a sample bias problem: writers are, tautologically, better at writing than most people; the editor needs writers to fill a book about money; therefore, the nature of the people who offer their services affects the content even more than usual. Writers are often conflicted about commerce and thus are more likely to feel the schism when others would simply take the money—or not. And many of the contributors have absorbed the idea that writing in an unheated garret is romantic and that money is corrupting, which makes their relationships to money more tortured that those relationships perhaps need to be.

This essay’s tone is critical, and perhaps overly so, since The Secret Currency of Love is nonetheless instructive in showing that many people, even the wannabe bohemians, have more uncertainty about how income shapes us than they might admit under other circumstances. It would be nice to have enough money to live above it, like someone who has taken their company public or someone who has inherited enough not worry, but even that is fraught with intellectual and perhaps corrupting peril.

There are clever bits, which come chiefly at the beginning, when the repetitiveness of the problems suffered hasn’t yet drawn one’s attention to where the next essay starts rather than where this one is going, as when Abby Ellin writes:

In other words, I live life on my own terms.
The only problem with this lifestyle is that “freedom” is generally just another word for “nothing left to deposit.”

In which case, are you really free? I get the sense that one is paging Virginia Woolf and A Room of One’s Own. More recently than Woolf, Philip Greenspun dealt with the same issue in his unfair but still fascinating essay “Women in Science:”

In the personal domain, young people are very different from old people. If you interview old people and ask “What are the greatest sources of satisfaction and happiness in your life?” almost always the answer “my children” comes back. At the age when people are choosing careers, the idea of having children is often unappealing and certainly few have the idea that one should choose a “kid-friendly” career. Old people, on average, also have higher income requirements than young people. A youngster is happy to backpack around the globe, stay in youth hostels for $20 per night, and sleep in a tent. Most oldsters become devoted to their creature comforts and get cranky in anything less than $200 per night private hotel room. Young people don’t mind one $400 per month room in a dingy 4BR apartment shared with three or four other young people; most oldsters need their own apartment or house (edging up towards $1 million in America’s nicer neighborhoods).

The long blockquote might seem irrelevant, but because of the age of the contributors to The Secret Currency of Love, I suspect that their choices in career and other terms have come to seem less sagacious in retrospect than they were at the time such choices were made. Hence the fear of penury, the desire for a family, and the fact that, as Greenspun says elsewhere, “Any resource that is scarce, such as real estate, is snapped up by society’s economic winners.” Writers are seldom among that group.

Alas: I suspect that reading Greenspun’s essay along with a regular dose of The Atlantic would be more instructive and insightful regarding money, as well as innumerable other subjects,than The Secret Currency of Love. Don’t be fooled by an alluring topic—underneath its cosmetic marketing, the book is fundamentally shallow.

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