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Jesse Kornbluth

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Sarah Ban Breathnach's 'Simple Abundance' Made Her Rich. Then A Bad Marriage Made Her Poor.

Posted: 02/15/11 09:34 AM ET

When I met Sarah Ban Breathnach, she was riding the crest.

The #1 bestseller, week after week. Oprah, in her pocket. She was "the spiritual Martha Stewart" to millions of American women.

What was the attraction? Her message In "Simple Abundance," she cut through the crazy optimism and greed of the late 1990s to announce that women don't need more --- they already have all they need. Which was...a cup of tea, as reality and metaphor.

In today's radically different America, we hear this message all the time. Live small. Cook slow. Back then, it was a fire bell in the night --- and the start of a new media phenomenon. [To buy "Simple Abundance" from Amazon, click here. To download the Kindle edition, click here.]

Then Sarah Ban Breathnach, contrary to ancient laws of business, took her considerable fortune and invested it in herself. That is, in the idea of spreading the "Simple Abundance" gospel through a combination of print-and-online media. Her idea was sound -- in other hands, it became Real Simple. But operating alone, as the Internet bubble was starting to pop, it was a nifty way to burn money.

There was an expensive move to New York. The accidental discovery that Sir Isaac Newton's "chapel" was for sale, followed by the impulsive purchase of that two-room structure outside of London. An accident that sent her to bed for months. And then, a happy ending -- marriage to a dashing Brit she'd known forever.

Prince Charming turned out to be a total asshole. Mooched off her. Berated her. When she finally escaped his clutches, he claimed he deserved pretty much everything she had, right down to the teapot.

"Peace and Plenty: Finding Your Path to Financial Serenity" is a book written in blood -- her own. Not that Sarah Ban Breathnach gets down and dishes her lout of an ex-husband in its 400 pages. Like the teapot, he's reality and metaphor -- and as metaphor, he's more valuable to her. [To buy the book of "Peace and Plenty" from Amazon, click here. To download the Kindle edition, click here.]

Women and money. That's Sarah Ban Breathnach's subject this time. As ever, she universalizes -- she is Woman, both strong and foolish, struggling to untie the strands of the financial folly that is the secret story of too many of her sisters.

Sarah and I are friends. Because of that, I feel I have the right to push her. (She has the same right with me.) Here that means: I suggested that she deal, bluntly and specifically, with the story and the issues she addresses in "Peace and Plenty."

The best way to do that?

My suggestion: a self-interview.

If she could go there.

Could she ever! You can't help but admire the courage to look hard at what was done to her -- and what she allowed to be done. Her bet, and mine: You will come away saying to yourself, "I must take steps to protect my own security."

How did you come to write "Peace and Plenty?"
I've always wanted to write a book about women and money.

Wasn't that book called "Simple Abundance?"

Many people thought so, but "Simple Abundance" was about appreciation and viewing your life through the prism of gratitude. "Peace and Plenty" is all about money and our emotions, especially the dark ones. I wanted to create a safe space to have this conversation without shame.

Shame?
Yes. Like losing your home, your health insurance -- I experienced all of that. I know first-hand the self-beating and shaming that a woman does to herself when she overdraws the checking account or clicks the BUY button on eBay or hides purchases in the trunk of the car. But I learned a priceless lesson and one that everyone can use today--it's never the amount of money we have or haven't, it's always the amount of fear we have to wrestle with to make it through the day.

"Peace and Plenty" is also about the disaster of your third marriage to "an Englishman," but that saga is only sketched in. Why?

Curiously, only men want that story. For women --both journalists and readers -- it's enough to say I packed a suitcase and the cat and washed up on the other side of the world at my sister's apartment where I lived for a year as I wrote the book, ended the marriage, protected my life's work from the long reach of greed and started over.

What do you think women need to know about money?

Women are not taught the man-made laws of money. It is not in our intrinsic nature to be aggressive negotiators or cutthroat in our business dealings. I'm not advocating that we become mini-men, but I would suggest women of all ages -- from 18 to 100 -- need to learn the 10 Laws of Women and Money according to Sarah Ban Breathnach.

What would those 10 Laws be?
Here are the top three to get you going...
1. The Million Dollar Baby Rule: Always protect yourself. Every woman, no matter what her age, romantic or marital status, should have a bank account in her own name.
2 Winter is coming, buy a coat. Women don't just know the price of everything, but the value of it. Tell a woman it's going to rain and she'll get out the umbrellas. Well, in the matter of money, there's always the chance of rain ahead.
3. Every woman needs a private pin money stash. That is her own personal stash of cash to do with whatever she wants. It gives a woman freedom even if she doesn't spend it --especially if she doesn't spend it.

Why do you think women make mistakes with money?
Like everything else in life, our money misery -- past and current -- stems from our upbringing and what our parents taught us through their attitudes toward money. We need to trace back and unravel our family financial tree to discover the origins of the facts or fiction that we know about money. Fifteen years later, I ask myself: How did I ever think it could last forever?

What do you want women to take away from "Peace and Plenty?"

That whatever they are going through right now will eventually pass and they do possess the intelligence, courage and gumption to achieve both emotional solvency and prosperity. We all need to take a deep breath, sort through our priorities and work on what we can and pray about the rest. Don't hide from the bill collectors and avoid opening the bills. Open one a day, make one call, confide in someone you trust. Track the money you spend in a small ledger daily -- money in, money out. Get rid of the judgments and the shame.

Why did you look to old women's magazines from the Depression and the World Wars for your source material?
What better time in our history could there be than during the worst economic times that we have experienced as a country, and then the Home Front years when women needed to do double duty to keep bodies and souls together. One of the things that I found most interesting in women's domestic literature was that there was no "woe is me" talk at all. Women's magazines took morale very seriously, from putting on a brave face (beauty tips) to Victory Garden casseroles. Our sisters in that time didn't fake "happy," they worked at it with mood changers such as discovering their creativity in the challenge of "making do." We can too, once we stop comparing ourselves to others and embrace the life we have or change it.

Now that you have completed this distressing detour, what's next for you?

I'm back on the road again. The trajectory has changed a lot, so I have to get through the getting through stage with as much grace as I can muster. Like many women my age who find themselves alone after their children have grown, or are widowed or divorced and without a partner, I have to reinvent myself once again. I need to make a new home, create a living that I enjoy working at, stumble across new interests or resurrect old passions and discover a reason for getting out of bed in the morning with a smile on my face. Gratefully, I've learned that the true source of wealth is well-being and that contentment is found in a succession of well-spent moments. I've learned that emotional solvency accompanies fiscal mastery and that nothing you can spend money on feels better than having "the margin of happiness" for the unexpected. It is a new world for me but now I know that no woman on the face of the earth needs more than a dozen pairs of shoes, especially if she can wear them. And when it rains, I have a gorgeous chintz umbrella next to the door.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]