MP Dunleavey: Money lessons learned along the way

Women in Red

9 years of money lessons, and goodbye

With encouragement and advice from readers, I became debt-free and even saved an emergency fund. Here's what else I've learned along the way.

By MP Dunleavey
MSN Money

Today marks my last column in this space, the end of a journey -- which began when I was young, single and clueless about money, nine years ago -- and the start of another, as a contributing editor at Money magazine and the editorial director of DailyWorth.

Naturally, I need to reflect a bit.

The question I'm asked most frequently is how I came to be a money writer. My typical response: "I often wonder that myself!"

Back in spring 2001, MSN Money's editors were searching for a columnist who could write about basic personal-finance issues in a down-to-earth way. They had a smart team of Wall Street types, and they wanted someone different.

This was B.B. -- before blogs.

I tried out for the job and got it. My first column -- I've found that my first piece for a publication often foreshadows where I'm headed -- was "The cost of being a stay-at-home mom: $1 million."

I wasn't yet a mother; I didn't particularly care (I thought) about women's financial challenges. Yet the issues surrounding women and their money would come to anchor my career.

But first I had to climb the Everest of my own financial ignorance.

Roth who?

When I look back on those early years, I don't know how I kept my job.

I remember my cigar-chomping editor insisting that I learn to use the 60% Solution budget. I did. When I handed in my column, he had to redo the math.

Then there was the time I opened an account at E-Trade Financial and invested $500 in a Roth individual retirement account. The now-famous conversation:

Editor: Great, so what did you put in your IRA?

Me: You know, the $500.

Editor: No, I mean, what did you invest in?

Me (confused): I invested in . . . the Roth?

Editor: MP, you have to put that money INTO a mutual fund IN the Roth.

Me: They did not tell me that.

Editor: What do you mean 'they'? MP! Do you know what a mutual fund is?

And so we went on from there, patching the seemingly endless holes in the long-neglected personal-finance lobe of my brain.

Women in Red to the rescue

Now that it's hip to be clueless about money, it doesn't seem so astounding that people flocked to the MP chronicles. But back then, it defied logic. Who were these hundreds of thousands of people who clicked on stories about my debt, my rubber budget, my first real retirement account?

The audience, it seemed, consisted primarily of women -- who, like me, were trying to get a financial grip. My editor got an idea: If people liked reading about my misadventures with money, they would love reading about several women's financial foibles. Thus the Women in Red were born.

The founding group -- Beth, Carole, Anna, Brice, Stephanie, Lindsay and Tricia (and, briefly, Jill, Marian and Yalitza) -- were the ones who truly launched the WIR movement. The second group -- Jane, Heather, Tricia and Kimber -- was cut short because of editorial changes, but they kept the fire going.

And the WIR thrived, thanks to the thousands of women around the country -- even some in far-flung parts of the world -- who then dubbed themselves Women in Red, too.

The WIR set up shop on the MSN message boards, and soon thousands of women were using this clunky old discussion technology to create thriving communities to help women pay off $10 million in debt, save $200,000 in six months, slash their grocery bills and tackle countless other money issues.

Working with the Women in Red was an incredible experience. I was amazed at the courage, humor and persistence that these women brought to complex, sometimes daunting financial situations. If not for the WIR Racers, I never would have paid off my debt; if not for the WIR Savers, I doubt that I would have an emergency fund today, never mind all my ING subaccounts (short-term crises, big ol' home repairs, gifts, vacations).

I know there are many women out there whose lives were changed -- maybe even saved -- by the plucky, supportive, straight-shooting camaraderie of the Women in Red.

Continued: The long, winding path to prosperity  

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