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Even rich folks have bag-lady syndrome
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Mellan says bag-lady syndrome can actually become debilitating.

"For some women, it's very gripping and makes them very depressed when they try to look at their money. It makes them into money-avoiders because they have so much anxiety about this that they don't even want to look at it, they're afraid the worst might come true."

So is there a male version, a bag-man syndrome, festering in the heartland?

"No, men don't have bowery bum fears," says Mellan. "They have fears that are more rational and related to their provider burden: being injured, dying young, being laid off, things like that. Whereas bag-lady syndrome is more global, a magical, nameless thing like free-floating anxiety."

Listen to your bag lady
As Paul Simon once wrote, "Breakdowns come and breakdowns go. What are you going to do about it? That's what I'd like to know."

So what are you going to do about those cardboard-and-curbstone nightmares?

Mellan treats her clients to a tall glass of reality.

"I have women flesh out their worst fears and then brainstorm what they will do if the worst happens," she says. "If you can walk them through their fears, they can sometimes sort out the part that doesn't make any sense. It helps a lot."

Boyle finds that her newly widowed or divorced clients sometimes require more than financial advice.

"We actually encourage our women to seek a career coach or life coach and look at occupations that they can do, because many of them feel they don't have skill sets," she says.

Both agree that the more women can learn about finances and feel comfortable controlling their money, the fewer nightmares they'll have.

"Woman who are more empowered around money probably don't have bag-lady nightmares," says Mellan. "Why would they? They would know that it's not a realistic fear."

Emily Pottruck chose to listen to her inner bag lady instead. She earned and brought into her marriage a seven-figure rainy-day account and has kept it separate, hers alone to manage, however conservatively.

"My investment advisers would love to see me much more invested than I am, but I also have to incorporate my comfort level," she says. "I really believe that a lot of this fear is very smart. I feel that a lot of smart people are fearful for the right reasons."

To allay her fears, she has thrown herself into philanthropy by writing "Tails of Devotion," a compilation of stories from fellow animal lovers with an introduction by Amy Tan. The entire proceeds from sales of the book benefit five Bay Area animal charities.

"I'm really lucky. I think that is why people look at me and laugh about [my fear of] being a bag lady," she says. "Isn't it interesting that here I am in this exalted position and still feeling this way? So my giving back and doing volunteer work is really my medicine for bag-lady syndrome."

Jay MacDonald is a contributing editor based in Mississippi.'s corrections policy -- Posted: Jan. 11, 2006
More stories by Jay MacDonald
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