You’ve resolved to get to the gym. Or to eat less pizza and more salad. Or maybe you’ve resolved to live it up, dance till dawn and enjoy more donuts. Let me suggest another resolution for 2011: understand your money.

Too many intelligent, savvy women suddenly turn into helpless little girls when it comes to personal finance. They don’t know how much money they have. They don’t know where it’s invested. Or even IF it’s invested. Say the words “mutual fund” or “Roth IRA” and their eyes glaze over. “My brain refuses to go there,” shrugs Deb, who has managed to reach age 53 without knowing what compound interest is. “I leave the money stuff to my financial advisor.”

If you’re in the habit of leaving “the money stuff” to your husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, or financial advisor, it’s time to get your head out of the sand. Why? Do the words Bernie Madoff ring a bell? And do you know how many marriages end in divorce? When you and your husband are hollering at each other, throwing dishes and looking up divorce lawyers in the phone book is not the best time to start figuring out what your assets are and where hubby has invested (or hidden) them.

Every woman should know how money works. I’m not saying you need to turn yourself into Elizabeth Warren or Ben Bernanke. Just learn the basics. Personal finance isn’t rocket science. The so-called “experts” may have convinced you that “money stuff” is way too complicated for you to wrap your pretty little head around, but any gal with half a brain can get the hang of it. (And you might even learn, as I did, that money can be pretty damn fascinating.)

The money you save may be your own. I’ll give you just one example. My dad put money in a 529 account to help my son pay for college. Although  a broker ran the account, I kept an eye on the statements. Everything was invested in the stock market. But there’s a basic rule when it comes to investing: never leave money that you’ll need in 3 to 5 years in stocks. When Tom was a high school senior, that money was still in the market. So I phoned the broker. “Tom is about to start college,“ I said. “Isn’t it time to move that money into something less risky?” So we did. Months later, the market tanked. If we’d left it in there, my son’s college fund would have been cut in half.

To understand how money works, you don’t have to understand economic theory (I don’t) or be good at math. (I suck at math.) You just need to read some terrific books, listen to a podcast or two, and enjoy a little television.

Here are my personal recommendations for getting the ball rolling.

Photo: David Shankbone

Start with Suze Orman. Nobody is more committed to educating and empowering women when it comes to money than Suze, and nobody is better at jargon-free explanation. Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny is a fabulous starter book. Update it with the more recent Suze Orman’s Action Plan: New Rules for New Times. And watch  CNBC’s The Suze Orman Show (or download it as a free podcast on iTunes.)  Excellent, reality-based financial advice as fun-to-watch entertainment.

Jane Bryant Quinn is another terrific money writer. Her Smart and Simple Financial Strategies for Busy People is a sound, well-written look at money basics. And her more recent Making the Most of Your Money Now: The Classic Bestseller Completely Revised for the New Economy covers every financial topic you’re ever going to need to know about. Ever.

When it comes to investing, The Smartest Investment Book You’ll Ever Read by Daniel Solin is exactly what the title says.

Finally, I am totally hooked on NPR’s Planet Money. Listen for free at or from iTunes. Twice a week, the Planet Money team makes money fascinating.

Just make this investment of time and effort, and by the time 2012 rolls around, you’ll understand your money. You’ll know exactly what you have and you’ll know how to invest it wisely. Then, if you choose, you can spend it all on dancing and donuts.

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  • Mark Lowe January 12, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    Hi there —
    I really like this essay, but when I try to share it on my Facebook page it comes up with an incomplete link.