Late last year, Frank Warren, a guy who lives in Germantown, Md., passed out 3,000 postcards to strangers, inviting them to mail him a secret they had never divulged to anyone else.
Sure, it was a curious request, but many people found the opportunity to reveal a secret on an unsigned postcard irresistible.
As the postcards flooded in, what had started as a community art project turned into a global phenomenon. Warren began posting a sampling of the secrets on a Web site, www.postsecret.com. And this being America, a book deal came next - "PostSecret, Extraordinary Confessions From Ordinary Lives," which has turned into one of the hottest-selling books during the holiday season.
Some of the secrets you'll find on the Web site and in the book are poignant. One sender wishes he would contract lung cancer so his mom would stop smoking. Others wonder if they are trapped in loveless relationships. Some postcards might make you laugh: "I still suck my thumb. I'm 18."
When I was flipping through PostSecret, I never read anyone's financial secrets. The closest one I saw came from someone who pasted a snippet of an income tax return on a postcard. Across the postcard, the sender wrote: "Income from teaching creative writing: $32,654.00. Income from writing creatively: $0.00."
The secrets project, however, got me thinking about what people must be hiding about their financial lives. Revealing these secrets can be healthy if it prompts people to examine their own relationships with money.
To encourage self-reflection, I've dreamed up the sort of financial secrets that I strongly suspect haunts many people. I've interspersed them with a few of the real secrets (in quotes) that people have mailed to PostSecret.
Let the secrets begin:
My wife didn't realize that the document she signed when I retired waived her rights to my pension if I die first. We're enjoying a bigger monthly check as long as I'm around, but I'm not sure how she'll manage if she becomes a widow and the checks stop.
I don't see why financial experts think I'm committing financial suicide because I've stuffed my 401(k) with my company's stock. My stock is never going to crater like Enron, WorldCom, General Motors or Merck.
"When my friends go on diets, I discourage them. This is because I really want them to be fatter than me."
I never saved much money for my retirement, because I always thought I'd inherit a big windfall from my parents. Now they're both in a nursing home, and the cash is going fast.
I'm afraid to open my Individual Retirement Account statements because I fear that the account balance will only remind me of what a pathetic investor I am.
"I once put hair in my pasta at a restaurant when I decided that I wanted fries instead."
I'm invested in a municipal bond mutual fund even though I'm not sure what muni bonds are or if I need them.
I own three expensive life insurance policies, because I have trouble saying no.
"I wish my parents could see me for what I am instead of what I didn't become."
On the surface, our family lives a fantastic life. Our kids go to private school, our vacations are incredible, and the master bathroom in our McMansion is much bigger than the bedroom I shared with my brother growing up. But I'm nearly broke, and I'm afraid to seek financial help because I fear an adviser will think I'm a loser for not being able to live on $175,000 a year. If I continue to pay the minimum on my credit cards, I won't retire my debt for 21 years.
"I wish I would have spent more time with him, when he still remembered my name."
I'm so petrified that I'll lose money investing that I shun risk. I invest strictly in certificates of deposit, which generate a little more income than the rolls of quarters that I keep in a mayonnaise jar.
I can't stop tormenting myself about how filthy rich I'd be if I had somehow found the money to buy more than one house in San Diego in the early 1990s.
"I used to fertilize a ring in our lawn every time I mowed it. It grew. My parents still think it was aliens."
My husband and I love our kids dearly, but we haven't found time to write a will that would officially designate who would raise our children if we died.
I rely on the eenie, meenie, minie, moe method of investing.
"I am afraid no one will ever love me as much as my dog does."
And here's my financial secret: I'd rather have skipped writing this week's column - I'm too preoccupied with other things at this time of year - but if I did, I wouldn't get paid. As I'm writing this, I'm thinking about how I'd rather be in the kitchen watching "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and making my 14th batch of Christmas cookies - no lie.