Liz Perle is already seated at the table when I arrive at Fleur de Sel, a small, elegant French restaurant on 20th Street in Manhattan. She smiles, shakes my hand, and we're off chatting as if we've known each other forever. She's easy to talk to and we compare notes on New York, where Perle lived and worked in publishing for years, and about San Francisco, where she lives now.

But the conversation comes to a full stop when, in a riff about shopping, Perle tells me how she got a fabulous pair of boots at Payless for $39 and I say "Good for you!" Perle raises her eyebrows at me and says, "See what you just said? 'Good for you'? We're all programmed that way, as if there's a virtue in that fiscal anorexia!" And so begins in earnest my conversation with the author of Money, A Memoir: Women, Emotions and Cash.

My lauding the fact that Perle (pronounced "Pearly") found a good deal on a pair of boots is just one example of the kinds of behavior she dissects in her book, which Holt will publish in February. The memoir (of sorts) addresses the guilt, fear and embarrassment that come with spending; women's lack of confidence when it comes to negotiating for a higher salary; the non-interest many women display when it comes to managing their finances and investing for their future; and the conflicting set of "money instructions" women learn: spend and save money wisely, but remember, a woman's "real role" revolves less around money and more around relationships. It's a fascinating, anxiety-inducing, ultimately eye-opening book that defies categorization.

"I think I realized how much time I was spending worrying about money," Perle says when I ask what drove her to write the book. "I was worried on a level that was not healthy. I realized that I didn't open my statements from the mutual funds people, that I didn't open my Visa bills. I thought, 'You have run companies and managed their budgets. Why can't you look at your own?' I have never balanced a checkbook in my life. I do it by touch and feel. Not because I'm too busy; not because I'm cocky. But because I don't want to think about it. And I thought, 'There's something really wrong here.' " So Perle started to examine her own life through the prism of money, and the ensuing book is very personal. But it's not just about Liz Perle (who is editor in chief of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that reviews media for kids). She also interviewed 200 women, as well as financial education experts, financial consultants, sociologists and therapists.

The book's wide-net approach is its strength; anyone reading it will recognize themselves and people they know. Perle, who wrote When Work Doesn't Work: Women, Work, and Identity in 1997, and was vice-president and publisher of several publishing houses, including William Morrow/Avon Books, Addison-Wesley and Prentice Hall Press (Simon & Schuster), and associate publisher of Bantam Books, explains, "What I found, as both an author and a publisher, is that when you're dealing with emotional issues, there's no substitute for sharing stories." So she talked to women of all stripes whom she met in financial support groups online and learned some surprising things. One of her most startling findings, she tells me, was "how quickly women sell themselves out. How little women really value their time and their contributions. And it broke my heart." Perle spoke with women who were getting divorced and believed they didn't deserve a cent from their husbands, women who undercharge clients for services, and women who don't negotiate for fair salaries.

Perle acknowledges that she's guilty of the third offense (not asking to be paid what you're worth). Her first "real" job was as an editorial assistant at Canfield Press, a division of what was then called Harper & Row. It was the late 1970s; Perle's salary was $6,500 a year and she spent her days "typing and filing and covering for a textbook editor who had trouble finding his way into the office every day." Within a few years she'd taken a new job, as an assistant to the associate publisher of the trade-book division of the same company, and learned that "good work alone didn't guarantee anything. We were all expendable." So she adopted a "supportive and silent and self-effacing" attitude when it came to co-workers, bosses and money. "If I didn't demand," she rationalized, "they'd like me and be less inclined to fire me." At her annual performance appraisals, she'd think to herself, "Gee, Matthew is making ten thousand dollars more than I am for the same job," but out loud, would say, "Thank you. Thank you so very much."

Perle believes that this reticence to speak up is about power—or lack of it. "We all take potshots at people like Arianna Huffington, who I think the world of, or Judith Regan. But I'd like to celebrate [their power] instead. I would like to celebrate it until it stops being an issue and we can get on with our lives." Perle herself had a powerful female figure growing up: her grandmother. Perle's mother died when she was eight years old and it was her grandmother who schooled her on life's important lessons, the main one being the importance of looking out for yourself. The old woman handed young Perle a tiny woven metal sack, called a knipple in Yiddish. Inside was a $20 bill. "It's a woman's private stash," she explained to Perle. "Every woman needs money of her own that her husband never knows about. So she can do what she wants. Remember that." Of course, it took some 30 years—which included marriage, motherhood, a move to Singapore, a divorce, a move back to the U.S., a remarriage and a wide range of jobs both high-paying and low—for Perle to really understand what her grandmother was talking about.

Perle put herself under the microscope for this book, which she admits was not easy. She called her agent, Richard Pine, last August, and said, only half-joking, "I'm sending the money back. I can't do this." But Perle did do it, and the result is an unflinching look at how irrational a rational woman can be when it comes to money. "The reason I put my story in the book is because I was willing to stand up and be the first fool. If you're the first fool, you give permission to someone else to feel foolish."

One thing Perle's book is not is a personal finance self-help book. The author leaves that booming market to the Suze Ormans of the world. In fact, Money, a Memoir is what Perle says she wanted to write: "the book you bought before you bought one of those." She agrees that guides like The Total Money Makeover and You Can Be a Stockmarket Genius have their place, so long as "you realize what money can and can't do for you emotionally." But when Perle was at her lowest point, financially speaking, when she had just lost [her] marriage and [her] home, and... had fifteen hundred bucks," she was "like Teflon. I had an emotional force field around me that deflected all that information." Yes, personal finance books have valuable information. "But I was not in any emotional shape to actually use any of that information," Perle remembers. "I just wasn't honest."

Now that she's finished writing this book, Perle says she's "hyperaware" of her own "paradoxes." While Money, A Memoir may not teach readers (or its author) how to balance a checkbook, it teaches some things that might just be more important: there is nothing morally wrong with buying a pair of boots full-price. Shopping at Payless need not invite comments encouraging "fiscal anorexia." And most of all, as Perle concludes over dessert, it teaches that "women need to really realize that they're trying to buy an emotional condition a lot of times, with something that's just... just..." She searches for the right word, finally settling on "just cash."