'Tis Better to Receive

The Original Dinner Party is serving up a rotten deal.

Wendy is the birthday girl for the second time in six months. On her first "birthday," in September, she got $20,000. And she's hoping to receive another generous gift soon.

The money couldn't have come at a better time. Wendy, a 51-year-old single mom, lives in a mobile home in Boulder with her twenty-year-old daughter. As a self-employed massage therapist, she's never had health insurance, and for many years, she needed serious dental work, including root canals and crowns. But no longer. She's found the answer, she says, to financial freedom. And it requires so little effort that she wishes she'd discovered it years ago.

Last May, a friend asked Wendy to join a women-only club called the Original Dinner Party. She told Wendy that the club gives its members the opportunity to empower themselves by controlling -- and making -- their own money without the oversight or assistance of men. All she would need was $5,000 to start.

So Wendy attended an informational meeting held at another woman's house. There she learned that the women who join break down into smaller groups -- usually between seven and fourteen people, and, in keeping with the dinner-party theme, pay $5,000 to become what's known as "soups and salads." When four soup and salad positions are filled, meaning $20,000 has been raised, the "birthday" girl gets the money. The group then splits in two, and the soups and salads move up to the "entree" level, with the two women who were previously at that level moving into the birthday spots in the two new groups; four new soups and salads then have to be created at the bottom of each group. When the new birthday girls get their birthday presents, the groups split again, and so on. Before long, there are dozens of groups.

Once the birthday girl cashes in, she can take her money and leave, or she can reinvest $5,000 and start again. But the success of the dinner parties is completely dependent on the ability of current members to bring in new ones.

It was an intriguing idea, and Wendy signed up. Two days later, when the soup and salad positions in her group had been filled, she was asked to give the birthday girl $5,000. Wendy was prepared. To come up with the money, she had taken out a $1,500 cash advance on her credit card and depleted her savings account.

"It wiped me out temporarily," she admits. "But money is a renewable resource, so it didn't wipe me out for long. The beauty of this is that you realize that you can really scrounge up more money than you think you can. At first I was worried that I wouldn't be able to come up with the money, but where there's a will, there's a way. Some women in Guatemala never see $5,000 in their lifetime. You learn how blessed you are in this country that you can amass $5,000 in two days. You stop thinking of yourself as poor and start thinking of yourself as abundant."

For Wendy, who asked to be identified by her first name only, it's been a huge success; of the six women she's invited, five have joined, and she got her gift after only three and a half months.

"There are a lot of single women and single moms in the group. Some have husbands, but mostly it's a way for single moms to make a little money and have a cushion to fall back on," she says. "I know of at least three women who have had head injuries; for them, this money is a lifeline. I know, because I had a head injury from a car accident in 1995, and it took me four years to heal. Also, a lot of women feel isolated, so it's a way for them to get together. The meetings are really uplifting. We talk about our fears around money. If this was a coed thing, I'm thinking it wouldn't be as fun."

Part of that fun involves the dinner itself. Each member brings a dish matching her level in the group to the monthly meetings. When Wendy was at the bottom, she brought a green salad; when she was an entree, she brought lasagna. The parties are informal, and the women talk about their jobs, their kids and current events, she says.

The money is never exchanged in public, however, and in the groups Wendy has been in, it's never handed over at the actual dinner parties, either. But some of the women have come up with creative ways to present their gifts to the birthday girls. When it was Wendy's turn to receive her gift, for instance, one woman came to her home and gave her a book called The Ten Gifts; she had placed fifty $100 bills between its pages. Another woman pulled money out of her freezer and said, "Here's $5,000 in hard, cold cash." Wendy has heard of other women putting money in bras and saying things like, "This is for your support." One woman put cash in a baby bottle and told the birthday girl to nurture herself. "I've also heard of people baking money into cakes," Wendy says.

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