Money is freedom," says Paula Nelson. "Yet most women in the work force still think like 19th-century hausfraus. They are looking for a prince charming—a lover and a money machine—to sweep them off their feet." Nelson, 31, is out to change all that. In her Joy of Money, now in its fifth paperback printing, she tells women everything they ought to know about credit, budgets, investments and finance but were afraid to ask.

Nelson is her own best advertisement. "I'm well on my way," she observes, "to becoming a millionaire." Born in Santa Monica, Calif., Nelson remembers being "the poorest people in a rich neighborhood." Her parents "would buy old houses and fix them up. We were always peeling paper off the walls or remodeling kitchens." Nelson recognized the value of hard cash early: at the age of 9 she demanded 25 cents an hour from her father to scrape paint off windows. At 14 she got her first outside job, typing labels in a jewelry store.

She enrolled at Santa Monica City College but quickly found it "misery" and left after six days. Fired from two jobs—"I realize now I am not good on detail"—she joined a small aerospace company as a secretary. The company was bought three months later by Peter Stanton, a Harvard M.B.A. 23 years her senior who took her under his wing—professionally and personally. "I really learned from him," says Nelson. "I was like a sponge."

When Stanton acquired a tiny electronics company called Infonics, he asked her to head up sales and marketing. She boned up on the jargon and discovered to her delight that at conventions "everyone thought I was an engineer." When Stanton sold the firm in 1973, Paula cashed in on her stock options and made a six-figure profit.

"Women own over 50 percent of America's stocks, bonds and savings accounts," Nelson points out. "We own most of the nation's wealth, but we don't control it. Control is where the real action is. And the fun." For fees of up to $2,500, she conducts financial seminars for banks, investment companies and colleges. Nelson, who lives in Los Angeles, also writes a column for McCall's.

Financial success has changed her whole personality, Paula says. "At first I wanted desperately to look older and more responsible," she remembers. "So I wore old lady suits or dresses with jackets and pearls, matching accessories and gloves. I was 21 going on 53." These days she's traveling the TV talk show circuit in sleek Diane von Furstenbergs.

Did it help to be the boss' girlfriend? "If I were a man and Peter was helping me, there would be no question about my capabilities," Nelson fumes. "It's hard for the world to believe a woman can be good in bed and good in business. I succeeded because I knew what was happening in the field. Boy, did I know my stuff."