Families and Money by Ellen Berman, MD

Families and Money by Ellen Berman, MD

Money and class issues have a major impact upon relationships, and yet are very difficult topics for couples and families to talk about. In these complicated times, financial issues take on increased importance.

Money can represent many things: safety, decent health care, a roof over one’s head. Financial success can be a measure of self-worth and power. Money can represent values, such as thrift, or generosity. It is also one of the most frequent causes of couple conflict.

Men and women have always had differences in how they understand and use money. Often, men in this country measure their self-worth and manliness by their earning capacity. Until late in the last century, women (at least in the middle and upper classes) were supposed to be primarily focused on home and children, and work was considered optional or even insulting to their husbands.

Poor and single women have always worked, but seldom earned enough to make them feel safe.  It is still true that financial issues can have different meanings for men and women.  For example, men are more shamed when they cannot carry the main financial burden for their families, and women are often less knowledgeable about family finances.  The recent increase in women earning as much or more than their husbands is changing this dynamic, and the culture is changing with it, but men still seem more interested in finances on a day to day basis.  Same sex couples can differ widely in their earning capacity, so issues about power and money, and how it is spent, will occur regardless of gender.

Anxieties and beliefs about money that are learned in childhood tend to remain with us as adults, and guide our choices.  Couples often have to consider: “What is more important, keeping the children in private school and working longer hours, or transferring them to public school and keeping more family time?”  “Can we still take a vacation if we are in debt?” “Do we save for the future worrying about our later years, or enjoy the present?

Those who grew up with financial difficulties often have a very different attitude than those without family money concerns. Adults from financially safe homes tend to assume money will always be available.  People from less secure childhoods tend to be more concerned about saving for future problems. However, sometimes as adults if they find themselves earning much more money, they will spend beyond their means to make up for feeling deprived in childhood.

Common Financial Struggles in Couples

 Our money vs my money—who’s in charge? 

Dual earning couples, or those in second marriages, often keep their finances separate and contribute some portion to a joint account for running the household. If one partner’s income is substantially larger  than the other’s, there needs to be a clear decision about how to apportion expenses and whether there is any rule about spending individual income for personal, couple or child expenses.

Whether they earn equally or not, if financial problems occur it will take the couple working as a team to rework their budget and make joint decisions about spending.  Couple visits to accountants and financial planners are a must.  If discretionary income shrinks, the couple must review their beliefs about what is truly important to spend on. Discussing financial issues and values learned in childhood are the first step towards understanding each other’s differences.

Secrets and Ignorance: In the current climate, men who have lost a great deal of money from job loss, poor investments or overspending may feel deep shame.  Husbands may refuse to tell their spouses about job loss, business downturns or increasing debt.   They may spend money to keep up appearances, or start drinking, or become depressed. Supported spouses may keep secrets about continued spending. In general, women’s self-worth is more connected to relationships, so they are less likely to feel the profound loss of self that occurs with some men when finances are at issue.

Secrets about money are toxic.  No matter how painful, admitting the truth is the first step toward solving the problem.

Divorce.    Divorce is a major financial loss, especially for women who earn substantially less than their husbands.  The same income now has to support two family households and cover all the legal costs of separating.  If the house cannot be sold, the family is in debt, or one or both spouses have lost jobs, circumstances may become very difficult. If the partner with the higher earning capacity is particularly hostile, it is possible to tie up finances for years. If one or both remarry, financial struggles may continue as parents try to balance their loyalties to children of the first marriage with those of the second. Complete disclosure, good financial planning, and determination not to allow the children to become embroiled in financial arguments are crucial to a successful divorce and family transition.

Can there be too much money?  Couples in very high earning families may struggle over how visibly they wish to spend money, how to contribute to the world and how to give their children the values of hard work, humility and charity when everything is easily available.

 Summary: Money is an inescapable fact of life, affecting our lives, our health and our beliefs and values.  Conversations about money and its meanings are a crucial part of couple connections.

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