Money Is Big: As the New Year confronts us, money matters can loom large in the line-up of Coupledom challenges: What are the expenditure priorities this year? Who manages the finances? Who pays the monthly bills, or not? Who brings home the dough? Who decides on how it is spent? Who knows where the money is invested? Who does the investing? Who decides on what the kids get? Which in-law deserves a loan, which doesn’t? Shall I go on? I think we all get it. Money is big. Money is massive in all our lives, by its presence and absence. As an observer of money conversations between spouses or co-habitating partners I notice some mighty common themes running through them.
Pitfalls Of Only One Pair of Eyes: Trust is a basis for successful communication and its opposite, distrust, its nemesis. From my observation what creates or sustains a trustful financial component of The Coupledom is transparency, the ability of each partner to know as much as their spouse regarding how money is earned and how money is spent. This transparency becomes especially significant when other obstacles confront the family nest, such as economic downturns, requests for monetary help from relatives or friends, time spent apart when one travels with an expense account and the other is in charge of paying bills, deciding outlays of funds for household maintenance, or children’s activities. Often, when a couple’s relationship hits the skids, accusations around money flare up because someone has access at their fingertips of the financial fountain and someone else is clueless. Not good.
The Subjectivity of Money Meaning: Money has meaning, but not always the same meaning to everyone. For one member of The Coupledom, money is broken down into how many literal pennies are in the bank; to the other, it is simply a state, we have it or we don’t; for a third, no amount of money spells security. For someone else money is scary, and ignorance about its details is preferred. There are folks who only feel in control when they are at the financial helm and cannot trust another to handle the checkbook, online or otherwise. For others, money is gender related: men earn it and control it, women receive their portion of it and spend it. Thematically, in western culture, money means power. Divorcing women whose homes ran along traditional western style money habits bemoan their ignorant years of marriage where hubby alone knew where the money went. Regretful that they didn’t demand “transparency,” the ladies are left to feel ripped off and robbed, though the evidence of that is often ambiguous. Why the assumption? Only one pair of eyes was focused on the statements, the investments, the W2’s, the yearly tax statements sent to the IRS. Not good! As prevention is a key focus of these posts, my aim here is to suggest that couples revisit how they run their finances and consider some modifications.
Accept Difference: A commonplace financial battle is around perception. One member of the couple sees expenditures as in line with income. Another disagrees, feeling much can be cut, much is extravagant. House cleaning is one of those areas where, for women, getting extra help to manage the chaos left by young children, laundry and dust is a means to the end of creating a greater sense of order and relief once every couple of weeks. For their husband, it means money that is needlessly spent when a good strong woman, their wife, is quite adequate to complete the task. Who is right? Who is wrong? No one. What money may offer one partner as relief, may do nothing for the other. A round of golf costs a penny but provides therapy for the body and mind. Just like housecleaning. Yet, rather than allow for difference and with two pairs of eyes look at the budget and decide the breakdown with both needs equalized, couples fight, accuse and blame. Again, not good.
No Deciders Here: College tuition is another grand slam big bang of a fight. One believes in state schools, the other wants their child to go wherever he or she wishes, private or not. Two pairs of eyes need to know the budgetary facts, what can be relinquished to afford the other, when values are at odds. Is the parent who wants the option of sending their child to a private college willing to yield up some of their personal perks or return to work part-time? No one person should be the “decider” in family finances. “And that is final” are words not worthy of expression in our times; rather, they hearken back to the age of rigid roles based on gender implied by “father knows best,” or “father is an idiot and mom knows best.” Now the mantra needs to be, “We together can figure out what will fly.” Not best, not worst, but negotiable and with two pairs of informed eyes, looking at a budget on a screen, with bank accounts and investment accounts side by side to provide a “shared reality.” All veils lifted.
Information is Power: And money information is particularly empowering. Today our financial life and worth is online. Need I bother to list for folks that everything from credit card expenses to cell phone and mortgage accounts to broker trades, iTunes costs, savings and business accounts, is up for grabs with just the input of an arrangement of 8-16 letters and a couple of numbers or punctuation, for all to see. Empowered folks are those who know the contents of the family vault, literally and figuratively. Don’t kid yourselves, no matter how great a guy or gal your spouse may be, they are not perfect, may need another brain to figure out how to run the family finances and decide priorities for all rather than base it on the mindset of one. And a heads up here: the need of one partner to control the monies is not the best sign in a Coupledom either. If you have a partner who feels burdened by bill paying and account balancing yet refuses to share the password or allow you to take over some of the payments, have a serious conversation. What’s up with that? Trust, fear, secrets, issues of personal identity, esteem or fears of being viewed as incompetent or an inadequate breadwinner? Listening skills required here, as well as heavy draughts of empathy and curiosity with a sensitive eye toward tweaking what isn’t working without condemnation or judgment.
Money Is Very Personal: And so is the shared life. To make a success of one, you need to have a transparency of the other. Good luck, see an expert if your Coupledom hits a wall here. And welcome to Coupledom Finances 2012.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012