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Managing Money


Normally, Andy doesn’t think a lot about money. “I’m penny wise and pound foolish,” he observes. “You know, I’ll use a coupon that will save me 20 cents to buy cat litter but then I’ll spend 100 dollars on computer software that I don’t need.”

But Andy is worrying more and more about money these days. He’s about to be married and fears spending may become an issue with his future wife. “I’ve read stories about people fighting over it,” he says. “So I think I have to be more measured. I mean, we’ve talked about money. It’s much more of an emotional issue with her. She’s more careful, probably because her parents argued a lot about money. She’s always worried about not having enough.”

Andy’s situation is not unique. New York City psychoanalyst Austin Galvin points to one couple he counsels. Things were so good that they began living together. After a while, however, they began fighting – about money. “She would ask him why the utility bill was so high,” Galvin recalls. “He’d say he liked to take long, hot showers and shave. She’d say, ‘You spend too much money.’ He said she was too miserly.”

The best things in life may be free, but for many couples, you can keep them for the birds and bees. Money is what many people want – and fight over. “Money issues are becoming more and important than they once were,” observes Allen Elkin, a New York-based psychologist and director of the Stress Management Counseling Center. “With downsizing and mergers, there is more of a sense of financial insecurity in the air. In the old days, grandfather kept his job for 20 years. Now there’s more uncertainty. With that comes a lot of anxiety.”

But how much of that is a legitimate concern over a tough economy – and how much a symbolic battle over power, control, and other psychological issues?

Dollars and Sense of Worth
When men and women begin dating, money is the topic no one discusses but everyone thinks about – at least unconsciously. “We are often attracted to another person because we perceive – perhaps not consciously – that the other person has an attribute we lack to make ourselves whole,” explains Elayne Savage, a psychologist in Berkeley, California. The differing styles may complement each other since one person spends freely, while the other is frugal. But these same qualities can become points of contention when tensions rise about other things.

There are legitimate issues of finance, of course. If you are not balancing your books, there should be discussions. But what are the real issues in a budgeting mess? “When money comes up, find out what you’re really talking about,” suggests Brigitte Lifschitz, a New York City social worker. “In general, the problem usually goes beyond just money.”

For most, cash concerns are defined in childhood. Those who grew up without a lot often have a different perspective than those who did, which can create tension. “Some people have the philosophy that you don’t spend on yourself, that money should be saved or spent on important things,” Elkin says. “As opposed to the idea that you can’t take it with you, so spend it while you can.”

“Our belief system is developed when we’re growing up. It’s important to look at the original context,” adds Savage. “Maybe a major wage earner in the family lost money suddenly and everything changed: they never had enough food or clothing. I have one client who, no matter how much money she makes, has to have $1,000 in a drawer. It’s for psychological security.”

Money often represents control. Lifschitz cites a couple in its mid-30s: “If she doesn’t earn a living, she feels she has less power in the relationship. She feels like a child who has to ask permission to buy things. And even though he’s earning a very good living, he has had large debts from his own schooling, so he feels they must be careful. They come into conflict when she wants to buy clothing he thinks is extravagant. They fight; she might back down and resent it, or she might go out and buy it anyway.”

Money can also be a symbol of something lacking in the relationship. For example, if one person is tight-fisted financially, Savage notes, “it could mean they are a withholding person. So they might withhold other things, like emotions.”

Spending can be used as a way to avoid confronting difficult issues. “Often money is a way to sidestep emotional problems a couple may have,” says Galvin. “When people get to troubled times, rather than communicate, they go out and talk over a good meal and have some wine, and soon there seems to be no problem. But they really haven’t addressed anything. Spending the money has just made them feel good. The problems will return.”

If spending makes one feel good, so does having: dollars are often mixed up with a person’s sense of self-worth. “If a man feels like he’s going to lose his job, he feels like his self-esteem is at stake,” observes Rebecca Abramson, a psychologist in Hartsdale, New York. “For men especially, how much they earn is very much a part of who they are. That can lead to competition between couples over money, especially when the woman works.”

Spending can also be used as a cry for attention. If the man is being ignored in the relationship and doesn’t know how to ask for what he wants, he may make a big purchase. That could then precipitate a fight which leads to a reconciliation and affection, which is what the man wanted to begin with. “He just didn’t know how to ask for it in an upfront way,” Savage notes. “Spending money is a way to fill a hole, to ask for something you’re not getting. You’re usually filling a need for nurturing in the same way those who overeat do. In this case, the spending allows for the argument which leads to the intimacy. That could have been avoided if he knew what he really wanted. ”

Core Solutions
Once you’ve identified the core issues – not an easy task – experts suggest these steps:

Negotiate. When you discuss money issues, don’t make it an opportunity for a blaming session. Elkin suggests a “quid pro quo approach. Ask, ‘What do you want me to give up and what will you give up?’ She may say, ‘I’d like you not to spend so much on computer software,’ and then he says, ‘Okay, but you don’t spend so much on shoes.’ ”

Elkin says setting a dollar amount and value system is crucial in the process. “You have to measure how important it is to you. On a 10-point scale, how important is this purchase? Are Friday night hockey games integral to happiness? If so, it is not negotiable, so go to the next on the list, restaurants for lunch every day. Be willing to trade on that. But don’t impose your spending styles or values on your spouse; if she wants to spend money on shoes, don’t ridicule that.”

Budget. Most people don’ have – or if they do, don’t stick to – budgets. Making one up will give you a practical guide to where your money goes. “You will suddenly realize you’re spending $500 a week on lunches,” says Elkin. “That can help you in deciding, ‘Do I really need a new laptop?’ ”
Such a budget can also give you the basis for a discussion with your partner before spending becomes a major issue. Meet regularly and talk cash flow. You may even want to set limits: both parties have to consent to expenditures over a certain amount.

Communicate. As a couple, you should look at yourselves as a committee of two. “Work together,” says Elkin. “Make a collaborative effort on trying to solve the problem rather than making it into an adversarial attack.”

“The question of money is a great opportunity for couples to work out other conflicts because money is so symbolic,” Abramson observes. “If couples can work out these issues, they can work out anything.”

Take Dora and her husband Nick, a San Francisco couple who both have very different ideas about money. “He feels if you’ve got money, you should spend it,” she notes. “I’m more for putting it away and saving it. He says, ‘Let’s use the credit card for trip and worry later. Money will come.’ I think it’s because he grew up with an expectation that money would come. I grew up with the expectation that money will die. So that placed us in two different places. In the beginning, there wasn’t even a conversation; we were just talking at each other, not listening.

“But then we had to deal with monies coming in and where and how bills got paid. I ’m very much the budgeter and Nick sits there and listens and says, ‘Right.’ He has sort of a passive-aggressive stance, saying, ‘You set it up and I’ll comply.’ When we come to conflict, money and emotions are tied up. If I'm feeling anxious, I’ll focus on the budget. I’ll say, ‘These are the essentials we’ll need.’ He’ll sit with me through that and calm me down and we’ll manage.’ And over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate his lifestyle more. And to some extent, he’s learned to appreciate mine.”