The holidays are here, which for many of us means preparing for a parade of guests to visit our homes. Whether you enjoy hosting or not, I think we can all agree that gearing up for company can be a bit stressful. The pile of mail, the sticking door and crooked picture frames that we live with daily suddenly stand out like sore thumbs and get added to list of things to fix before anyone dare enter our home and see the way we actually live. Even though we all have our little messes, letting other people see them is something we work pretty hard to avoid.
It’s gotten easier and easier to show people the version of ourselves we like and leave out the rest. In our world of social media, we perfectly curate our public images with filtered pictures that show us at our best. We might post an entertaining epic fail, but rarely do we let the world see the tougher challenges we face. These things we keep private, maybe because we’re afraid of judgment or maybe because that’s what we were taught to do. This is especially true when it comes to what we share about money and relationships.
If we judged the impact of money on relationships by how frequently it’s mentioned in conversation, we’d think it has a relatively minor influence. The objective data on this topic paints a different picture. For years, the majority of Americans have cited finances as a significant source of stress in their lives, and many say it is a (if not the) point of conflict within their relationships. Statistically, one in three couples fight over money monthly, while 1 in 6 couples fight about it weekly. You may be lucky enough not to count yourself in these statistics, but even the strongest relationship is likely to experience financial friction at some point.
When we look at the nature of money arguments, they tend to be longer than other fights, more recurrent and their impact is more significant to relationships both in the near and long term. Why? Because there are usually underlying forces at work in money fights. We think we’re fighting about the American Express bill or how much to spend on the kids for Christmas, but really we’re trying to square competing emotions, differing expectations and opposing needs around money – stuff that is rooted in our upbringing and that goes to the core of how we see the world.
How do you resolve when one parent wants to cut off an adult child and the other wants to keep helping them? What happens when a spender and a saver continually butt heads? What do you do when one person wants to combine the finances and the other wants to keep them separate? How do you recover when a business fails or someone makes a mistake that impacts the whole family?
Sadly, most people do nothing. About 30% will turn to friends or family for advice or support, but the same forces that drive us to clean the house before guests drive us to keep our ‘dirty laundry’ private. Even if we’re typically more open, the taboo around money talk still runs deep. As a result, over half of us turn to no one for help in these situations.
I would like that to change. Money trouble causes the kind of marital distress that results in divorce and the consequences to our finances can be just as severe. When our relationships suffer, our sense of financial security goes down and our levels of financial stress go up. Conversely, when relationships with a spouse, partner or close friend are stronger than ever, we report higher instances of thriving financially. This holds true across all levels of income. Financial well-being improves the most when we see noticeable improvement in our immediate relationships surrounding money.
The incentives for addressing our persisting financial conflicts are there, so, how do we go about it? A good first step is seeking out an objective third party, ideally someone who has expertise in both money and relationships. That’s not the easiest combination of skills to find, but developments in the financial and mental health fields are making it easier. A subset of the financial community has come to recognize the importance of addressing this unmet need. Those professionals, including some of us at TAAG, have educated ourselves in family dynamics, relationships, and methods to support and encourage change. A similarly-sized group of therapists are now seeking out education in finance, so they will be prepared to understand the financial implications of their clients’ concerns. The momentum in the profession has even led to an entirely new field of work known as financial therapy and a professional organization known as the Financial Therapy Association.
Assuming you can find someone qualified to help, then comes the really hard part: admitting to someone that you’re struggling. It’s the equivalent of letting a guest into our messy house or posting a no-makeup selfie flaws and all. Having to ask for guidance on retirement savings seems like a natural ask of your planner. Confessing that you argue about how much debt to carry can feel like an imposition, an embarrassing overshare, or perhaps downright inappropriate. To this concern, let me be clear that in our view, your financial planning meetings are perfectly appropriate venues to share the financial struggles that affect your relationships. While we don’t hold ourselves out as mental health professionals and we never want you to feel like we are “couching” you, we will happily offer a listening ear, our insight on how and why couples often develop opposing financial beliefs and our tools and resources to help you work through the issues as best we can.
The ways in which financial planning can improve your life are evolving. For the sake of our wallets and our well-being, it’s time to reveal what we want to heal.