Money Baggage and Relationships (Part 2)

Here is the story of Ellen, an independent woman. Ellen’s money baggage is: I have to do everything all by myself, and I’ve got to work really hard to get money.

“When I was six years old I wanted to buy some candy or a toy. I asked my dad if he’d give me some money and he replied, in his deep voice with his arms crossed in front of him, ‘Well, I can’t just give it to you. You’re going to have to work for it.’

I said that I would wash the car. He agreed and away I went. I pulled the hose across the front yard, got a bucket of warm soapy water and some rags, and proceeded to scrub and soap and wash the car. What a sight that car was to behold! All shiny and clean. It was beautiful and I had done it all myself.

I ran inside to tell dad and collect my reward. He said, ‘Well, I’ve got to inspect the car before I can give you the money.’ So I nervously followed him outside and watched him walk around the car looking here and there, sighing, and nodding to himself. Finally, he pointed out that I missed the lower part on the car door. I bravely listened as he told me I had to clean that first before he’d pay me.

So he left and I proceeded to scrub that part and check all the other parts of the car. I called him again and this time he pointed out the hubcaps. They had spokes and he told me I needed to use a toothbrush on them. So I choked back the tears and cleaned the hubcaps.

The next time it was the car’s roof. I had only hosed it down, because I was too short to reach it. So I had to get a chair and wash it with soap. My dad left and I started crying.

I can’t remember how many times we went through this but eventually he laughed at me as he pulled a quarter out of his pocket and gave it to me.”

Ellen’s dad might very well have been trying to teach her the values of working hard and doing a complete job. But he forgot he was dealing with a sensitive six-year-old girl and it was the first time she had ever worked for money.

It’s no surprise she grew up to be a workaholic and a perfectionist. She also vowed not to ever let anyone lord over her with money. She became very successful and an “independent woman.” That sounds good on the surface, but it arose from a deep underlying belief that people with power and money will humiliate and control you. So she set out to make sure that never happened. She was determined she would earn what she needed and rise above the need to ask anyone for money.

She did eventually marry, but even within the relationship she held on to her independence, in one case insisting that she save up for her own maternity leave instead of letting her husband help out. She always had to do it herself because her money baggage would not let her trust anyone else with her fate as it related to money, especially not a man. They did not fight about money, but her money baggage created an emotional gulf that prevented a true partnership.

How is money handled in your relationship? Who pays the bills? Have you ever deferred your own career choice in the interest of your partner’s? Do you feel as if you have to rely on another person for money or that you can’t rely on anyone but yourself? Do you argue about money? Is money misused as a source of power in your relationship? Does the person who makes the most money typically make the decisions? Ask yourself why these patterns exist.

Sit down with your partner and discuss your money issues with each other. Ask if there is any fear about money. Share your own fears. Discover your money baggage together and see how each other’s money baggage creeps into and affects your relationship.

Next week, we discuss how Money Baggage can affect you at work.


Money Baggage and Relationships

Money affects every aspect of our lives, and therefore has a profound effect on our intimate relationships. Few people will disagree with me when I say that money is a common reason for many arguments. Survey after survey shows this. Money, in fact, is often cited as the number one reason people get divorced.

Our money baggage influences everything: whether we can find a partner, whom we choose, how easy or difficult it is to maintain a long-term relationship, and our tendency to lay blame on our partner when discussing finances.

Recall Oliver, whose father yelled about the grocery bill. He fled Austria at age fifteen, far from the painful memories of his parents’ fights over money. He became a farmer in Canada and spent most of his life avoiding having to deal with money. His money baggage is: We don’t have the money, something is always wrong! I’m out of here!

Oliver had accountants deal with the farm finances, and he let his wife, Anita, handle the family money. Anita’s money baggage is: I’m bad with money and the end is always near.

She shared: “I have wanted money—and what money can provide—ever since I heard the alluring sound of my grandfather’s coins jingling in his pocket when I was very small, signaling he wanted to give them to me. Money was good stuff; magical and mysterious and good things came from having it. But Mom thought it wasn’t proper for me to want money and ask people for it. So after being allowed, once, to have Grandpa’s coins, it was ‘No!’ after that.”

One day Anita took some coins off her dad’s dresser and was punished for it. She was locked in her bedroom and not allowed to come out until she confessed and apologized to her father. She refused to admit having taken the money, even though everyone knew she had. She cried and cried but her parents would not let her come out of her room. She felt afraid and ashamed. Her conclusion about money was that she was bad with it and that she couldn’t be trusted.

As an adult, Anita reinforced her subconscious belief that she was bad with money by marrying Oliver, who she knew would be a good provider. She also became a compulsive spender. So here you have a compulsive spender, who believes deep down she is bad with money, in charge of the family finances, married to someone who wants to avoid dealing with money altogether. Arguments about money were commonplace in their marriage.

Oliver: “Anita handled the household money, a bookkeeper handled the farm bills, and an accountant prepared the yearend financials. I, on the other hand, would take the garbage out, sweep the floor, clean up the office, and file paperwork before starting on a budget. A budget that should only take two days to do would take me two to three weeks to finish.”

Anita: “I always enjoyed going shopping—until it was time to think about coming home, and then apprehension set in. I dreaded having to face the music and having Oliver find out I’d been shopping again. As the guilt took over, I would subtly maneuver my parcels from the trunk to the house to my closet unnoticed. I would be scared wearing the new clothes or using the new appliance for the first time, just waiting for Oliver to ask if it was new.

Oliver: “I never wanted to know what she bought. Our money was her responsibility anyway. I’d think, ‘When the money is gone, she can’t spend anymore.’ Well, that was a wrong assumption, but it was fine as long as I didn’t have to deal with it. Secretly, I could blame my financial ruin on her reckless and unappreciative spending.”

Anita: “My spending contributed to many fights in our marriage. When it came time to look at our finances, especially if I said we needed more money, we might as well have been reading from scripts, as we both said the exact same things every time. He’d say, ‘If you didn’t spend so much we’d have enough.’ ‘Well,’ I’d say, ‘if you would just get involved in knowing where our money goes. Groceries just keep going up, the kids need braces. We do have a joint checking account—you could look at that from time to time. And if you could get the farm bills under control, we’d be fine.’ These fights never stopped me from spending for long and it never stopped Oliver from avoiding money. For twenty-five years we were talking about money—but we never heard a word the other said. It looked like a wonderful marriage to the outside world, but it wasn’t.”

A lot of money disagreements arise out of our partner’s fears and automatic behaviors colliding with our own. A subtle dance often ensues to avoid dealing with it, while frustration and resentment grow. Most of the time, one spouse blames the other and just can’t understand why the other one won’t change his or her behavior.

How often have you said to yourself, “If only my partner would handle money the way I do, or do as I say, then our money problems would be over!” All the while your spouse is thinking, “If only my spouse would handle money the way I do—then our money problems would be over!”

For most of us, it was common to grow up in a household where money was not discussed. Often couples tell me they seldom or never talk about money, even those who have been together for decades. It’s simply taboo. Given that money is so central to every decision we make, how can we have an honest and fulfilling relationship if we do not talk about it? And how can we talk about it if we don’t understand our money baggage and how it is driving our own behavior?

Are you in a relationship where money is not discussed? How come? What are you afraid of? What is your partner afraid of? Help each other discover your respective money baggage. What behavior do you notice in yourself and your partner? Explore where these behaviors came from.

You might save each other a lot of suffering. You might begin to let go of old patterns that don’t serve your soul and become closer as a couple; it might even save your marriage.

For some couples, money baggage does not always lead to arguments. In a household of relative harmony, however, it can still play a powerful role. It can create a separateness that does not allow for complete emotional connection in the relationship.

Tune in next week for more on how Money Baggage affects Relationships.

Read Karen Ramsey’s Column in U.S. News

If you enjoy the content on the blog and you’re looking for additional insights into personal finance, check out Karen Ramsey’s new column in U.S. News! Every month, Karen will provide advice and tips on investing, retirement, and more. This month, Karen discusses the benefits of creating a Personal Spending Plan in order to ensure a more secure retirement. Read more now!