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We Always Fight About Money

Disagreements over money and how to spend it are taking a toll on Terry's and Charlie's marriage. Can this marriage be saved?
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Meet the Couple

Terry, 30, a stay-at-home mother of two daughters, ages 2 and 5, and Charlie, 31, a construction engineer, have been married for eight years and, like many couples they have very different attitudes about money and how to spend it. With help from Merrick, New York-based marital therapist Susan Demosthenous, MSW, Terry and Charlie have tried to figure out why they fight about finances — and how to make sense of money matters.

She Says

Terry: Charlie has always had champagne tastes and a beer budget, but his latest move tops everything. He rented a hotel suite and invited six of our closest friends to a surprise party for my 30th birthday! When I flipped on the lights and everyone yelled 'Surprise!' I was tickled — until I started to calculate the bill in my head. How can he be so stupid? He knows how worried I am about money. "This must have cost a fortune," I whispered to Charlie when he hugged me. "You're worth it," he said. It sounds romantic — until you see our credit card bill.

Everyone thinks Charlie's extravagant gestures are the sweetest, most thoughtful things in the world. Well, I don't. I don't need a fancy hotel or gourmet dinner to make me feel good. We've been together for almost eight years; you'd think he'd know that by now. I'm just not a spender and any extra money we have I put toward things my kids need. Maybe status symbols or trips make Charlie feel important, but I'd rather know that we have enough money to complete the renovations on the house and pay for the girls' college educations than blow a thousand dollars on one night.

Demosthenous: Terry and Charlie's situation defines the marital turmoil millions of couples face. Whether we have money in the bank or struggle to make payments every month, money means different things to each of us. Attitudes about money — which can be extremely personal and highly idiosyncratic — are deeply rooted, often unconscious, and potentially conflicting. For some, money symbolizes love or self esteem; for others, security. Terry and Charlie clearly have opposing views on money, and the fact that they've been unable to deal with them for eight years makes it even harder to figure out exactly what's behind their arguments.

Terry: I'm tired of fighting about our finances. Every month when I sit down to pay the bills I get panicky trying to juggle which ones I must pay and which can wait. I always pay the phone and utility bills, but only the minimum on the credit cards. That means we pay a ton in interest. I'm meticulous about keeping track of money right down to the penny. Charlie — who, as a sales manager, is paid a small salary plus commissions — has no sense of how much he makes or how much we have. When I first married him, he rarely recorded the checks he wrote, and I'm still in charge of the checkbook.

Well, it's time to grow up. He has a family to think about and he has to stop being so irresponsible about money and everything else. I know he's always dreamed of running his own business, but at some point you have to realize that maybe it's just a pipe dream.

The trouble is, Charlie has always been like this. He's jumped from job to job ever since I've known him. Now he's manager and part owner of a small electronics store. But he works 19 hours a day, he's exhausted and stressed and, to be honest, I don't think he's cut out for this type of work. He pals around with all his employees, going for drinks after the store closes, playing baseball and basketball on weekends. That's all very nice, but then if they take advantage of him, he's in no position to reprimand them.

If he made decent money, I might feel differently about sticking with the store until it turns a profit. But he barely breaks even, and since it's such a small operation, we don't have health insurance or a pension plan. I want Charlie to be happy, but I can't live like this. I'm a nervous wreck. I want to be able to take my kids to the pediatrician and not worry that it's costing me a hundred dollars. Even if I found a part-time job, I'd have to pay so much in childcare, it wouldn't be worth it.

Right now, Charlie and I are beyond talking. We hardly see each other — he's either working or playing ball with his friends — and I'm with the girls. When we are together, we argue. If we don't start to plan for our future, I don't even want to think about what's going to happen.

Demosthenous: Money is often a substitute for other unresolved issues in a relationship. It sounds like Terry feels helpless, as if Charlie, by not doing much of anything, is calling the shots in their marriage. It's easier for her to blame him for spending too much money than to deal with the issue of him not spending enough time with her. Take a reality check on your own marriage: If you and your spouse argue a lot about money, is it possible you could really be fighting about something else?

Terry: My husband's priorities are totally out of sync. Charlie does so much for others — which is wonderful — but you can't keep giving money to other people if you don't have it. Even with us, he's too extravagant. For Valentine's Day two years ago, he bought us matching leather jackets — totally frivolous. A year ago, we discussed buying a new car. I wanted a basic family car, but Charlie had his heart set on a fancy SUV. I told him flat out that we couldn't afford a $20,000 car. The next day, I heard someone honking in the driveway. It was Charlie, driving a bright red SUV, with the salesman in the front seat. Does this make sense? We wound up having to sell it because we couldn't make the payments.

He's just as irresponsible about things around the house. He'll start to replace the siding on the house, get two sides up, and then stop. He's been painting the inside of the house forever, and though we bought wallpaper for the playroom, he never finds the time to hang it. Of course, if his cousin calls and asks him to come over to help him with his car, he's out the door in a second.

Demosthenous: Couples fall into patterns that become hard to break. That's what we're seeing here. Over the years, Terry and Charlie have become unable to discuss problems or hammer out disagreements without lapsing into blame and recriminations. Although money is the number one trigger for marital discord, it can also mask other issues that aren't being addressed. I suspect that's the case here. Charlie and Terry don't have the temperaments or the tools to discuss finances, or other areas of conflict civilly. She resorts to finger pointing and blame. My guess is that Charlie has learned to respond in kind, or overwhelmed by her attacks, he will clam up and withdraw.

Terry: Even before I met my husband, I was careful about money. I had to be: I'm an only child, raised by my mother, a dental hygienist, and my grandmother after my dad walked out on us when I was 4. My father was an alcoholic. He'd often promise to take me for the weekend but then never show up. Mother was out a lot; I remember a string of undependable boyfriends who always broke her heart, and I learned a lesson: You can't count on a man to be there for you.

I was waiting tables at a diner when I met Charlie. He used to come for lunch every day, with or without a gang of friends, and try to draw me into conversation. I knew he was a flirt, so I was wary of him. But Charlie can be so funny, charming, and thoughtful, it was hard not to fall in love with him. You want to just wrap your arms around him and take care of him.

He proposed five months after we met and we were married two years later, after I finished my degree in business administration. I found a job as an executive administrator for a catalogue company and we moved into the top floor of an old Victorian house.

We postponed having children for several years. Charlie wanted to start a family right away, but I knew we didn't have enough money. But eventually, I realized that if we waited until we had enough money, we'd be waiting forever. Back then, Charlie was working as a general contractor for a local builder. He was doing well, but he got tired of working for other people so he quit. Amazingly, he always manages to find something else, but his lack of commitment leaves me very unsettled.

We agreed that I should stop working when our first child was born. I didn't want my children to have the same childhood memories I do. I'm very involved with my kids' lives. I'm a Brownie leader, I'm on the PTA steering committee, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Demosthenous: Having grown up in a single-parent home with a mother who was more concerned with her own social life than her daughter's emotional well-being, Terry got the message that nothing could be taken for granted and the only person she could really count on was herself. As she witnessed the fighting that led to her mother's breakups with her boyfriends, Terry felt responsible for helping her mother cope with life's upheavals, and she carried too great an emotional burden on her young shoulders. Unfortunately, she's now projecting her deep distrust of men onto Charlie. Terry assumes all men are basically irresponsible, and Charlie's behavior starting projects and not finishing them, spending money on things she deems frivolous, and failing to provide for the family's future reinforces her convictions.

Terry: We wind up having the same stupid arguments and we're still at square one. I don't think things will ever change. What happened two weeks ago was the last straw: Charlie got home around 10:30, wiped out and depressed. He started to tell me about some crazy business scheme he had. I couldn't listen. All I could say was how important it was for him to find a real job. The next thing I knew he stormed downstairs, bellowing that he had to get away from me and everyone else. The next morning, he flies to Florida for a week! Couldn't he find some place a little closer, a little less expensive, to get "his space"? How about driving to the shore? The man doesn't get it— and I'm worn out from trying.

Demosthenous: Terry's anger is a clear signal that business can't continue as usual. The challenge for her, of course, is to figure out what's behind her anger, and then to stand firmly behind her beliefs without getting drawn into old arguments. Before we figure out how Terry can do that, let's hear what Charlie has to say.

He Says

Charlie: Terry doesn't talk, she lectures. I love her, but I don't know if I'm in love with her anymore. She makes me feel like a loser. That's why I went to Florida. I had to get as far away as I could to empty my mind and calm down. I admit it was extravagant, but I'd hit bottom. I'm so stressed lately that just hearing my kids' voices when they're playing can get me aggravated. I remember sitting in the living room a few weeks back, and my daughter asked if I'd play a game with her. I barked an answer. When that happens, you know you have to make a change.

I honestly don't know if this marriage can be saved. The only things Terry and I seem to have in common anymore are our kids. When we first met, I was totally infatuated with her. She was so sweet and encouraging — totally different from the woman she's become. Her reaction to the surprise party I planned for her was typical. She can't lighten up and enjoy herself, even on her birthday. I wanted to do something special because she deserves it, but she even used that as a weapon to ridicule and insult me. I can't win.

Plus, she's forever harping on me about the home repairs. I picked aluminum siding for the house because it lasts a lifetime, but she thought it looked cheap. Maybe that's why I don't seem to be able to finish the work around the house. I want to make Terry happy, but in her eyes, everything I do is garbage.

Unlike my wife, I had a pretty happy childhood. My mom stayed home until I was 15, and my father worked for the same company for 30 years. We didn't talk much, but I knew I was loved. The only bad memories I have were my run-ins with the neighborhood bully. Though I never got into any physical brawls with him, the kid tormented me from the time I was 5 until I was about 10. When I told my parents, they brushed it off and told me to ignore him. Most of the time, I kept my feelings to myself and learned to deal.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. The coach at school thought I had enough talent to try out for the state team. He talked to my folks about it, but they didn't want to make the commitment. It's a huge investment of time and money. They couldn't afford it either way. After a while, I got more interested in girls than in playing ball, and I let that dream fall by the wayside. Even then, I don't remember arguing with my parents very much. In fact, the only one time I know I disappointed my folks was when I dated a women they didn't approve of. After I dropped out of college — I wasn't interested in school and my parents didn't seem to mind as long as I could support myself — I worked for a construction company. When I moved in with my girlfriend, my parents stopped talking to me for almost a year. Until I broke up with her, the only contact I had with them was through my brother. When we broke up, everything was fine. My parents never said a word about it. I suppose you'd say we weren't the best communicators.

Demosthenous: While Charlie needs to focus on his financial future and plan better for his family, Terry shares some of the responsibility for their money problems. For her, money represented the emotional security and trust she never had as a child and which she's terrified will always remain beyond her reach. Terry can never have a big enough financial cushion, so she goes to great lengths to track every penny and deprives herself of all luxuries. Terry is stingy with herself, I suspect, because deep down, she doesn't believe she deserves to be treated well.

Both Charlie and Terry are at fault for having avoided making even the most basic plans for their future or establishing spending and saving systems. It's not surprising. For most of us, talking about money is more taboo than discussing sex. Many people don't tell their parents or siblings what they make and I've even met couples who don't reveal their salaries to each other.

Money managers say that most of us can save up to 10 percent of our salaries a year painlessly. Start by putting away 5 percent of your paycheck each month and living on the rest. Can you do it? Most likely you'll find that that small amount of savings accounts for money that slips through your fingers. If you find this works, then raise your savings to 7 percent. By the end of a year, try to get up to the 10 percent mark. This plan helps you discriminate between what you really need and what you buy just because it's out there.

Charlie: The things Terry says to me shock me, and by the way we both get so caught up in stupid arguments. It's always about money, but things get so out of hand that neither one of us know how to put the brakes on. We're just so different. I don't worry and she worries all the time. My parents were middle class and we didn't have very much, but I never felt deprived or lacking for anything. And I know I've changed jobs a lot, but I've always found something else and I believe I always will. We've never been out on the street and we've never been as desperate as Terry makes it sound. I hate the way she exaggerates. It would be nice if she had some faith in me. Instead, she shoots down every idea I have. Why should I even bother to try?

Terry accuses me of being materialistic and I take offense at that. I do appreciate having certain things. I work hard, and you only go around once in life, so I don't see the point in pinching pennies. If we go out for dinner with friends, I don't want to be punished for picking up the check once in a while. The other guy will do it next time. If my daughter wants a pack of Pokemon cards, I'll spend the five bucks so she can have them. That doesn't mean I'm not concerned about providing for my kids. I think about it a lot. I know health insurance is a huge problem and that so far we've been lucky that we haven't had big expenses in that department. But I also believe that things will come together for us. I'm just not sure when.

Demosthenous: Charlie approaches money the way he approaches life: Loose and laid back, with an I'll-worry-about-it-tomorrow mindset. Spending money makes Charlie feel good. Picking up the check or buying a leather jacket provides instant gratification and tangible evidence that he's worth something. However, it does little to boost his self-esteem and confidence since it allows him to avoid the scarier option looking for more secure employment that would validate him in the long run. To his credit, Charlie knows how to enjoy himself in little ways — whether meeting friends for dinner or a baseball game on the weekend — which is something his wife needs to learn.

Charlie: The truth is, I'm not happy working at the store. I've always dreamed of owning a business, but this past year has been the worst. I'm burned out. I want to spend more time with my kids, but I'm putting in 100 hours a week, and I haven't taken a day off all year. I can't seem to find the right staff. Maybe Terry's right. Maybe I am a lousy manager and I'll never be a success. But is the only answer going to work for a big company where I'm just a nobody? Does having a pension mean I have to give up my dream?

The Therapist Says

Demosthenous: I'm not surprised that Terry and Charlie fell in love. We're often attracted to someone who is our opposite in order to make up for what we feel we lack now, or never had, in childhood. Tight, controlled Terry adored Charlie's lighthearted optimism and his ability to roll with life's punches. Fearful of abandonment and further rejections, she sensed that Charlie would love her the way no one else ever had.

Charlie, on the other hand, was drawn to Terry's beauty, warmth, and solidity. He knew she would provide the structure for his life that he seemed unable to provide for himself. But financial issues became the battlefield upon which their duels were fought.

My goal is to help Charlie hold onto his dreams until he's in a position to fulfill them. At the same time, I want Terry to find the security she needs to live day by day.

Terry sees everything through the prism of her unhappy childhood, and she tends to magnify a problem until it's out of proportion to reality. While not having money to pay the bills is a real concern that Charlie has to address, Terry's runaway anxieties make a difficult situation even harder. She needs to think about why she might be feeling such a desperate need to control their finances. Simply airing some of the reasons for her money worries will help Terry better understand why she's so panicky, as well as why she's so critical of Charlie. "You need to find a way to help Charlie reach your goal of security without punching a hole in his dreams," I told Terry. As she came to understand better what money represented in her life, and as we talked about how much she did want to preserve her marriage, she was more willing to make changes in herself.

Though Charlie is adamant about his perfect childhood, I suspect that he never really received the kind of support a child needs to develop confidence or the encouragement to persevere. Certainly, his parents rote reaction to the bully had an impact on his confidence and sense of safety, as did their failure to nourish his dream of playing baseball. Also, their inability to talk to Charlie about their dissatisfaction with his old girlfriend sent the message that his needs were unimportant and that communication had little value. Charlie adopted the same attitude with Terry whenever difficult topics needed to be aired. As a result, he didn't know how to listen, and he lacked the skills to express his feelings and needs.

Counseling, which lasted about a year, focused first on helping Terry and Charlie enjoy each other's company and learn to respect the other's opinions and ideas, even if they didn't agree. Although they hardly spent any time alone together, tension between them ran so high that even going out for a hamburger gave them too much time to argue. Instead, I suggested they join the inexpensive gym or a bowling league, so they could get some exercise and have fun together. Couples underestimate the value of simply spending time and meshing the rhythms of their days. This helped Terry and Charlie laugh more and fight less. One weekend, Terry bought tickets for the circus and the whole family went.

At this point, we could start improving their communication skills. Terry couldn't understand why Charlie never took her advice. "He feels besieged," I pointed out. "No matter how sound your ideas, if you nag or belittle him, he feels like a naughty boy and he'll tune you out." As she started to recognize her part in their drama, Terry worked hard to recognize the tone in her voice as well as her tendency to immediately assume that something her husband suggested or planned couldn't possibly work. "At least talk about it," I urged. "Open it up for discussion." Once she did, Charlie dropped his guard and became more interested in making solid changes in his attitudes and actions.

Of course, Charlie needed to hear, and really understand, the points Terry was making. I suggested they attend a free seminar on money management offered at a local bank. They had avoided hammering out a spending plan because they assumed it would take them a long time. In fact, the seminar leader told them that it should take no more than a weekend of thinking and analyzing their checkbook and six months worth of bank card statements, followed by a few minutes every day and an hour or two once a month to evaluate how they were doing. Even though Terry is still in charge of paying the bills each month, to build trust it's essential for Charlie to sit there and be involved so he knows what's happening with the family finances.

To jumpstart their money discussions, I had them write down a list of their dreams. Most people never take the time to clarify what they really want from their money. I asked them to write down what they would like to have or do in the next year, in five years, and in 10 years. Charlie had fun dreaming about owning a small company and a sailboat and having time to travel but Terry stuck with the practical. She wanted medical insurance, enough money in savings for emergencies, and a full-time job for her husband that offered a sound pension plan. She did include one "frivolous" dream: "I'd like to take a vacation to the Caribbean with my husband." I pointed out that just because priorities and dreams don't mesh doesn't mean they're mutually exclusive. You may not have the money to do everything at the same time, but if you have the right attitude and know how to talk about your goals, you can explore what you need to do to attain them. "If you adopt a saving and spending plan that feels comfortable, and promise to compromise to help each other meet goals, you can accomplish your dreams," I assured them.

We also helped Charlie figure out his career plans. He decided to look for a contracting job with a construction firm. "I know I'm good for five or 10 years, until we get our footing. It will be worth it to see my kids and Terry more," he said. That doesn't mean he's forsaking the idea of starting his own business one day. Next year, when her youngest is in nursery school, Terry plans to work part-time, which will further ease their money worries. So far, they haven't set aside any money for college, but since their children are still small, they plan to wait a few more years until they have a better handle on their expenses.

At one point, their landlord asked if they'd like to buy the house they lived in and Charlie jumped at the chance. For the first time, they had to get a mortgage and budget for the payments. "I think that's motivated Charlie to complete all those half-finished projects," Terry noted. "He's doing most of the work himself, and his friends from the firm are pitching in with the rest at cost."

Terry came to our last session with two airplane tickets. "My in-laws said they'd watch the kids and we found these low fares, so we're going to Puerto Rico," she announced joyfully. I have confidence that these two are on the right track to working out any future problems together, so neither feels shortchanged.

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