By Christie Hunter:
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When Finances Hit The Wall
Relationships can be tough in any season, but in this economy, staying together and staying in love can be especially challenging. In my professional experience, being both a Certified Management Accountant and a Registered Clinical Counselor, time and again I have seen relationships and marriages crumble around finances. With a little guidance and some sound, practical wisdom, these relationships can survive. Let’s face it; this is a rough economy right now. But the good news is that when your finances meet hard times, your relationship need not suffer. Here are 10 tips I have shared with numerous clients over the years to keep your love burning bright in the midst of financial hardship.
1. Understand How Money And Identity Mingle.
Understanding is one of the keys to any successful relationship. We all value the feeling of being understood. When it comes to money, it is important to understand the role it plays in your partner’s individual identity as well as your own. Many people today tie their income directly to their own self-worth. For these individuals and couples, when they suffer financial hardship, it can have a traumatic impact on their own identity. For example, a husband who has recently been laid off from work may develop deep feelings of worthlessness. A wife who sees this simply as a loss of income may miss out on a critical opportunity to come beside her husband and support him in such a great time of need. If your relationship is suffering financially, be sensitive to each other, and slow to criticize. There may be far deeper issues at stake than simply “money issues.” Talk to each other and understand how money ties into your individual identity.
2. Don’t blame each other.
It is far too easy to point the finger when our money supply gets cut short, or our debt begins to suffocate us. Even if there is one person responsible more than the other, trust me when I tell you it will only make matters worse if you turn on your partner. And given the state of the world economy today, it may not be anyone’s fault. This is about taking back control of your finances and staying close in your relationship. It is not about blame.
3. Be Aware Of Your Spending.
Try this exercise. For one month, every time you and your partner spend more than a dollar, document it. At the end of the month, take your list and organize it. Identify the items spent towards entertainment, food, mortgage / rent, transportation, clothing, utilities, etc. This is a snapshot of your financial life. With this in hand, you have taken an important step in gaining control over your financial situation and understanding where your money is actually going.
4. Identify Your Goals And Dreams.
Sit down as a couple and talk about what you are working towards. Talk about your hopes, your dreams, and your goals. Where would you like to be next year? Five years? Ten years? How would you like to retire, what activities would you like to do together in life? Write them down. Put your goals on paper so you can see them. Several years ago, my husband and I took a large sheet of poster-size paper and with jumbo permanent markers, wrote down several dreams and goals for our lives. We then hung it up on our wall and over the next few years saw many of them come true. We still have that sheet of paper to this day. Take this time to refocus as a couple and begin working on a real plan for your life, with a clear direction for your future.
5. It’s Time to Budget.
Using your expenditures list from step 3, determine what expenses are in conflict with reaching your goals. It’s time to start trimming or altogether removing some of those items on your list. Do you really need 200 channels of High Definition cable TV? How important is that premium calling plan? Do you really have to spend $7.00 a day on coffee and a scone? Keep your focus on your goals. Expenses that do not move you closer towards your goals need to go. By focusing on your goals, it makes cutting day to day items such as a new pair of shoes, the newest electronic gadget, or tickets to the game much more manageable as there is a clear benefit for the changes you are making. While changing habits is not easy, the alternative (doing the same thing) is moving you further away from financial freedom and being more entrenched in the oppression of debt. Encourage each other as you make changes and celebrate as you are able to make additional payments on your debt or put extra money aside that you couldn’t before.
6. Be Honest About Your Income Levels.
One of the most difficult aspects of making healthy decisions and choices around finances is to know your limits and to be honest with yourself and your circle of friends about what you can and cannot afford. Trying to maintain a lifestyle that is beyond your means will eventually catch up with you and the ensuing crisis can literally destroy your relationship. I have had many people come to me under immense debt because they felt pressured by others to live a lifestyle they could not afford. If you struggle with trying to “live up to the Jones’s’”, talk with your spouse about this burden. It’s time to step out of this “role” and develop a sense of honesty about who you are and what you can afford. Assess your standard of living, is it realistic? If not, what are some changes you can make to live within your means? Don’t worry about the image you are portraying to others. This is your life, your relationship, not theirs!
7. Don’t Over Separate Your Finances.
Couples who meticulously separate their finances are just asking for problems in the future. Do you want a relationship with a foundation built on intimacy and sharing, or one built upon separation? Life has a way of throwing us many curve balls. A loss of a job, an unexpected pregnancy, or one person who wants to go back to school are huge challenges to couples who separate their money. One spouse’s salary may be significantly higher than the other, yet the lesser income spouse still is required to pay for 50% of all the bills, supporting the lifestyle of the higher income spouse. Couples that dogmatically separate all their finances are setting themselves up for numerous problems throughout life. It has the effect of telling someone “you are worth only your income,” which can be a block to intimacy. In a booming economy, these kinds of relationships may work, but when times are tough, the foundation can crack. When we encounter unexpected financial hardship, such as being laid off from work, our spouse should be a source of strength and support, rather than a quagmire of additional pressure to pay “our fair share.” No one wants to feel like they are less important than a monthly salary. Share your money. Try it. You are in this together. Have trust in each other, and you can make it through.
8. Work As A Team.
In a tough economy, you should be coming together, rather than drifting apart. Now is when you need each other. Be each other’s support system, and create some realistic goals that will move you through these hard times. If one of you has recently taken a financial hit, be supportive and encouraging. When you work together as a team, amazing things will happen in your relationship.
9. Cash Is Yours, Credit Is Someone Else’s.
I can’t tell you how many clients I have seen who view credit as available money to spend. This is a very dangerous view of credit, and it is exactly what credit card companies want you to believe. Available credit does not equal “money I can spend”. Always remember that credit is someone else’s money. If you cannot control credit card spending, give yourself a cash allowance, monthly, or weekly. Putting away, or better yet, cutting up credit cards and paying with cash, is an effective way to decrease monthly spending.
10. Don’t Give Up.
Rising out from the pit of debt and the uncertainty of financial hardship can be a long struggle. There is no fast-food solution. It will take commitment and dedication. But if you work together, and pick each other up when you fall, you will make real progress and eventually succeed. Life is a voyage, and it is not necessarily reaching the end that fulfills us, but instead it is the journey itself that holds the joy of living. Each change you make, each time you are able to take a positive step towards your dreams and goals, no matter how small, celebrate it. Celebrate it externally by doing something together, or celebrate it internally with a quiet thought of reflection. These successes are reminders that you are walking down a better path in life. Never give up hope, and don’t give up on each other. This is your life together; the journey will be what you make it.
Christie is a Certified Management Accountant (CMA) with the CMA Society of Canada and a Registered Clinical Counsellor (R.C.C.) with the British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors. She holds a dual specialty in Marriage & Family Therapy and Trauma Resolution. View Christie's Profile