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Money And Relationships Q & A

Answer to Question 1

Dear Lelley,

It is a very good, but often hard thing to stand up for yourself. So I congratulate you for putting yourself first.

When you buy a relationship you never get what you want and, worst of all, you lose self respect. So many of us wish to be close to and loved by someone else who does not reciprocate. This is a common dynamic in many families, so you are not alone. We often keep on trying until we are forced to accept that things will not change – and even then it is hard to stop trying. If you could afford to keep on giving money it would still not get you what you want. Now you are doing the right thing. But is there more you could do?

You ask how, going forward, you can have a relationship with your sister. Well, it takes two to tango. You can let her know that you really do want a relationship, but not one contingent on your giving her things and money. You could also ask if she has ever wanted anything from you other than money or material goods which she has not gotten (the money she asks for may be a substitute for something else). It may take time for her to respond but, if she really cares about you and wants you to be part of her life, she will eventually let you know. If not, you have to accept that and let her go. That will make you sad, possibly bereft, but should also leave you feeling better about yourself.

Dr. T.

Question 2

My husband has some money, not a great deal, from an inheritance from his parents. With this and his career he could make ends meet and save some money for his retirement, which may not be too far from now (he is 65 years old).

He has three children in their thirties and forties, all of whom are capable people, but are asking for or accepting money or expensive gifts from their father, which they wouldn't need if they took responsibility for their own lives.

In my estimation this giving of money and gifts sends the wrong message to his children. He should not be trying to buy their love. It is apparent that his children want to milk him for his inheritance. I feel he should tell them that he has limited funds, limited time to work and amass money to last him for the rest of his life. He does not appear to want to do this.

Your take on this whole scenario?


Dear Arl,

My take on this is that you are understandably dismayed at the how dysfunctional your husband's relationship with his children is and concerned about his saving for his retirement. But I think that is not the point - which is that this affects you as well. Your husband is enabling his children to remain dependent on him which is, undoubtedly, a lifelong dynamic which would be hard for him to change. But, that should not be your concern. The real question you should be asking is, not how you feel about his and his children's relationship but how, in practical terms, it may affect you. The money is not just for his retirement, but for your lives together. If there will be less money for the two of you to live on comfortably after he retires, that is what you should be addressing with him. You have a right to expect him to act responsibly when it affects you. If he wants to be a financial caretaker, maybe you can get him to realize that you and he need to take care of each other financially, and not continue enabling his grown up children who have never learned to be independent.

Dr. T.

Question 3

Dear Dr. T.

The advice in your book, Money and The Pursuit of Happiness, has helped me examine my life and my life with my boyfriend. We have been living together for a little under 2 years now but we don't talk that much about money. He racked up a bit of debt to his family members in a short period of unemployment and now has a well paying job, but is still struggling to pay his family members back. How can I approach him in conversation about being better at managing his money and controlling spending habits? I don't want to come off as a nagging girlfriend, but I know if we are going to be together in the long run, we need to have more open discussion about money and I'm just not sure how to engage in said conversation.

Concerned Girlfriend

Dear Concerned Girlfriend,

Money is still a taboo subject in this country, so you and your boyfriend are typical in that you don't talk much about money. Many people think talking about it is unromantic and get married without having had a serious discussion about it. The result can be a nasty surprise later on. You don't have to be a nagging girlfriend to want to understand your own and your boyfriend's way of relating to money, so that you can both think about whether what you want out of your future relationship will fit with your money styles, your hopes and expectations. The conversation about money should occur when you are ready to talk about the future of your relationship.

You are thinking about whether you should stay together for the long run, so this is probably a good time to open up this area of discussion. Your question implies that it is not just the temporary debt your boyfriend accumulated while unemployed but something about the way he manages money and his spending habits which makes you worried about the long term. First, without mentioning money, you should tell him that you are thinking about what kind of future the two of you might have together and ask what he thinks. I would stop there – not yet mentioning money – and let him say what he is thinking about the future. If he does say he wants to make a life together with you, you could then say that you want that too, but you do have some concerns when it come to how he handles money. Don't criticize but use "I" messages such as "It worries me that if you can't pay off your debts now, we could end up in debt later on."

Dr. T.

Question 4

Dear Dr. T.

I am reading your book about money and happiness. As a graduating college student I am trying to make the decision of whether or not to take on debt to attend graduate school. I would really like to attend a master's program, and I believe that I will be able to work at a more enjoyable job if I get a masters degree. In weak economic times, should I risk taking on debt to achieve a more enjoyable job? Or, should I be more cautious and risk my happiness for more financial security?

Confused Graduate

Dear Confused Graduate,

This is a very good and pertinent question in these economic times (during the recession). First of all keep in mind that the economy is cyclical. It won't always be bad, but employment does seem to be the last to recover this time around. Also, different kind of skills will be in demand at different times so, if you are considering taking on significant debt to go to graduate school, it would be wise to do some research to get an idea what professions will be in demand in the future and what they might pay. I think the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics might be a good place to start. Also, speak to people working in the field in which you are interested, to see what they think, not only about future employability but also future earning capacity and what it is really like working in the area you are considering. Some jobs are not all they are cracked up to be. Some have a very high burn out rate. That being said, happiness at work is a very valuable commodity. You will spend 40 to 50 hours a week or more at work for a big chunk of your life. So, if you are sure you will really like what you will be doing, and are disciplined enough to pay off debt over time (are you disciplined about spending now?), going for the education may well be your best investment.

Dr. T.

Question 5

Dear Dr. T.

I have grown up in a home with 2 high-earning incomes and little to no concern over finances. I have always been provided for, and my parents have always paid for everything for me. We go on vacations, go out to eat daily, and I am given money whenever I need it. I am concerned that when I get older money will be a bigger issue than I think it will be. I am going to be a teacher, which has high satisfaction for me as I love to help others, and I hope to make a difference. Yet, I am worried that my income will not be able to satisfy the lifestyle that I have become accustomed to. Will my love for my work really trump my desire for other pleasures, or will I be stuck regretting that I do not have the money to do luxurious things and have no worries over finances?

Worried in Ohio

Dear Worried in Ohio,

Your question is really about a choice between two kinds of values: the inherent value of doing good meaningful work which you believe you will love, and the value of being able to enjoy a life that includes the pleasure of luxury and lack of worry over finance. To have the first you may have to give up much of the second, although this need not be a completely black and white choice. Many people do have some occasional worries over finance yet still are able to focus on what they find rewarding in life most of the time. If you become a teacher you may, from time to time, worry about money. But dealing with difficulties is part of becoming an autonomous adult. You may also struggle with some occasional regret for having given up the luxurious lifestyle you remember, or find yourself envying others who have more money. But, even if you can't see it, those same people may have problems worse than any you have, and be less happy than you.

It sounds like your parents are very generous but, because of that, you have not had to learn what it is like to have to live with financial limitations. It would do you good if you could have this experience. Could you speak with them and ask if they would be willing to help you by not always giving whatever you want but, instead, giving you a reasonable allowance: one that you are expected to live within? That would force you to make some hard choices as to how you spend money, rather than getting everything you want whenever you ask for it. It might help you to prepare for a life of teaching if that is what you choose to do. It would also help you to better understand what other people's lives are like, which is important for anyone who wants to work in a helping profession.

Dr. T.

Question 6

Dear Dr. T.

My mother is an alcoholic and a narcissist who sacrificed all of her relationships for money, and continues to do so. I reacted by doing my best to ignore money, and when I made money on real estate, I spent it while writing a novel. Now, in my fifties, I'm terrified. But my distaste for money and the people who prize it above other concerns has only grown. I've been in therapy quite a bit, and I know myself, yet I still feel horrified by the commodification of all aspects of life that's become the norm in America. I have no genuine interest in making money and I resent the need to do so, which I consider a waste of one's precious time on earth. I realize this attitude has caused problems, but it's proved resistant to therapy - and to reality. Ideas?


Dear Reacting,

I suspect that the first sentence of your question is the answer to your question. Even though you are a grown, independent woman you are locked into anger, disappointment and disapproval of your mother. And the last thing you want for yourself is to be like her or identified with her values. If I am right, for you, on an emotional basis, money = mother, even if rationally, you know that is not so. I think you may need to do four things 1) accept and mourn the fact that you did not have the mother you wished for and still wish you could have; 2) forgive her for being who she was and is (which does not mean you have to love her or even include her in your life); 3) clarify, in your own mind what you do value and want in your life, including those things money can buy or, at least, facilitate(for example a reasonable modicum of security, safety, comfort, etc.); and 4) train yourself to believe that what money really is, is just a tool for achieving what you want in life, not what anyone else wants. Once you have done that, figure out how much money (income or assets) you need to get what you want. You are not your mother and wanting a reasonable amount of money to meet your needs won't make you like her. I suggest that you write down a two part mantra: 1) "Money is just a tool" and 2)"Getting and having enough money will not make me a greedy or materialistic person." Paste this mantra on your bathroom mirror, or some place where you will see it every day. Say it out loud to yourself at least once a day (two or three times is better) -- make this a habit. Your ideas about money are ingrained and you will need to keep on working on this if you want to achieve lasting change.

Because these ideas are ingrained and hard to change, and because many therapists are not educated nor inclined to address money related issues, you might want to consider seeing a Money and Relationships Counselor or a Financial Therapist. But that would cost at least some money and you would have to accept that having enough money to make the changes you desire, might be worth it.

Dr. T.

Question 7

Dear Dr. T.

My husband is in need of your advice. His grandfather and father have spent their lives living on very little money in order to put their earnings away in "savings." They say that savings is money that is never, ever to be spent in any circumstances. I love my husband, but we just do not make a large enough income to be able to sock away money quite this way. Instead of being able to be happy with our ability to get by and have a moderate but happy lifestyle in this economy, he feels worthless because he lacks net worth.

I've spoken to him about how money in no way determines his worth as a person, but I cannot seem to get through to him, and his depression worsens. In addition, our once happy marriage has for many years now been rocky as he resents every "unnecessary" expenditure I make (such as dessert, coffee, or haircuts).

Please help us sort the money issues before they ruin a wonderful marriage. My husband may have inherited money issues from his father and grandfather, but when we were younger they didn't seem to define him. I know there must be a way for him to get back to the way he felt back then.

Abby in Arizona

Dear Abby in Arizona,

You have very good reason to be concerned, since your husband's behavior is making you unhappy and undermining your marriage. But, while he may need my advice, it doesn't sound like he would welcome or be ready to hear it – at least not without some groundwork being laid. It seems that his beliefs and attitudes about money have become a part of a fixed belief system, ingrained in him since childhood. Such beliefs, often act as a defense against some imagined fear which can grow in the face of life's many stresses; such as aging. We all have defenses but, when held too tightly, they can become rigid and maladaptive.

Money related behaviors are often based on irrational ideas. The idea that savings should never, ever be spent is irrational. Money has a purpose which is to store value for future spending or to build capital which will generate more income to be spent. Ask your husband for what the savings he wants the two of you to accumulate is to be used. It could be for a rainy day, or to use in case of catastrophe, or for security in old age, or to pass on to children so they will be ok. If he comes up with an answer, with which you can agree, then you have a basis for further discussion and creating a plan for balanced spending and saving.

But if, as you suspect, it is only to bolster his sense of self worth, he needs to learn that money alone never ends up making anyone feel they are worthwhile for very long. And focusing on money for this reason usually sabotages one's personal happiness and his relationships. There should always be some rational reason, based on valid values, for saving. Such a reason always allows for money's possible use in the future. Ask him what values are important to him and how saving money now will further those values in the future. If he can give you a reasonable answer, you might have the basis for further discussion. But, my experience working with people who base their self esteem on net worth is that it usually takes a lot of work and time to even begin to modify their beliefs. So, be patient but persistent if you can.

You feel he is imposing his beliefs and expectations on you and you are unhappy because you feel your once happy marriage has become rocky. I can suggest a few things you can try to make things better for yourself. One is to assure him that you know he is concerned about money and feels badly about how little you are saving right now, but also tell him clearly that he is making you feel badly and worried about your marriage. First make sure he feels understood and loved by you. Then tell him that you want him to understand your feelings and consider your point of view as well. If he loves you and also can accept that his behavior is causing you feel upset and worried, it might be the first step in helping him to change. But keep in mind that often, before a person is willing to consider changing, he has to be pushed out of his comfort zone so that he needs something to change. So you have to be, not only kind, but also firm in getting your message across. If you can't do this on your own you will need help.

Finally, you write about his feeling increasingly depressed. Depression is a serious matter. It can become both a psychological and biochemical illness. If he can recognize that his depression, and the way he is treating you, are problems, he might be willing to get help. I think it would be a good idea for him (probably with your help to seek out a psychotherapist or marriage counselor. He should also see a physician (preferably a psychiatrist) who can prescribe medication to help him become less anxious and depressed. It might take more than just you to convince him of this. Don't be afraid to ask for help from people you respect and trust (friends, family, doctor, minister) to convince him that he needs the help.

Dr. T.

Question 8

Dear Dr. T.

My husband's father is eighty nine years old. He is very frail and wheelchair bound. To remain at home he needs extensive and expensive home health care. At one time he had substantial financial assets but these are rapidly dwindling due to the cost of his care. Medicare would pay for his care if he was placed in a nursing home, and he would have money left to leave his grandchildren – which is his wish. But he is happy at home and would be miserable in a nursing home. His father's mind is quite clear and judgment is good, but my husband, who has Power Of Attorney and signs all of the checks, doesn't tell him how much his care costs nor that his money is being used up, because he wants his father to be happy and it would make him worry if he knew. He just might choose to give up his expensive care and allow himself to end his days in a nursing home so that his grandchildren could benefit from the money he leaves behind. By not discussing all of this with him are we unfairly denying him the right to self determination? Or are we looking after his best interests?


Dear Conflicted,

It is clear that both you and your husband care very much for your father-in-law and also that you are caught in an ethical dilemma, as expressed in your question: to allow a man with a clear mind and sound judgment to know what his situation is and to decide his own fate or to shelter him from the truth so that he will continue to be happy at home. There are two opposing values here and your husband has chosen one. A hard choice is being made and far be it for me to question you husband's choice. One of the things I notice in the story you tell is what is missing. Your father-in-law, despite – or perhaps because of – his clear mind and sound judgment has turned over the management of his financial affairs to his son. He is not asking your husband for an accounting of what is being spent. At this stage of life many people want to be taken care of and not to have to make the hard decisions. They don't want to have to worry about money. I think your husband is doing just what his father wants by making the hard choices for him.

There is, in what you write, a statement which I believe is incorrect. It is my understanding that Medicare will pay for only a short period of nursing home care. If your father-in-law ended up on Medicaid that organization would "claw back" from his estate, whatever money it had laid out. So, either way, it seems likely that his grandchildren would not receive an inheritance. But, on this, I am not an expert. You should consult a financial advisor.

Dr. T.

Question 9

Dear Dr. T.

I have a problem with spending money, not with spending too much but with being unwilling to spend. There are a lot of nice things that I want and can afford, but I can never bring myself to spend large amounts of money at one time, for fear that I might need that money in the near future. Is this common? And if not how could I go about being more willing to buy the things I want?

Reluctant Spender

Dear Reluctant Spender,

A reluctance to spend for fear that money may be needed in the future is not unusual. The impulse to save money for the future is often based on realistic concerns. But it can be blown out of proportion and unreasonably restrict one's ability to use some money for present day needs or for enjoyment of life. It is a question of balance.

You should have some idea of what expenses you will face in the future and try to plan for meeting these. It is also a good idea to build a "rainy day fund" and put away at least several months worth of savings to help carry you through those hard times when you won't have an income available or face some unexpected emergency. But, allowing for at least some pleasure in your life is also very important to your emotional wellbeing.

I have no formula for how much you should save or spend. Since you have trouble allowing yourself to spend, I recommend that you give yourself a pleasure spending allowance (you decide how much) to be used for at least some of those nice things that you want and will enjoy, while still making sure that you are planning for your future and not going into debt. If you want something that seems a bit extravagant, save your allowance, or part of it, until you can pay for what you desire.

If, you find yourself completely unable to modify your anxiety about spending, you may be suffering from a more deep seated anxiety that goes beyond concerns about financial security. If this is the case, you should consider seeing a psychotherapist who could help you realize the underlying basis for your fears. That could be a good investment in your emotional wellbeing.

Dr. T.

Question 10

Hi Dr. Trachtman,

I am a psychotherapist with 30 years experience. For quite some time I have been experiencing frustration and anxiety due to financial stressors. Because I accept patients on managed care it has become increasingly difficult to make a "living wage." It is very stressful to deal with the constraints of insurance companies, which seek to dictate how I should do treatment and demand increasing amounts of paperwork and documentation, leaving less time for the actual work of doing therapy, while rates of compensation stay stagnant or in some cases are even reduced.

In my own history, I grew up in a family situation in which there was little financial stability, and I feel a sense of shame and regret that I am repeating these patterns of financial limitations with my own children. I note that most of my peers, particularly those in other professions are able to provide more for their families, and do not have to deal with feeling demoralized and anxious about not being able to meet their financial obligations. This has caused me to intermittently fantasize about leaving our very noble profession, although I can't imagine doing anything else. The fact is, I truly love "the work" of being a psychotherapist. I consider it a true privilege and honor to be invited so intimately into other people's lives and to be able to act as a compassionate witness as we journey together toward healing and growth.

How can I reconcile the conflict of feeling like a success in doing work that I find meaningful with the sense of feeling like a failure as an earner and model for my children?


Dear Discouraged,

Thank you for sharing your dilemma. This reply will be somewhat long and detailed. You are in the good company of so many other professionals, including therapists, who love what they do but are being squeezed by economic forces. I have noticed that many therapists who have attended my money and psychotherapy workshops find it hard to get past being stuck in their anger at managed care companies in order to focus on other feelings and solutions. But your question shows that you are recognizing the reality with which you are faced, but are stuck . You have two seemingly incompatible desires. You want to be able to continue doing the work you love but you also want to find a way to be rid of the external pressures that limit your ability to do that work and still make a "living wage." You are also stuck in conflict between your profession and your role as a parent. You want to continue being a therapist despite your low level of income but you also want to avoid being what you think of as a failure as an earning model for your children. Unless you can find a third way or see things in a new way you are stuck with conflicting choices, each of which has, on one side, an undesirable outcome.

If I were counseling you I would have lots of questions such as the following. In the family in which you grew up, was an expectation of financial doom passed on to you because of your parent's fears and expectations? And, were their fears and expectations purely rational? Did your parents give you the idea that, if you didn't earn a certain amount and live a certain lifestyle, you would be a failure, as perhaps they felt they were? Were they unable to teach you how to think positively about money? And, despite their struggles to make ends meet, were you ever truly deprived of basic material security (go hungry, homeless, no warm clothing in winter?) because of the actual financial situation, or was your insecurity generated by questionable messages about money which you learned from them? Your parents may have struggled financially but you nevertheless grew up to be a skilled professional with the knowledge and empathy to help others. So they must have provided you with something of value that supported such growth.

I would also want to know a great deal more about your financial situation, your beliefs about money and how you handle it and what kind of lifestyle you feel you should have, to understand what you mean when you refer to "a living wage." Some very poor families seem content with limited income yet provide their children with a sense of security and good self esteem which can carry them a long way. Some rich families never seem to feel they have enough and fail to provide their children with the emotional climate which leads to a sense of self worth and confidence. Most social workers are poorly paid relative to other professionals and even to some blue collar workers. So, unless you have a higher earning partner, wealthy parents or some other form of independent income, you are likely facing a difficult dilemma. But, unless you are unable to provide your children with adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and medical care, how you approach and deal with financial problems and how you communicate with your children about your situation and your beliefs and values, is more important in defining your role as a parent than how much money you actually make. But, if you really can't provide adequately for your children and are not able to provide for your own needs (health care, a retirement plan) you may need to make some changes.

You write, "I note that most of my peers, particularly those in other professions, are able to provide more for their families, and do not have to deal with feeling demoralized and anxious about not being able to meet their financial obligations." It is a common tendency to compare ourselves to those in our peer group. As a therapist I'm sure you understand that the public face people display and what other people believe about them may or may not match what things are really like for them. The only good reason comparing yourself to others would be to see if you can learn something that might help you. Don't compare yourself with others as a measure of self worth. That should be measured in terms of your values and how you live up to them. It may be that many families can provide more material things than you can but, if it is primarily things they provide, and not guidance and nurturing, this may undermine the children's character and emotional development.

Yes, managed care companies usually pay very low fees and many of us undoubtedly feel that we can't earn what we deserve as a result. In my book, Money And Psychotherapy: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals, I write, "Taking into account the level of their education and the difficulty of their work many therapists are poorly remunerated for what they do. Therefore, to be satisfied within the profession, therapists need to feel that their work is their calling rather than just a job. Unless they have other sources of income, they may be required to sacrifice in order to follow their calling." In the current climate it seems unlikely that managed care companies will increase the amount they pay us anytime soon. We, as a profession do try to make our lot better. Our professional society has a Managed Care Committee working on our behalf. Some of our colleagues offer workshops on how to build a successful practice. Some of us carve out specialty areas such as treatment of eating disorders, victims of childhood abuse, overspending, working with couples, or Money and Relationship. We may run workshops or write books to let our colleagues and the public know of our expertise. But, while these efforts are all worthwhile, they do not guarantee that we will increase our earning very significantly. You sound like you are committed to helping others as you were trained to do. I hope you will be able to either adjust your expectations or find some way to boost your income to meet them. I hope that you will be able to pass on to your children a legacy of passion for meaningful work and empathy toward them and others, rather than one of income related anxiety. I hope you find these thoughts helpful.

Dr. T.

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