I bought stocks; my husband bought CDs. Now I can't bear to look

I can't get up the nerve to tell my husband just how much money we've lost.

Published December 1, 2008 11:25AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

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Dear Cary,

I'm looking for advice on a financial situation. It's not financial advice that I need, though; it's advice on communication and dealing with a situation.

My husband and I have separate retirement accounts. His retirement savings are in CDs at a local bank. Mine are in a mixture of stocks and other investments in an IRA and 401K. My investments did great for a while but have now nosedived along with the market.

I have been hiding my retirement account losses from my husband. He knows it's down but doesn't know by how much. I've been squirreling away my statements whenever they arrive in the mail and being deliberately vague whenever the subject comes up.

On top of that, I feel completely paralyzed and unable to do anything about my retirement investments. I can't even bring myself to look at my statements or go online to change my plan allocations. I keep thinking that the markets will bounce back if only I ride this out. I'm trying not to panic and to keep focusing on the long term -- it's going to be at least 25 years until I retire -- but it's still frightening. I'm fearful that anything I do now will only make matters worse

Our short-term financial picture is OK. Our joint savings account is in good shape, we've always lived within our means, and our only debt is a fixed-rate mortgage. It's the long-term picture that's making me anxious. My husband isn't going to hold his retirement money over my head or anything of the sort; it's more that I'd hoped we'd have some financial security at retirement, and that hope is fading.

In a nutshell, I'm too chicken to admit to my husband that I screwed up my retirement savings. And I feel incapable of doing anything about it. I need advice on how to go forward from here: how to communicate and break through my fear and paralysis to take some kind of positive action.

Middle-Class Anxiety

Dear Middle Class,

One way to break through this and also to appear responsible and proactive rather than quivering and secretive would be to make a phone call to a personal financial advisor and set up an appointment for you and your husband.

You will probably be advised to gather certain materials prior to the appointment. The gathering of these materials may prove a pretext for preliminary discussions and disclosures with your husband, or it may not. Maybe you and your husband will just eye each other warily as the needed documents are gathered. Maybe he will secretly gloat but exercise what he considers to be outward restraint. Maybe he is not too good at this "outward restraint." Maybe he is more what we call "transparent." Maybe you will look into his eyes and he will look at you looking at him, and he will say, "What? What?" And you will shake your head and gather the documents and go to your area of the house and fill out in pencil the form that the financial advisor has given you.

Filling out this form will probably require you to open your mail. For in your mail are the envelopes that contain the figures you need to put on the form.

I know about opening mail. If you are putting off filling out the form because you do not want to open your mail, you can do one of two things. You can make an appointment with yourself to open the mail and keep the appointment. Or you can go in there right now, this very minute, before you think about it, and tear into the mail like a savage, unrelenting avenger of all the little bullshit fears that in a thousand little bullshit ways ruin and degrade our energy and self-respect day after day, year after year, until at the end of our lives we are nothing but tiny, fearful little shriveled corpses of the shining, courageous people we once dreamed of becoming.

So let out a low, menacing growl to let the mail know that you are coming and nothing can stop you. Let the mail know that it is not going to destroy you, that in this contest of eat or be eaten you are going to prevail. In this contest you are armed with a sharp object known as a letter opener but shaped like a dagger. With this dagger you stab the mail and divest its envelopes of their contents and spill those contents on the floor. You look at them without pity. You walk all over the contents of these envelopes. Go ahead. Spill that stuff on the floor and walk all over it. Stamp the life out of it. Make sure it cannot get up and attack you. Make sure it feels the imprint of your boot.

Then, having satisfied yourself that the mail is going to lie quietly on the floor until you are ready for it, then, after you have left the room and prettied yourself up in the mirror and put on some lipstick and perhaps have even left the house to enjoy a cappuccino or a cocktail, all the time knowing that back in your house, in the area that you control, your mail lies on the floor waiting for you, then you may go and nonchalantly pick up the mail and drop it on your desk and take a perfunctory, disinterested, slightly bored look at it. Somewhere in that mail are a few small numbers of no great import that you must wearily transfer to the paper forms you are filling out for the financial advisor. Just find the numbers and put them on the form and be done with it.

That should get you through it.

When you have transferred certain numbers of no great import onto the form the personal financial advisor has asked you to fill out prior to your meeting, then you your husband just go to the meeting. You go together.

By making an appointment with a personal financial advisor you have moved this topic temporarily off the contested turf of who did the right thing and who did the wrong thing and onto the mutual-benefit turf of planning for your future together. Not that there's no pain involved. But by making the first move you gain certain advantages and avoid certain needless agonies of silence.

So you and he go together to meet with the financial advisor and sit across the desk from somebody who is better dressed than you and makes more money than you.

There you hear the bitter, sad truth. But you and your husband hear the bitter, sad truth together. That makes it almost OK. You can both hate the financial advisor together if that makes it any easier. That's what the financial advisor is there for.

Making the appointment and having this meeting is a great step forward. But you are not in the clear yet. Your husband may decide that punitive measures must be taken. He may not admit that's what he's doing. He may call these punitive measures "belt-tightening." See how our financial language retains some juicy elements of sadomasochism and English child-rearing methods? Nice. Tighten that belt really, really tight until it hurts.

Watch for this. Your bargaining power will be reduced, so you must tread carefully here. You may have to be devious. I don't know you folks, so I don't know how you operate. I'm just saying there are all kinds of battles going on underneath most marriages, and money is the currency of battle, as it is the currency of love. So good luck.

What have you got to bargain with? Well, think about it.

It's up to you. The sky's the limit.

May I now say one more thing? I do not consider it so incontrovertibly true that you "screwed up" your finances. I wouldn't automatically concede that point. You just did what many other intelligent, well-meaning people did. The market crashed. It was, if anything, a national and worldwide event in which you happen to be implicated.

What is so awful about every once in a while admitting that we're not total geniuses in every area of our life, that we're human and if everybody else was investing in the stock market and taking equity out of their houses, well, maybe, gosh darn it, maybe we did, too, and perhaps certain wise and seasoned men advised against it and maybe we heard their voices like everybody else but we followed the herd anyway.

I mean, could we all maybe just give ourselves a break? Holy crap. A whole lot of good it's going to do to publicly flagellate ourselves, or to creep around in shame and fear because our stocks went down.

So your stocks went down. And so your husband chose a more conservative investment strategy and his stocks didn't go down because he didn't have any. Well, sure, if you don't have any, then they can't go down. So on that basis he wins the argument. Well, maybe so.

But I'll be damned if I would recommend spending the next year feeling like a naughty little schoolboy or schoolgirl for nothing more than trying to participate in what was sold to us quite expertly as nothing more than the normal course of American financial life to which we were, apparently, according to the experts, fully entitled.

Which we were. And we are. We were fully entitled to the profits and we are fully entitled to the mess. Which is where the Buddhism comes in. Have no fear. Let go of attachment. This too will pass. It is all illusion. Enjoy every sandwich.

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