We're in money hell!

We take in plenty, we're both professionals, I even have an MBA in finance. But household economy is a nightmare

By Cary Tennis

Published April 21, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've read your column for a long time. It sounds as if my life path parallels yours in many ways.

My partner and I have been together for seven years and plan to get married this summer. We have stood by each other through a lot of stress. Each of us brings two adopted children into the mix and we are a trans-racial family. We are both professionals with six college degrees between us. We have each been through AA's 12-step program. I am a survivor of two past abusive marriages. It took me a long time to trust, but he's held steady and we love each other deeply. We are healthy and attractive and in our 50s. We do have a major stressor and that is money.

He hates dealing with money, came into our relationship with a lot of debt, and would go for months without taking out his checkbook. His credit rating stinks. His ex-wife continually takes him into court for non-payment of child support. Two years ago I demanded we merge our finances and that I would be in charge of the checkbook. I happen to have an MBA in finance. I found that he hadn't filed taxes for years. At $90K per year he has no disposable income; everything he earns rightfully goes into paying down his debts and penalties. I make a little bit more, and receive no child support from my ex-husband. I am growing so frustrated with the fact that his bills take precedence over mine. Since he's an attorney in private practice he can go for months at a time without a draw; but his debts have to be paid on time. He'll then get a big paycheck and will pay past bills from his personal checkbook without even telling me about it. My debts always come in last. His credit is awful. I've taken out loans to fix up his rental property upon promises of his paying that debt but that didn't happen. I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel on this situation and realize if I am to be connected to him for the rest of my life it will be just a fact of life that I will have to carry him financially.

His children have come to me to ask what I'm going to contribute to their college educations. My children are younger -- who's going to put them through college? We have no savings. I have some retirement funds but so far I've been able to protect them. I feel like I'm acting like a major bitch about this.

I can just hear the arguments from readers: Men do this all the time, make more money and marry women who pretty much drain them dry with their kids and less earning capacity. I grew up poor in Atlanta and have worked since 13, handing my paycheck over to my alcoholic mother in order to put food on the table, and working my way through night school for 16 years to complete my education. He grew up middle-class Yankee with a public-Ivy education, living in a family home close to school and wandering through his 20s without any responsibilities. I know I sound like a hungry child who hoards food, but this is a real problem not just for me but for my children in the future. I have no idea what to do or what next steps to take or consider. Your comments and advice are needed, please.

Financially Exhausted

Dear Financially Exhausted,

You are in great emotional pain about money.

I don't think your pain is any less deserving of respect and compassion than the kinds of pain that more readily attract our sympathies, such as addictions and troubled relationships of other sorts. You have a troubled relationship with money, and the pain of this relationship is very real.

Some people may think that since the sums of money involved are not tiny, that you should have no problems. Or they may say, well, your problems are small compared to ours, and they are of your making. But that does not lead to a solution. I mean, most of our emotional problems are of our making. That doesn't solve the problem. We need a solution. We need to find a way to stop doing what we're doing. And simply acquiring more knowledge about money's properties does not seem to help, any more than learning more about alcohol's chemistry will help us quit drinking. We need to change our emotional and spiritual relationship with money so that it no longer bedevils us and controls us and exerts power over us.

If we were to adapt the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to money, we might say something like this: We admitted we were powerless over money and that our lives had become unmanageable.

That is a good starting point.

So in the spirit of just sharing experience, strength and hope, I will tell my story. OK, so basically I had a terrible relationship with money and began searching for a solution and was referred to Elizabeth Husserl of Berkeley, Calif., originator of Inner Economics. So we met and early on in our consultations she suggested I sit down and have a dialogue with money. I was like, right. Talk to the money. Sure. But, well, they say money talks. So I tried it. Money sat on one cushion and I sat on the other. (I think I actually put my wallet on the cushion and talked to my wallet!)

I said, Well, Money, How you doin'? Uh, OK, well, mainly, my problem with you is, it seems that there isn't enough of you and, uh, I'm not always sure where to get enough of you. And I'm kind of angry at you because you seem to have caused a lot of strife in my family, and people were always fighting over you and then later there were always things I couldn't do because I didn't have you, and you were very hard to hang on to, and I was always losing you, so in general I kind of am angry at you and think you suck, really, and I wish I didn't have to deal with you at all.

And so forth. And then it was time to change positions, and listen to money speak back to me. So I'm sitting there and I'm like, OK, Money, what have you got to say. And money was actually quite put out. Money accused me of mistreating it. Money accused me of not giving it respect, and not taking steps to really understand it. Money felt misrepresented, and was really appalled that I, a person of considerable intelligence, had not even expended the energy to really learn about money and understand it. And even -- so it turns out -- money didn't like the way I stuffed it into my wallet all crumpled up! Money preferred to be gently folded. Now that was a surprise. But I said OK, and now I gently fold money before putting it in my wallet. It might seem silly, but when I pause to fold money carefully, it calms me down and reminds me that money deserves respect. Over time I have acquired a more gentle and balanced view of money. I look at the money now. I treat it gently. I don't crumple it up and I don't throw it around.

And since I respect my money, I also respect your money. I treat your money with respect. As one consequence, I don't mind asking you for it. I know I will treat it with respect. So I'm happy to invite your money to come stay with me and help me work on projects. I used to think of taking money, or even of stealing money; I would feel that whenever I was taking someone's money I was somehow stealing it, or injuring them by taking their money, or tricking them somehow. But that sort of implied that you have no choice in what to do with your own money. Of course you have a choice. Now it's more like I invite money. I invite your money to come stay with me. I promise it a good home. It stays for a while and then it goes off to do other things.

I guess that's what banks do. They invite your money to come stay with them. And why not? Money has to stay somewhere.

So as a result of doing this emotional work about money, I have a lighter feeling about it. I see it as a mysterious and interesting thing, with its own properties and attractions.

The whole experience has left me much freer about money. I am still not getting very much of it, and I still worry about the future, and I still occasionally pay bills late, and I'm in too much debt and have no idea how I'll retire and live comfortably on what I have now, and I still fantasize about some kind of magical rescue, which is a symptom of being a person with a troubled relationship with money. But I don't worry about it so much. I just try to be open to it.

Each person's experience will be different. Another thing that helped me in my work with money was being asked to recall my earliest experiences with money, one of which, I realized for the first time in probably 40 years, was very positive. I recalled working for my two older brothers on a paper route in Bradenton, Fla., collecting, that is, going door-to-door in a trailer park where many retired folks lived, and collecting their payments for newspaper subscriptions. I also recalled selling newspaper subscriptions. These activities were very positive. Recalling that gave me an emotional basis for feeling that going out and getting money can be fun, even joyful. As an adult, I have been very cynical about money, but as a kid, I had no cynical attitudes about money. I had no jealousy of others and the money they had. I had no shame about having money or not having money. I did not feel bad about these old people giving us money. I didn't feel like I shouldn't be taking their money. And they certainly didn't seem to feel as though they were being conned or coerced. They wanted the Bradenton Herald delivered and were happy to receive it, and we delivered it, and they gave us money. It was just fine.

This sort of memory can be helpful in displacing current narrow and painful attitudes toward money.

So I really suggest you look into Elizabeth's Inner Economics practice, and if you can't meet with her, perhaps you can find someone in your area who can help you explore your own emotional and spiritual attitudes toward money. And since you have both been through the 12 steps of AA, you might of course also look into Debtors Anonymous. I went to some meetings of Debtors Anonymous a while back, and I found it quite helpful.

One other thing I did in my course of getting a better attitude toward money was to save change in a jar. Elizabeth suggested I do that, and it was pretty cool. It might seem like a small thing but for me it was a big thing. Over the years in marriage, having joint accounts, I had come to feel that none of the money was really my own. When I finally took that money and bought something with it, well, I'm happy every time I look at what I bought with that change. It's a just a hoodie with two whales on the back, but I bought it with the change I had saved up, and I bought it from people who live up the street. You know how some things you seem to need to do for your soul? That's how this was. I needed to do that for my soul.

And now I also have a little money of my own that I am buying musical gear with.

So having all your money commingled may be problematic. But you figure that out. The main thing is to recognize that money deserves to be dealt with emotionally and spiritually.

Since you have done the 12 steps in AA, you know well how reasonable, common-sense approaches to such problems are often not enough. Some sort of leap must be made. I think the same sort of leap that one makes in the 12 steps to face addiction is the kind of leap one must make in healing one's relationship with money.

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Cary Tennis

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