Think about conversations you have had with friends and family. My oldest friend and I met in kindergarten. We have gone through everything together -- death, marriage, divorce, job losses, and childbirth. Yet, the one thing we don't discuss is money. We talk about it in general terms but I have no idea what her real financial situation is, and she doesn't know mine. When my girlfriends and I get together, we talk long into the night about everything -- our partners, our fantasies, even marriage escape plans. Nothing is off the table, except money. This isn't something we consciously decided. It's an unspoken understanding.
I know we're not alone in this because I hear the stories in my workshops. I hear stories of women who didn't know that they were responsible for their spouse's debt; stories of family feuds because of unresolved conflict about money. Many families break apart after the death of a parent when dividing the estate becomes a fight over money and possessions. Years of pain and resentment bubble up as kids associate material possessions with the extent of a parent's love and respect.
There are negative comments and judgements people make about others. Women are often called gold-diggers because they want a mate who is financially well-off; this label sticks even if the woman is financially independent. People who haven't done well financially are judged as failures, unambitious or lazy. We size people up based on their possessions -- the size and location of their house (and whether they own a house), type of car they drive (and if they own a car), where they vacation, or the type and brand of clothes they wear. Knowing all of this, can you blame anybody for not wanting to talk about money?
How did it get this way? Money is embedded in our culture and in our lives. We first learn about money as children, through watching our parents deal with money. They teach us our first financial lessons, often without realizing it. Through experiencing their financial decisions, we learn whether money is something to spend or to save. We come to understand that when our parents hear that "You don't know what tomorrow brings," they will either save for that day or spend anyway. These early lessons set up our attitudes towards money.
We carry these lessons into our adult lives, dragging the emotional baggage along with us. When we meet our life partner, the money conversation is one we shy away from. After all, if it's tough for us to face within ourselves, how can we share it with somebody else? As I discuss in my Toronto Star interview, this is especially true when money is tied to our self-worth and our feeling of accomplishment (or not).
Unfortunately, there are unhappy consequences when you avoid having the money talk. Money is the number one predictor for divorce and the earlier a couple fights over money, the greater the likelihood that their marriage will end in divorce. Money is emotional and money arguments are symptomatic of deeper relationship issues. Money becomes a proxy for other unresolved issues. Among families, money often becomes a flashpoint when families discuss elder care or deal with the distribution of an estate. Feelings of love or rejection can be attached to these discussions with money representing the hopes and dreams of parent/child relationships.
These are tough issues to resolve and there are no easy answers. Money can be an emotional minefield. However, the only way to deal with this is to walk through it. Awareness and recognition that our financial decisions are rooted in our past is a starting point. In my workshops, the first thing we do is talk about what money was like at home. Why not ask yourself these questions? Then ask your partner to do the same and share your answers.
• How birthdays and special holidays are celebrated; did your parents go all out or were they frugal?
• Did your parents live for today or save for tomorrow?
• Did your family have conversations about money? What were they like?
• How did your parents handle money conflict?
• Did your parents use money to express love? Or to replace love?
• Was money used as a reward or punishment?
Answering these questions may be the first step to understanding what money means to you. You can't get control of your money until you understand your behaviour. And self-reflection and conversation is the only way to get there.