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Meg, 48, PR manager
John, 54, sales director
Married 11 years
Kids: Alex, 6; Kim, 4
Marlene Gershman Paley
Cold Spring Harbor, New York
Meg wants to quit her job to spend more time with her family. But she thinks she can't work less than full-time because John spends so much. John insists that's not a real issue. He feels neglected and thinks Meg puts career before family.
Meg: If John really wants me to quit my job, why won't he stop spending like crazy? Buying lots of expensive stuff means I have to stay in my job so we can pay the bills. When I tell him I'm scared about money, he rolls his eyes and says I'm being "ridiculous." Really? I think he's being selfish and inconsiderate.
John and I have our own credit cards and separate checking accounts for personal expenses. We don't review each other's bills, but the other day, when John bought a $600 briefcase, I took a closer look at our finances and learned he'd spent $17,000 on stuff for himself over the past two years. I freaked out when I saw the debt he's carrying. How can I downsize my job when he's spending like that?
John: By "review our finances," Meg really means that she snooped through my credit card statements. Yes, I've got debt. But she didn't even know about it until she flipped out over the briefcase and started poking around. Here's the thing: Meg acts like we're living on our last dime, but we're not broke -- not by a long shot. And I'm not mortgaging our future. I'm saving 20 percent of my salary in my 401(k), we have two 529 plans for our kids' college educations, and I make triple payments on my credit card debt every month. Over and over, I've assured Meg that I can support our family. We don't need her income to meet our financial goals. But Meg would rather blame me than believe me. I think she's looking for an excuse not to leave her job, so she pins it on me because it's easy and convenient.
Meg: That's not true. I'm uncomfortable running up credit card debt under the best of circumstances. John and I have really different approaches to finances. Money was tight in my family, so I learned to shop sales -- or do without. I don't need expensive things to be happy. He does. John has great taste and high standards. He drinks only the finest wine and he's always the best-dressed guy in the room.
But John isn't just materialistic -- he's a secret spender, too. He'll go clothes shopping on his lunch break and can easily spend $2,000. Or he buys antiques online and I don't know about it until boxes show up at the front door. Three years ago John bought a bedroom set on eBay without telling me about it until the day before it was delivered. I was livid! I'd never buy something big for the house without consulting him first. To this day I'm still angry that he didn't ask my opinion.
John: Suddenly Meg wants all our financial decisions to be mutual. The irony here is that, in keeping my financial life separate from hers, I've been playing by her rules. We got married late in life -- Meg was 37, I was 43. We had decent nest eggs and long histories of credit. So Meg insisted we keep our credit separate. Fair enough. But then when Meg freaked out about my briefcase and my personal debt, it pissed me off. "Don't demand a full accounting from me now," I told her. "We're not changing the rules because you don't like them anymore."
Look, I don't blame Meg for hating her job. The hours are awful, the workload is outrageous, the clients are never satisfied. And I hate it, too. Meg comes home exhausted and stressed, still stuck in work mode. She doesn't have energy for the kids and she's too tired to help me straighten up the house. Meg is the love of my life. But lately I feel like our relationship is an afterthought. To me, our problem is that Meg's a workaholic, not that I'm spending too much.
Meg: John's really not seeing the big picture here. He's constantly on my case about my job. Sure, my schedule is insane: I work 70 hours a week to meet brutal deadlines and please impossible clients. My department lost half its staff in the past three years, so I'm doing the work of five people, and I have to stay late, finish projects at home, and take client calls on weekends.
John does most of the parenting and chores, which is great, but he never lets me hear the end of it. It's true that I love doing PR work and I'm proud of what I've accomplished in my career. But believe me, I'd rather drive Alex and Kim to their activities and do laundry than be stuck at the office until 8 p.m., redoing a project for the 15th time because a client keeps changing his mind. I want to be more involved in everything at home, but -- this is the part that John's not getting -- I can't cut my hours while he's collecting cashmere sweaters and vintage wine. I love John, but he doesn't take me seriously when I bring up quitting, and I'm tired of it, plus I'm worn out from fighting. My job is killing me and hurting our family. Something's got to give.
John: For all Meg's whining, you'd think she'd at least update her résumé and start networking. But she's done nothing. Meg has two options: Stay in the job and suck it up. Or do something about it! I'm not big on counseling, but maybe a therapist can talk some sense into Meg -- and help us get the family life we waited so long to have.
The counselor: Many couples clash over their different financial styles, but money often is a surface issue. The root problem tends to be about the feelings -- love, security, self-esteem -- that have become attached to money. So in our first session, I wanted to uncover what was really behind Meg and John's conflict. As I listened to them describe their upbringings, it was easy to see why he'd become a big spender and why she'd become a workaholic.
John came from an upper-middle-class family that never lacked for money or nice things. John's father suffered from depression and expressed affection by lavishing his son with gifts. John didn't feel valued in his marriage because Meg was wrapped up in her career, so he repeated a pattern from childhood. "You're buying expensive things to feel loved and fill the emotional gap," I told him.
Meanwhile, money was tight and praise was scarce in Meg's blue-collar family. She had a critical and cold mother, so she became a worker-bee perfectionist who tried to do everything to the nth degree to please her mother and feel good about herself. Meg glowed when she spoke about her career and accomplishments, making it clear that she didn't work long hours just to pay the bills -- she worked hard because it made her feel good. Over time I helped Meg see that she was wrongly blaming John for her own issue: "You're a workaholic. Your job may be physically and emotionally exhausting, but it's filling an emotional need. This isn't about money and John's spending, it's about your self-esteem."
The couple had talked often about whether Meg should go part-time, but they'd never done a spreadsheet to see if they could afford it. Both argued their positions from emotion, not fact. They needed to discuss their money differences calmly, without Meg criticizing John's materialism or him sniping about her frugality. I recommended a thorough review of their finances -- preferably with an accountant or financial adviser -- to determine whether they could maintain their lifestyle and meet their goals on John's income alone. "Even though Meg is a workaholic, she has a legitimate concern about what the loss of her full-time salary would mean for your family," I explained to John. "Don't tell her she's wrong -- prove you're right." Their tax accountant's number crunching showed that not only could the couple make ends meet on John's salary and save for the future, but there would be enough money for John to buy what he wanted. "If you stay in your job, it's because you want to -- not because you have to," I told Meg.
Faced with hard numbers, she acknowledged that she'd made John a scapegoat. Meg took responsibility for her workaholic ways and set a date to give notice. But when she submitted her resignation, her boss made a counteroffer she couldn't refuse: a part-time position, with no evening or weekend work. She took it.
Meanwhile, though John denied being materialistic, he agreed to scale back his spending. He apologized for buying the bedroom set and promised to seek her input on all large household purchases. They also followed my advice to set a budget and review their finances monthly. "We're talking about money openly and honestly for the first time in our marriage, and I trust John with our finances now," Meg said.
Meg and John worked out a system to split the chores so he doesn't feel like everything is on his shoulders. I also discussed the importance of couple time. They started making a point of hanging out together after the kids are asleep and occasionally going out to the movies or to dinner. These simple changes really strengthened the connection between the two of them. Meg still slips into workaholic mode at times, and John's spending still bugs her. But overall, the couple is back on track. John is much happier now that his wife is spending more time with the kids and with him. And Meg is thrilled with her lifestyle change. "I have the best of both worlds: I'm busy while Alex and Kim are in school, but I'm home to meet them at the bus stop," Meg told me in the last session. "I love being more involved in their lives."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2012.