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Experts contend that money and sex are the topics that bring most people into counseling -- they're the topics couples find most difficult to discuss calmly. If you and your husband are mired in the swamp of financial infighting, you'll never get yourselves unstuck unless you learn how to talk sanely about money. The truth is, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Consider these discussion-starting questions:
1. Do you have the same money arguments over and over? If so, chances are there's more to the conflict than meets the eye. For example, behind Terry's worries about money was her deep fear that she couldn't trust Charlie to be there for her and her children. Determine the real issue in your marriage, and tackle it directly.
2. Is a change in lifestyle causing your quarrels? Money conflicts are often connected to transition points in life such as the birth of a baby, a move to a new community, a job shift, a raise, a wife's hiatus from work, or the start of college tuition payments. Even positive life events may require financial readjustments. Try to forecast these events and keep a step or two ahead of them. Ask yourselves: How will we change our lifestyle after the baby is born? When my raise comes through, does it make sense to buy a house? What resources are available for college aid to people in our income bracket?
3. What are you really angry about? Are you upset that your spouse spent $30 on a vacation souvenir that you consider junk? Or do you resent the fact that every vacation is destined to be his choice alone? The more specific you are about what's bothering you, the less likely you'll be to slip into broadside blaming or tit-for-tat accusations, such as, "You always ..." or "Why can't you ever ?" or even "If you can buy an MP3 player, than I can buy this pair of shoes?" Remember, too, that depression, helplessness, and a sense that "there's nothing we can do about it" keep many people locked in money stalemates. However, once you discuss your feelings calmly and listen without judgment to your spouse's thoughts, you'll be better able to find a way out of that financial dead-end.
4. What's your "money personality"? Most people fall into one or more loosely defined money personalities, says Washington, DC-based psychotherapist Olivia Mellan, author of Money Harmony: Resolving Money Conflicts in Your Life and Relationships (Walker & Co., 1995). Spenders are the classic shop-till-you-drop consumers who derive a rush of pleasure from buying. They're allergic to budgeting, prioritizing and saving. Hoarders have strict budgets and systematically prioritize everything. Saving for them is orgasmic and spending on entertainment, vacations, and anything but the most necessary items is seen as frivolous. Avoiders put off dealing with money management because the task overwhelms them. Since they don't like budgets or keeping records, they frequently forget to pay their bills. Amassers stockpile their funds in order to feel safe and happy. The bigger the pile, the better they feel.
Once you and your spouse have identified your individual styles, set aside time for a series of discussions to define common objectives and find strategies that work around your differences so you can meet those goals. What are your money fears? Do you feel you're not investing enough to retirement? Are you afraid you'll die and leave your family in a bind because you didn't get the right insurance? Are you mired in credit card debt? Be careful not to let these conversations disintegrate into a money fight. If tempers begin to flare, table the talk until you both cool off.--Margery D. Rosen