We Always Fight About Money

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She Says

Terry: Charlie has always had champagne tastes and a beer budget, but his latest move tops everything. He rented a hotel suite and invited six of our closest friends to a surprise party for my 30th birthday! When I flipped on the lights and everyone yelled 'Surprise!' I was tickled -- until I started to calculate the bill in my head. How can he be so stupid? He knows how worried I am about money. "This must have cost a fortune," I whispered to Charlie when he hugged me. "You're worth it," he said. It sounds romantic -- until you see our credit card bill.

Everyone thinks Charlie's extravagant gestures are the sweetest, most thoughtful things in the world. Well, I don't. I don't need a fancy hotel or gourmet dinner to make me feel good. We've been together for almost eight years; you'd think he'd know that by now. I'm just not a spender and any extra money we have I put toward things my kids need. Maybe status symbols or trips make Charlie feel important, but I'd rather know that we have enough money to complete the renovations on the house and pay for the girls' college educations than blow a thousand dollars on one night.

Demosthenous: Terry and Charlie's situation defines the marital turmoil millions of couples face. Whether we have money in the bank or struggle to make payments every month, money means different things to each of us. Attitudes about money -- which can be extremely personal and highly idiosyncratic -- are deeply rooted, often unconscious, and potentially conflicting. For some, money symbolizes love or self esteem; for others, security. Terry and Charlie clearly have opposing views on money, and the fact that they've been unable to deal with them for eight years makes it even harder to figure out exactly what's behind their arguments.

Terry: I'm tired of fighting about our finances. Every month when I sit down to pay the bills I get panicky trying to juggle which ones I must pay and which can wait. I always pay the phone and utility bills, but only the minimum on the credit cards. That means we pay a ton in interest. I'm meticulous about keeping track of money right down to the penny. Charlie -- who, as a sales manager, is paid a small salary plus commissions -- has no sense of how much he makes or how much we have. When I first married him, he rarely recorded the checks he wrote, and I'm still in charge of the checkbook.

Well, it's time to grow up. He has a family to think about and he has to stop being so irresponsible about money and everything else. I know he's always dreamed of running his own business, but at some point you have to realize that maybe it's just a pipe dream.

The trouble is, Charlie has always been like this. He's jumped from job to job ever since I've known him. Now he's manager and part owner of a small electronics store. But he works 19 hours a day, he's exhausted and stressed and, to be honest, I don't think he's cut out for this type of work. He pals around with all his employees, going for drinks after the store closes, playing baseball and basketball on weekends. That's all very nice, but then if they take advantage of him, he's in no position to reprimand them.

If he made decent money, I might feel differently about sticking with the store until it turns a profit. But he barely breaks even, and since it's such a small operation, we don't have health insurance or a pension plan. I want Charlie to be happy, but I can't live like this. I'm a nervous wreck. I want to be able to take my kids to the pediatrician and not worry that it's costing me a hundred dollars. Even if I found a part-time job, I'd have to pay so much in childcare, it wouldn't be worth it.

Right now, Charlie and I are beyond talking. We hardly see each other -- he's either working or playing ball with his friends -- and I'm with the girls. When we are together, we argue. If we don't start to plan for our future, I don't even want to think about what's going to happen.

Demosthenous: Money is often a substitute for other unresolved issues in a relationship. It sounds like Terry feels helpless, as if Charlie, by not doing much of anything, is calling the shots in their marriage. It's easier for her to blame him for spending too much money than to deal with the issue of him not spending enough time with her. Take a reality check on your own marriage: If you and your spouse argue a lot about money, is it possible you could really be fighting about something else?

Terry: My husband's priorities are totally out of sync. Charlie does so much for others -- which is wonderful -- but you can't keep giving money to other people if you don't have it. Even with us, he's too extravagant. For Valentine's Day two years ago, he bought us matching leather jackets -- totally frivolous. A year ago, we discussed buying a new car. I wanted a basic family car, but Charlie had his heart set on a fancy SUV. I told him flat out that we couldn't afford a $20,000 car. The next day, I heard someone honking in the driveway. It was Charlie, driving a bright red SUV, with the salesman in the front seat. Does this make sense? We wound up having to sell it because we couldn't make the payments.

He's just as irresponsible about things around the house. He'll start to replace the siding on the house, get two sides up, and then stop. He's been painting the inside of the house forever, and though we bought wallpaper for the playroom, he never finds the time to hang it. Of course, if his cousin calls and asks him to come over to help him with his car, he's out the door in a second.

Demosthenous: Couples fall into patterns that become hard to break. That's what we're seeing here. Over the years, Terry and Charlie have become unable to discuss problems or hammer out disagreements without lapsing into blame and recriminations. Although money is the number one trigger for marital discord, it can also mask other issues that aren't being addressed. I suspect that's the case here. Charlie and Terry don't have the temperaments or the tools to discuss finances, or other areas of conflict civilly. She resorts to finger pointing and blame. My guess is that Charlie has learned to respond in kind, or overwhelmed by her attacks, he will clam up and withdraw.

Terry: Even before I met my husband, I was careful about money. I had to be: I'm an only child, raised by my mother, a dental hygienist, and my grandmother after my dad walked out on us when I was 4. My father was an alcoholic. He'd often promise to take me for the weekend but then never show up. Mother was out a lot; I remember a string of undependable boyfriends who always broke her heart, and I learned a lesson: You can't count on a man to be there for you.

I was waiting tables at a diner when I met Charlie. He used to come for lunch every day, with or without a gang of friends, and try to draw me into conversation. I knew he was a flirt, so I was wary of him. But Charlie can be so funny, charming, and thoughtful, it was hard not to fall in love with him. You want to just wrap your arms around him and take care of him.

He proposed five months after we met and we were married two years later, after I finished my degree in business administration. I found a job as an executive administrator for a catalogue company and we moved into the top floor of an old Victorian house.

We postponed having children for several years. Charlie wanted to start a family right away, but I knew we didn't have enough money. But eventually, I realized that if we waited until we had enough money, we'd be waiting forever. Back then, Charlie was working as a general contractor for a local builder. He was doing well, but he got tired of working for other people so he quit. Amazingly, he always manages to find something else, but his lack of commitment leaves me very unsettled.

We agreed that I should stop working when our first child was born. I didn't want my children to have the same childhood memories I do. I'm very involved with my kids' lives. I'm a Brownie leader, I'm on the PTA steering committee, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Demosthenous: Having grown up in a single-parent home with a mother who was more concerned with her own social life than her daughter's emotional well-being, Terry got the message that nothing could be taken for granted and the only person she could really count on was herself. As she witnessed the fighting that led to her mother's breakups with her boyfriends, Terry felt responsible for helping her mother cope with life's upheavals, and she carried too great an emotional burden on her young shoulders. Unfortunately, she's now projecting her deep distrust of men onto Charlie. Terry assumes all men are basically irresponsible, and Charlie's behavior starting projects and not finishing them, spending money on things she deems frivolous, and failing to provide for the family's future reinforces her convictions.

Terry: We wind up having the same stupid arguments and we're still at square one. I don't think things will ever change. What happened two weeks ago was the last straw: Charlie got home around 10:30, wiped out and depressed. He started to tell me about some crazy business scheme he had. I couldn't listen. All I could say was how important it was for him to find a real job. The next thing I knew he stormed downstairs, bellowing that he had to get away from me and everyone else. The next morning, he flies to Florida for a week! Couldn't he find some place a little closer, a little less expensive, to get "his space"? How about driving to the shore? The man doesn't get it -- and I'm worn out from trying.

Demosthenous: Terry's anger is a clear signal that business can't continue as usual. The challenge for her, of course, is to figure out what's behind her anger, and then to stand firmly behind her beliefs without getting drawn into old arguments. Before we figure out how Terry can do that, let's hear what Charlie has to say.

Continued on page 3:  He Says


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