San Francisco is the third most expensive city in the USA to live in. It comes in #1 and even tops New York as the priciest USA city to rent an apartment in. With the cost of living so high, how do couples in San Francisco navigate these financial stressors along with all the other stressors of just plain living?

I recently participated in a Marin panel discussion entitled “Talking about Money with your Honey” that I would like review here because I think it applies so well to my San Francisco couples. Our host was Kathleen Nemetz, a financial planner. Other panelists included Jodi Klugman-Rabb, LMFT, J.R. Hastings, an estate planning attorney, and Christina Sherman, a family law attorney. Below, underlined in bold, are some of the topics addressed and a conglomeration of the responses, mostly from the two psychotherapists on the panel: Jodi and myself.

Why can talking about money get so loaded and be so difficult?

This is because money isn’t just a tangible matter but also carries some emotional weight. Financial arguments between couples are often not about the money at all but about deeper issues to do with values, self esteem, trust, care, love, freedom, power and control. All too often what starts out as an argument about money and finances ends up being about something completely different, as the following example illustrates.

Not so long ago I saw a couple in San Francisco, Alicia* and John*, who were arguing about what to do with their savings. Alicia wanted to buy a house because the market was good for buying and rents were (and still are) ridiculous. John wanted them to do their dream travels together, which they had talked about frequently. They argued in circles until we finally got to what the house and the traveling represented to each of them. For Alicia the house meant that John was really committing to her, whereas for John not being able to travel confirmed his worst fears about losing his freedom when he committed to a relationship. Once they started talking at the level of ‘commitment versus freedom’ they found a common ground to base their discussions on. Alicia certainly didn’t want to curtail John’s freedom; and he was deeply committed to and in love with her. In the end they decided to buy a house together, after which they started a travel fund that they both contributed to. By addressing the needs and feelings underneath their arguments about money, Alicia and John were able to creatively brainstorm for a solution that ensured that they both felt taken care of.

Is money a source of insecurity?

I think we would all agree that a lack of money could be a huge potential source of insecurity and conflict for couples. Money still ranks as one of the top reasons couples fight. However, I have found that having money—or just more money than your partner—can also breed insecurity. When one member of a couple has more money than the other a power imbalance is created and this can also bring up trust issues. For instance, one member of a couple I was working with in San Francisco asked her lover point blank if he was attracted to her or her money. Although he was taken aback, her question did get the conversation out in the open where her trust issue could be dealt with directly.

Alternatively, the one with more money may also feel annoyed that he or she has to foot the bill whenever they ever go out or do something fun. Likewise, the person without as much money might feel forced to pay for something they really can’t afford, just to keep up with their partner. Before they know it they’ve racked up a huge credit card bill!  Although initially, in the throes of love, this might not be an issue, over time it can become a breeding ground for resentment on both sides.

The best solution in this case is for the couple to talk about the feelings and needs underlying their money dynamic. Simply talking about how much they’re spending will do little to mitigate the situation.

Sometimes financial security can be confused with emotional security. While most would agree that having money can help create more emotional security, this is not always the case. What creates real emotional security is knowing how to foster and maintain an emotionally strong bond. Many of my couples, through no fault of their own, don’t know how to do this simply because they didn’t have good role models growing up. They never learnt this particular skill set. The majority of my work with couples is giving them the tools to be able to create emotionally secure bonds.

How should couples work out disagreements over money?

Well first of all, it’s ok to disagree. If you can’t disagree there are no grounds for compromise! What I’ve also found helpful for my couples who are having arguments about money is to talk about values instead of talking about the money situation directly. Having a conversation about values can be enormously helpful because so often this is what underlies a money disagreement. Think about it: We usually spend money on what we value.

Let’s look at how one couple was able to creatively brainstorm and problem solve around their money disagreement.

When one of my San Francisco couples—Deb* and Sheira*—got pregnant, they decided that the bio-mom, Sheira, would be the stay-at-home mom, and Deb would become the main wage earner. Sheira was a lawyer and thought the break would do her good; however, she wasn’t prepared for how undervalued she felt as a stay-at-home mom. There was no validation from happy clients or her boss; instead, she was at home dealing with “goo-goo, ga-ga” all day. She thought she was going to go nuts! At the same time she felt bad because it had been her choice to stay home. She started to do a lot of shopping—it’s called “retail therapy.” I’m sure many of us have tried this type of therapy at one time or another! However, when Deb found out how much Sheira had been spending she was very upset. Sheira was pushing them over their budget with her retail therapy. They started to fight more, and this brought them back into therapy.

Once the conversation turned to the root of Sheira’s compulsion to spend—her lack of feeling valued—they were able to brainstorm much more effectively. What they figured out was very creative. The money that they would have spent on childcare if Sheira was still working went into a fund that was just for Sheira. Although it was more of a token gesture, just seeing a monetary value placed on what she was providing helped Sheira’s self esteem enormously. It also gave her a sense of control and power to have her own account. The best part was that she could use this account for her retail therapy! 

In closing, I would like to mention that what I witnessed with Deb and Sheira was an important transition from thinking solely as an “I” or independent entity to holding that one is part of a “we” or partnership. Many people aren’t used to thinking of themselves as part of a “we,” they are used to acting unilaterally. This was certainly the case for Deb and Sheira, who were both hard working and fiercely independent. Making this shift from “I” to “we” is crucial for a healthy couple. Realizing that your actions are going to affect someone beside yourself is an important transition.

There were plenty of other lively discussions on the panel “Talking about Money with your Honey.” Perhaps if there is enough interest I will do a sequel on the importance of planning for couples who share wealth, as there was some excellent advice given on this topic.

This article will also be posted on my blog, http://ondinawellness.com/blog/
Comments and feedback are very welcome!

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* Names changed to protect confidentiality