During what would turn out to be my father’s final year of life, he had several caregivers in and out of his house. Since I worked within about a 45 minute drive of where he lived, one day I decided to take a long lunch and pay a surprise visit to check up on the care he was receiving.
As I walked in the front door, I could hear “Fran” helping my dad in the bathroom and was surprised to hear her speaking to him with impatience and disrespect. Immediately filled with anger, I took a couple of steps in their direction. But for some reason I stopped, sat down in the family room, and waited.
A few minutes later, Fran appeared and, of course, was surprised to see me. I didn’t scold her or threaten to have her fired. Instead, I told her there were some things I wanted her to know about my dad.
As we sat together, I told her he had grown up without a father, that his dad had died when my dad was just five. I told her my dad enlisted in the army during World War II and flew 35 missions as navigator of a B-17 bomber. I told her about the letters he wrote to his mom, telling her about his “boring desk job.” With his two brothers in the army at the same time, he wanted to ease her worries. I told her that when my mom died, less than a year earlier, they had been married for 47 years. And I told her how selflessly my dad had served my mom throughout her ordeal with cancer.
I also told her I could only imagine how difficult her job must be, having to do tasks few others would want to do. I thanked her for her work and asked her to take good care of my dad. From that point forward she did just that.
While those details may not have anything to do with money, understanding someone’s story has a lot to do with having compassion toward the people around us.
What’s your story?
How much have you thought about your story and how it impacts your relationship with money? If you’re married, how much have you talked about your spouse’s story and how that impacts his or her dealings with money?
If you have some recurring disagreements about money, it might be that your personal history—or your spouse’s—has something to do with them. And a frustrated comment, such as, “You’re just like your mother,” probably won’t do a whole lot to help the situation.
Far better to try to understand how each others’ upbringing and early experiences with money continue to influence your assumptions and choices. To try to look at all of that objectively, see if those assumptions are really true, and think about whether the choices you’re making are for the best.
Understanding how your past may be impacting your present could be the first step in a new and better direction.
‘We can’t afford it’
I’ve written before about Sheila, who grew up as one of five kids with a stay-at-home mom and a school teacher dad. Because money was usually tight, she carried extreme frugality into adulthood, only allowing herself to choose the least expensive version of whatever she needed to buy.
When she and Mike got married, the budget he was accustomed to using helped her see that her standard response to pretty much any spending opportunity—“we can’t afford it”—was based on an unwarranted fear that they really couldn’t afford it. Seeing on paper that, yes, in fact, they could afford it—whether a restaurant meal or a better brand of clothing—was a completely new experience. It gave her a sense of freedom around money she had never known before.
Mr. Stable meets his match
Five months into their dating relationship, Julie mentioned to Sam that she was carrying a $1,200 balance on a credit card. Sam was stunned. To him, that was nothing short of irresponsible. Scrambling for something to say, he only made matters worse by offering to lend Julie enough money to pay off her balance. Julie felt judged.
As difficult as that conversation was, it spurred other conversations that helped them learn more about the source of each other’s financial habits and attitudes. Sam came from a stable, middle-class family. They lived within their means, always bought used cars, and always paid cash.
Julie’s family was “somewhat more colorful.” Her parents divorced when she was five. Although her mom could stretch a dollar farther than most, money was always tight.
A few days after the credit-card conversation, Julie told Sam of a time when she had to help her mom make her mortgage payment. Sam felt much more compassion. By the same token, as Julie learned more about Sam’s upbringing, she understood why he hated debt. She quickly paid off what she owed.
Today, Julie credits getting at the root of their financial beliefs and behaviors for the ease with which they now talk about money.
The gift of understanding
Want to give your spouse a great gift? How about making a concerted effort to better understand their financial story? How about mentioning some aspect of their story that you see contributing to your relationship in really positive ways. As for those not so positive ways, it can be helpful to talk about them. Just keep in mind that how you talk about them will make all the difference.