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Monday, February 02, 2009

Money and Marriage and Getting Off on the Right Foot:
Speak Up and Don't Hold Your Peace

Frequent commentor Rosie alerted me to a new section at Chabad.org on The Economy: Surviving and Surmounting the Current Financial Crunch. There are a number of columns up ranging from inspiration to tips. I will probably review some of the better ones, as well as the ones that require some alternative commentary. The one I am taking a look at now definitely requires some alternative commentary.

I don't know if the "Dear Rachel" column that is featured here is the same Rachel that dismissed a possibly gambling problem writing, "Everyone knows his/her own limits." Clearly if everyone knew there limits, blogs like this would be completely unnecessary. If this is the same Rachel, she is near to striking out in my book when it comes to giving financial advice. Here is another example. I have been kindly informed that the Dear Rachel Q & A at Chabad.org is NOT the same 'Rachel' that writes for the Jewish Press. My comments on the column stand, but there is NO connection between the JP's Rachel and Chabad's Rachel. My apologies.

A newlywed wife writes to Rachel with the complaint that her husband, a freelancer with an inconsistent income, is spending like he has endless resources. She is watching the credit card bills mount and doesn't want the things he keeps buying for her.

Rachel's advice all falls into the "gentle" category:
  • The wife should make the husband feel secure so he doesn't need to resort to shopping as an outlet. It is true that some people get a (temporary) feeling of control when making a transaction.
  • The wife should refrain from making comments about material things because it might be putting the husband under pressure is he feels he is not supporting the wife as she would like. Earlier Rachel wonders if the husband is spending because he thinks that is what he should do to keep a wife happy. In the frum world, sometimes it can look like buying is a competitive sport. And young newlywed husbands are often advised to buy their wife trinkets and flowers for Shabbat. This is not advice I'm fond of.
  • The wife should look for alternatives to lessen overall spending and replace extravagances. As an example, Rachel suggests "Surprise him and cook a nice dinner for the two of you or make a picnic."
  • The wife should remind the husband that she didn't marry him for his money and that she doesn't love him for the things he buys for her.

Unfortunately, if the husband keeps up his current spending pattern, despite such assurances, he may find that the marriage begins to crumble because of, yes, money. Women generally marry with the expectation that the bond of marriage will better our lot in life as we undertake the task of having and raising children. The ketubah puts the onus of supporting a wife and family on the husband, and a husband who lacks impulse control is going to make marriage a lot harder.

If the letter writer wrote a Dear Orthonomics letter, the advice would be a lot less "gentle." Instead of recommending the wife reassure her husband that she didn't marry him for his money and recommending that the wife undertake the task of finding more and more ways to lessen spending while the husband runs up credit card bills laden with compounding interest that will quickly overtake the money saving ideas she implements until it is simply no longer to keep up, I would recommend a direct and urgent approach.

I see no reason why a wife should not approach her husband and just say want needs to be said (no dropping clues, no sugar coating, no infantalizing the husband because he should be able to handle hearing that the budget isn't working out, well, it isn't), e.g. she could say, "We need to get on a spending plan NOW because if we do not get on a spending plan immediately there will be long term consequences." There is a place in life for the gentle approach, but I believe that dropping clues to the husband while he reinforces behavior patterns and a "lifestyle" and the interest continues to compound, is doing neither the husband or the wife any favors. Eventually debt will catch up to them (I noted the newlywed wife refers to the credit cards as "his" but finances in marriage "ours" even if you keep separate accounts), and compound whatever other challenges come their way.

Rachel does writes, "If over time you see that there is no way for the two of you together to bring your (or his) spending under control, you may want to consider seeking the advice of a financial planner or even a therapist." I wouldn't wait to tackle the problem because it will only get bigger because that is what debt does: gets bigger.

Back to the beginning of the letter to Rachel, I noted that the newlywed wife was under a false impression about her husband's means. She writes: "I always thought he could afford his more lavish lifestyle." Those in the shidduch parsha, please take note. Appearances are deceiving and the extension of ridiculous amounts of credit makes appearances even more deceiving. Part of due diligence should be to ascertain what the financial position will be in the marriage. In a world where credit is extended so easily, you cannot trust your eyes.

21 comments:

degium said...

I thought the article was much more reasonable than the excerpts you posted made it sound. She was generally offering ways to talk the husband out of specific extravagances without being too confrontational. There is the old saying about catching more flies with honey than vinegar.


One point at which I disagree with both the questioner and the answerer. I think any credit card debt is too much. Absent some serious emergency, if you don't have the money to pay the balance in full by the due date, you should delay the purchase until you have saved up. By emergency I mean something like a serious medical emergency beyond your insurance, or the boiler and the roof failing at the same time.

rosie said...

I agree with SL that appearances about someone's financial means could be very deceiving. Even hearing that the person is a professional or that their parents are professionals does not mean that they have lots of money. Because people often abuse credit they can appear to have much more than they really have.
We don't know if the people who write to Dear Rachel are frum or even Jewish since the chabad.org site gets readers from a broad spectrum of people and tries to cater to a wide audience. I do think though, that since many frum people feel that the answer to their financial pressures is by buying everything on credit, that it is unlikely that a frum therapist will advocate card shredding.

SephardiLady said...

degium-I immediately see where you and I differ. I don't think telling your husband, something in our home is not working and we need to tackle the problem before it gets worse is "confrontational."

We both agree any credit card debt is too much. . . why not start putting out the fire before it burns the house down? How do you successfully fight the fire while the husband throws fuel on the fire?

Rosie-Dear Rachel is definitely a frum writer. I have read a ton of Q and A financial columns and have yet to see a outside financial counselor or accountant recommend beating around the bush. I will try to find an outside example for contrast.

Anonymous said...

It looks like they are accepting submissions of articles. You should really send them something

http://www.chabad.org/tools/feedback_cdo/aid/815332/jewish/Submit-YOUR-Idea-Tip-or-Insight.htm

Commenter Abbi said...

Yes, I've heard that tale before of "not realizing what the husband really made". A friend of a friend in college only discovered that her husband didn't have a real job till after they were married. Where did he go every morning when he left for "work"? To gamble!

Clear, unsugarcoated communication is key for a happy marriage and happy bank statement. And the communication needs to go both ways. If a couple can't have frank dialogues about these issues, they have much bigger problems than just finance.

tesyaa said...

I didn't read the whole thing, but her "gentle" approach is more of an old fashioned approach, one reminiscent of the 1950s when the wives made it a point to let their husbands feel that they were in charge. Wives had to be feminine. It's not surprising that this attitude persists half a century later in the socially conservative chareidi community, but it's a little incongruous given the financial responsibilities women now have.

Anonymous said...

I didn't even finish reading this blog before I had to comment on that Dear Rachel letter. This blog has hit a little too close to home.

Been there and done that!!! The credit card bills STOPPED mounting when (in our case) the wife put her foot down and said NO MORE even if it means losing the house we are not putting another item on another credit card. The husband in our case has STILL been unable to find time to handle such trivial matters as paying taxes on time.

Is there some way to determine a prospective spouse's "financial profile" before you marry them? In our case, the husband had already default on student loans AND owed the IRS neither of which seemed important enough to let the wife know prior to the marriage.

As far as I can see there are only two options here: 1) the wife has to completely take over the finances for the home and hopefully the business or 2) divorce.

OK -- probably not two, but you can see this issue really strikes a chord here. Grr.

JS said...

Yet another, "strikes close to home." In this case, my in laws. I would note, that it's not always the husband who overspends, and it's not always the wife who feels powerless to do anything.

My father in law is a doctor from which one could easily assume he must be very well off. However, my in laws are so deeply in debt it would make your jaw drop and then drop again. Even with his much higher than average income (which is probably why he was extended so much credit) he can't even pay off the interest, let alone the principle. In truth, no one even knows how terrible the problem is, other than the fact that it is, in fact, terrible - they refuse to discuss their finances even as the problem grows larger and larger and is starting to overtly affect their children.

The problem here is very similar to the couple in the post. In this case, my mother in law thought she was marrying a DOCTOR and that his job would provide her with a certain lifestyle. It never worked out that way. They made several horrible financial decisions when he was trying to establish a practice (along with other terrible mistakes in other financial areas) and have been deeply in debt ever since shortly after their wedding. They never bought a house (they rent a home) and couldn't even qualify for a mortgage regardless. We believe they have emptied what little retirement savings they once had.

Over the nearly 30 years of their marriage these financial problems have completely eroded their marriage. I think deep down they still love each other, but the constant stress, worry, anger, frustration, and secret-keeping of the whole situation have made it impossible for them to overtly show love, communicate effectively, and do anything other than nag each other.

In this situation, it's my mother in law buying things, not for herself, but for her family in order to make them feel loved and keep up the charade that nothing is wrong. She gets so angry when finances are even mentioned that it borders on a psychological disorder - which she refuses to seek help for. My father in law refuses to even broach finances with her (she refuses to relinquish control of the finances or seek a debt counselor or anything) as he is afraid if he pushes the issue his marriage will completely dissolve.

Of course this is all just the tip of the iceberg and as their remaining children get married (which requires money they don't have), they get older, less healthy, near retirement age, etc everyone is getting more and more worried and the problems become more and more overt.

Just wanted to share this (again) and say that sometimes a direct approach doesn't work, but if it ever will, it has to be done early before things get to this point. I honestly don't think anything can be done for my in laws at this point between the financial problems, marital problems, and psychological issues.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Spelling nitpick: "Hold your peace" not "piece".

My wife and I talked about money in therapy. I finally got her to understand that I liked saving money by describing myself as a dragon: the bank account was my hoard, and I loved to imagine taking it all out, turning it into gold coins, and then just wallowing in it (and then putting it back afterwards). Once she go the idea that having money in the bank was something I liked, and not a failure of imagination in finding things to spend it on, we got along much better.

SephardiLady said...

Thanks Larry. I had been wondering if it was peace or piece. Correction made.

Thank you anonymous for the link. Any ideas what subject I've posted on would be a good submission.

Regarding the question about determining the financial portfolio before marriage, frank discussion and working out a preliminary budget is one idea. Running a CREDIT REPORT shouldn't be discounted either.

More on that later. Should make an interesting post at the very least.

Esther said...

SL - what about whether the people getting married even are aware of what different expenses are and how to plan their budget? Singles living in apartments probably have some idea of most living expenses, but if you've been living at home or at yeshiva, I don't think you even know how to come up with those numbers, or even how to come up with what the categories of expenses are. (And assuming a couple having kids right away, per your previous post, how to come up with all the expenses that this entails as well.) Plus, even people living on their own may not understand that certain things change after marriage. For example, my husband used to buy books - he had few living expenses when in yeshiva, so he had spending money for that. But when we got married and we had real bills to pay, this was one of the areas that he needed to have pointed out to him as an unnecessary expense.

Anonymous said...

And those of us who did not grow up in the torah world were un-blissfully un-aware of that big financial bombshell we know and love called "tuition". We knew it was out there, but we had no idea the scale.

SephardiLady said...

Esther-You are right. People who haven't lived alone before marriage often have no clue. Even those of us who have lived on our own are often surprised by the uptick in certain expenses.

Research is key and also a willingness to keep learning. Of course, those of us who are better at budgeting should try to make it our business to lend some tips. We are friends with a couple that is new to town and I took them on a 3 mile radius tour of the neighborhood so they could learn where the discount dry cleaners are, where the best children's consignment stores are, where the best second hand stores are, and what block to circle to find the consistently best priced gasoline close to home. They were quite thankfully for the tour.

Mike S said...

degium is me (or the verification word I typed in the wrong box.) I don't think Rachel was telling the wife to allow the spending to go on; she was offering advice on how to stop it without insulting the husband.

Avi said...

Esther,

In some cases, they just don't want to know. I put together a spreadsheet on Jewish living expenses in an effort to scare my brother straight and keep him from going back for Shana Gimmel (a third year of pre-college learning). It shows the total household income required to have four kids in three different neighborhoods (Teaneck, Baltimore, and Silver Spring). He treated me seriously, looked at it, couldn't find any problems with my numbers, and... ignored me. :)

The spreadsheet hasn't been updated in years and years, but if anyone is interested in taking a look, it's up at http://www.greengart.com/teaneckshuls.htm

rosie said...

I just think it is about time that a frum website addressed the economy and the overspending that happens in the frum community. It looks to me that some of the responses that they printed are from people with non-Jewish sounding names and since I also sent in some responses, I know that they are edited. Therefore, they are not specifically targeting the overspending in the frum community but they are talking about coping tips for a bad economy in general. It is at least a good start in getting frum people ready for the idea of economizing. I at least appreciate that there is a frum website whose message is not to promote materialism and overspending.

SephardiLady said...

Mike S-While I'm sure that every wife can make some of the suggested changes (cutting back, being careful with language, and finding alternatives), the problem as presented lies with the husband and to confront the problem the husband needs to be told that there is a problem.

It doesn't need to be a confrontation, which is why I suggested the language of we and us, as in "we need to get on a spending plan. . . . " That is far different than the wife coming out and saying you have a spending issue and you are driving us into debt with your spending habits.

There is certainly a middle ground between too gentle and insulting.

Mike S. said...

SL, you seem to think either that Rachel told the wife to allow the spending to go on, or that wife had to do the cutting back. I didn't read the article that way at all. I though Rachel was offering suggestions on how the wife could get the husband to stop the spending, without putting the husband on the defensive. That seems like good advice to me; people are more likely to change their behavior when they are not directly confronted, which tends to make people defensive.

Lion of Zion said...

ROSIE:

"I just think it is about time that a frum website addressed the economy and the overspending that happens in the frum community."

i guess you're knew to this blog

Anonymous said...

And those of us who did not grow up in the torah world were un-blissfully un-aware of that big financial bombshell we know and love called "tuition". We knew it was out there, but we had no idea the scale.

No excuse anymore since many day schools clearly display the tuition levels on their websites.

Here's an example -
http://www.cesjds.org/FolderID/61/SessionID/%7BEA5684CF-503A-4C5A-A3EA-AA6308B92AFC%7D/PageVars/Library/InfoManage/Guide.htm

Mark

rosie said...

LOZ,
I thought that this was a blog rather than a regular website. Sites such as aish, chabad.org, thejewishpress.com, hamercaz, or the OU probably have a larger readership than blogs do. Orthonomics is a blog specifically about the way money is spent in the frum community and attracts readers who specifically want to blog about frum spending. Other Jewish sites attract people who want a mixture of Jewish topics.