Nobody knows what goes on inside a compulsive spender’s mind better than a psychologist. Here, Dr Emily Stein explains to Alvin Hall how she helps such clients to adjust their behaviour and address the true cause of their unhappiness.
Alvin Hall: How do money problems affect your patients?
Emily Stein: To begin with, I need to distinguish between financial worries and other kinds of problems that are disguised as money problems. Lots of people have the former, and there’s not much to do about that in therapy except help them try to be sensible and avoid panic. These people require practical advice. I try to help them figure out how to get back on their feet, refrain from killing themselves, become functional for their children and their partners. It’s very simple: if you have no money, you need money.
AH: And the others?
ES: These are people who have good incomes, but who think they have money problems, and they represent a different challenge for a therapist.
AH: This sounds like many of the people who write to me or who are featured on Your Money or Your Life. How do you work with them?
ES: With some people, the first task is getting them to talk about money at all. For instance, some couples simply won’t discuss money, even in private. It never comes up as a subject between the two of them. I think it’s a very interesting phenomenon.
AH: Why do you think that happens?
ES: It’s partly cultural. In certain societies, the idea of talking about things like money is just improper and unbecoming. So couples avoid talking about something that is important to discuss, but is considered uncivilised. In other cases, there are more profound reasons for the silence. To some people, money equals love. So if you bring up questions about money, maybe it means you are questioning the person’s love or ability to be loved. If I’m going to marry someone and I bring up money, my intended may wonder: ‘Does she really love me, or is she interested in me for my money?’ Or, if I marry someone with money and they want me to sign a pre-nuptial agreement, I may conclude, ‘Well, you don’t love me and you don’t trust me.’ So, frequently, people don’t discuss money at the beginning of a relationship because it will communicate a sense of distrust and disloyalty. The trouble really begins when problems begin to manifest themselves and couples don’t address them. These problems may not be directly financial, but they relate to money.
AH: What does that mean?
ES: For instance, suppose that for the first six months of a courtship, the man is paying for everything, and he grows irritated that the woman never chips in. But he says nothing because the relationship is blossoming; that one aspect aside, everyone is happy. Then, after six months, what was an irritation is a major stumbling block to the relationship and he loses it. Then there is a real problem. He would have been much better off saying early on: ‘I’m happy to be treating, but it would really make me feel good if at some point you could make me dinner or contribute something.’
AH: It is therefore the act of trying to contribute something that can be more important than the amount of money involved.
ES: Exactly. In healthy relationships where one has more money than the other, things are split but not exactly down the middle. In healthy couples, when one partner earns £100,000 and the other earns £10,000, they split proportionately. In unhealthy couples, one partner may insist on splitting everything 50/50 even although their incomes are significantly different. I think that’s terrible and wouldn’t tolerate it myself. But, for some couples, it seems to work.
AH: I often meet people who seem to choose to make money a focus of their anxieties. Why do they do it?
ES: Any number of reasons. In general, it is acceptable to voice anxiety about money. More so than, say, talk about being afraid of spaghetti, for example – people may think you’re a little crazy then! But money is a conventional focus of anxiety and fear. However, anxiety about money can mask other problems. Take a woman, for instance, who likes to spend a lot of money on shoes. If her partner says: ‘Not another pair of shoes!’ and starts an argument, the anxiety could be focused around the money because it’s not such a wild thing to fight about. But it may not have anything to do with what is really at stake. She may be spending for lots of other reasons.
AH: So, as I show on my television programme, problems that appear as money problems may really be based on completely different concerns.
ES: Yes. If a husband and wife are arguing a lot about money, it may be that they’re not feeling understood by one another; they’re not having enough intimacy; one person is feeling left out or feeling lonely. These feelings are often harder to discuss because they are very personal and voicing them may make us feel vulnerable. So sometimes talking about money is easier.
AH: Yet I have read that couples get divorced over money more often than sex. Do you think that is really true?
ES: Frankly, I don’t think couples get divorced over either. I think couples get divorced because they aren’t feeling connected. They’ve fallen out of love with each other or in love with someone else; they can’t feel close to one another or communicate about things that are important; they mix up their spouse with their mother or father. I think it’s very rare that one person’s spending habits lead to a divorce.
AH: So the real problem is that money is just a euphemism for root difficulties, and that’s why talk about money often becomes so emotional.
ES: I think so. If money were just about logic, everyone would have solved their money problems by watching to your television show by now!
AH: People frequently say to me that their problems or attitudes about money are related to their parents or what their parents did with money. Do you find that?
ES: Oh, sure. When people’s families always argued about money, they remember being little kids in their bedroom, covering their ears because their parents were screaming, ranting, and raving about money. In reaction, they may decide they’re never going to get in that position. They save and save and save so they don’t have to worry. On the other hand, if you have parents who were very cautious with money, and you remember the times where that was embarrassing or depressing or infuriating, you may do the opposite: ‘I’m never going to struggle with money. I’m never going to buy a lousy bottle of wine if I can afford a good one. And I’m never going to scrimp and save.’ Of course, that attitude can get you in trouble if you can’t really afford to live like that.
AH: The sense of entitlement that I see repeatedly in people on Your Money or Your Life never fails to surprise me. Where does it come from?
ES: In certain situations, it comes from a domestic role model. One parent thinks, ‘We should have everything,’ and acts that way. This behaviour can set a very bad precedent for the kids. However, I think that sometimes the sense of entitlement can come from peers, if you travel in certain circles. There are families who really struggle to help their own kids keep up with their fancier peers. If you think: ‘Uh-oh, we live in this neighbourhood, we have to send our kids to the best schools and buy them the best clothes,’ you can get into trouble. I think another reason is the power of the media. We see things on commercials or in films that we never thought were available. We want them and believe they are accessible, even if we really can’t afford them.
AH: How do you help people come to grips with these bad ideas about money?
ES: One thing I do is ask people to describe their first memories about money, – their first job, their first savings account. I ask them to try to remember money topics were discussed in their family. Then I might have them characterise the relationship their family had with money. Was it tense? Was it scary? I know in my house, any time bills came it always was a moment of panic. We worried that there were going to be bills that couldn’t be paid. And my mother would hide them, worried that my father was going to yell at her. It was an awful cycle.
AH: Do you agree that people with unrealistic views or expectations about money are sometimes very self-destructive?
ES: That’s right. They seem to want to hit a wall at some point, as if to punish themselves. So behaving as if you’re entitled can actually be a defence against feeling you’re not entitled. The pain of pretending you don’t have to worry, even if that gets you into trouble every now and then, may be less overwhelming or painful than the reality of knowing your have money limitations. Pretending can be easier for lots of people than budgeting when money realities can seem overwhelming.
AH: Exactly. I think that’s one of the reasons many people write to me. They want a ‘reality check’ from me that they can’t give themselves. However, I find that when I talk about budgeting with people on the show, they often react the same way people do when they hear the word ‘diet.’ They think: ‘Oh no! I’ll never be able to eat a pudding again. I’ll never be able to enjoy my favourite food. I’m going to starve to death here.’ I can see this interpretation – and the accompanying dread in their eyes.
ES: It’s interesting, because when people have maybe 70 pounds to lose, they don’t bother to start dieting because they’re afraid they’ll never accomplish it. They think: why start it if you can’t do it? And I believe many people have that feeling about money. They believe they’re inept about it. They believe they can’t ever earn enough to do what’s required. So they just figure: ‘Why start budgeting? It’s silly. It’s too overwhelming.’ I think that’s a result of fear.
AH: It’s such a strong, deep-seated fear. Fear of being unworthy, perhaps?
ES: Fear of not being able to do what’s required – a lack of self-worth and confidence. If you don’t think you could possibly earn what’s required to support your family or have your children dressed like others in the neighbourhood, sitting down and looking at the reality is sometimes just too painful. So people would rather deceive themselves. You call that an avoidance/avoidance complex, the lesser of two evils: OI’d rather overspend than deal with my humiliation of not being able to earn enough money.’
AH: Very complex! What’s the solution?
ES: First, of course, you’ve got to help people get matters under control. I encourage people to take drastic measures such as cutting up their credit cards or living on an allowance. Once people have some kind of grip or control, they can begin to explore why they are spending too much money. Are there mis-spending patterns? Do they spend too much money around birthdays? Around holidays? On Fridays? Is there any kind of cyclical pattern which can be explained by understanding some early life experiences which left them feeling particularly deprived or angry?
AH: I know exactly what you mean. I discovered I had a horrible tendency to spend too much money on clothes every August. Otherwise, I didn’t particularly spend much on clothes. It took several years to figure out that it was because August marked the beginning of school. When I was young, I was always a little embarrassed that I didn’t have the clothes that I wanted when I went to school.
ES: I’m glad you figured out that connection. Some people don’t and can really self-destruct. People try to sooth themselves with spending. Ultimately it doesn’t work and you have a house full of stuff, are in debt, and still feel empty. Spending can become an addiction like drinking, using drugs, or gambling. The addiction then takes on a life of its own, which is another problem entirely.
AH: That’s frightening!
ES: It can be. With other people, money problems are more related to a passing emotion. When they’re angry, they overspend. When they’re lonely, they overspend. When they feel embarrassed, when they made a mistake, they overspend. When they feel inadequate, they overspend. And then for other people it’s tied to a time of the year, as in your case. For some people, it could be their birthday, Valentine’s Day, when their mother died, or when they got divorced, or when their kids left for school. It could be cyclical in that manner.
AH: Why is it that some people find credit cards so enticing? I see people who have eight, 10, 20 of them.
ES: There are lots of reasons. I think it’s partly because the marketing techniques for promoting credit cards are very, very powerful. When you’re just starting out, and you feel like a nobody, and 25 letters come to you which say: OCongratulations! We have picked you as the one person in your neighbourhood to receive our card.’ You feel special, you feel great, it satisfies your ego, and you sign up. Using credit cards can also tie in to our need for gratification. We feel like we work very hard and deserve a reward.
AH: There’s the word ‘deserve’ again.
ES: Thanks to those credit cards, you can treat yourself very well. No fast food in an old outfit; instead, a nice-looking outfit and steak. The plastic makes the impossible possible, and at the time you don’t think of the consequences. It’s the kind of impulsive behaviour that we all have in some way or another.
AH: Been there, done that.
ES: Haven’t we all? It’s our desire for immediate pleasure. You’re right there; it’s so close. It’s accessible. We all can succumb. Learning how to be less impulsive and more responsible happens as you grow up. Hopefully, when the first outrageous credit card bill comes and you recognise the reality of the situation, you don’t continue to overspend.
AH: What about social pressures?
ES: In some circles, frankly, you have to spend to be a part of the group or a viable ‘member’ of some unit. In some organisations (law firms and banks, for example), employees are encouraged to play golf. To be considered promotable, you need to play golf. To play golf, you need equipment, join a golf club, have the outfit. The result can be incredible debt. But young lawyers and bankers feel that unless they’re a part of that scene, they won’t be networking, they won’t get the clients, they won’t be trusted. They won’t fit in. So in some ways, it’s an investment and must be done. But sometimes this kind of spending can turn into irresponsible overspending. People may blame peer pressure, but really they are responsible.
AH: That’s the thing I see happening more and more in the UK. People get in debt, but they blame the credit card company. You don’t have to sign up for a credit card simply because the offer arrives in your letterbox.
ES: I think many people find it easier to see themselves as victims and blame someone else without facing the truth and accepting responsibility. Looking at your mistakes or flaws can be embarrassing and when people are embarrassed or humiliated, they feel like failures, which is difficult for them to deal with. Issues with money are so charged with emotion. Money means you’re powerful or powerless. It means maybe you’re cool or uncool, very successful or unsuccessful. So talking about it and facing money issues can be very, very tough. In my practice, I see men who are about to turn 40, and who feel that if they don’t have a certain amount of money, they’re a total failure. So they’re focusing on the money and asking: ‘Why didn’t I earn more? How can I earn more?’ But that’s not the real issue. The issue is: why do you feel like a failure when, in fact, you have a wife who loves you, you’re supporting your lifestyle, and you’re not in debt? Interestingly, women don’t necessarily equate money with success to the same degree.
AH: What about money and families?
ES: Let’s start with siblings. When siblings argue about money, it’s usually about competition: who feels more loved, who feels less loved. Siblings often battle about their parents’ estate even when they are all prosperous and don’t really need the money. Their inheritance has nothing to do with solvency or the capacity to live decently. It’s really about who was loved most. Very strange for grown-ups, but it still happens. With siblings, arguing about money is sometimes arguing about power, just as it is with couples. When one partner earns more than the other, and the non-earner keeps spending, the resentment can grow. The money earner may think their power is being taken from them – ‘When you spend money without asking me, it’s as if I don’t matter, so I don’t have any power. I’m feeling unappreciated, taken for granted, or castrated.’ And that’s not a good feeling for most men.
AH: Definitely not!
ES: Back to siblings. Frequently the death of a parent will give an individual the opportunity to live very differently from they way the might have lived. And if the inheritance is not going to be divided as anticipated, someone may feel betrayed. Sometimes, women who are in unhappy marriages are waiting for a parent to die so that they can leave their husband. Then, if they find that the expected money is not going to be coming their way, their rage will be vigorous. Money can be seen by some as their route to liberty so when this is denied, they are more hostile.
AH: What about money and children? I wonder about why parents don’t want to teach their children good money habits. It’s almost as if they’re trying to keep their children innocent.
ES: That may be possible. I think if you’re not comfortable talking about something, you’re not likely to be good at explaining it to someone else. Talking about sex, sexuality, puberty, menstruation, they’re all tough topics. Money may be on that list, too. That may explain parents’ inability to teach children good money habits.
AH: And if you don’t know how to deal with money?
ES: If you’ve made a mess of your own finances, trying to teach your children may be embarrassing. Teaching about money is not like teaching how to change a tyre. Changing a tyre is not emotional – personal success or failure doesn’t come into it. Yet money, as we’ve discussed, is terribly emotional. Teaching your children to be better at something than you are can be complicated conceptually, but even more so emotionally. And if money is an issue between the parents, one may get grief from the other for passing on certain behaviour patterns. In many marriages, one parent is generous and easy-going with money. This partner teaches the children how you tip, to give to the homeless, or donate to church. The other parent, however, may criticise and argue about these lessons. When parents’ views on money differ, they often don’t teach their children about money.
AH: Many people feel that money skills should be taught in school rather than the home. What is your point of view?
ES: I think children can be taught some basic money principles in the classroom, such as how to budget, and why it’s better to have more money in the bank than you spend. But money is very personal as are the attitudes towards it – these are emotional and spiritual issues. They are deeply personal and can’t be taught by schools. That’s why we have to get our heads straight about money – not just for our own sakes, but also for the sake of our children.
AH: You have just stated one of the key motivations underlying my work. I could not agree more. Thank you, Emily.