“Let’s go to the zoo today,” Sally told her husband Dan. “The weather should be fine, and the kids will have a great time seeing the many different animals.” Sally and Dan get the kids loaded into the car and head off for the zoo. An hour later they are at the entrance to the zoo with their three excited kids in tow. They start off with high hopes and aspirations, but the trip quickly becomes an emotional nightmare. At the front gate Sally asks Dan if they can spring for the all access pass, which includes not only entry, but also the many different activities that are located inside. With a slight look of disgust, Dan looks back at Sally and says, “Oh fine.”
Sally and Dan enter the zoo with their kids ready to have a good time, enjoying looking at the monkeys, giraffes, and lions along the way. After a few fun hours the kids are getting hungry, and Sally and Dan are ready to sit down. The kids all clamor to get the souvenir cups with the funny animal heads, while Dan insists on just getting the kids the regular cups for drinks. As they all sit down for food the three kids look across to see the gift shop and start in with, “Dad we want—”…You know the rest of the details. After some persistence and after finishing lunch, Sally joins in with the kids and says, “Oh come on Dan, let’s let the kids get a special treat.” To which Dan quips back “This whole day has been a special treat!”
By this time you are starting to get a picture of Dan and Sally’s life. While this is a story about their trip to the zoo, the reality is that their pattern of interaction persists over many of life’s situations. Sally wants to give the kids as many rich experiences as possible, while Dan seems like he does not want to indulge the kids in any of their desires. Reading this story likely evokes certain emotions in you.
What do you think of Sally? Why?
What do you think of Dan? Why?
What do you think of their kids? Why?
As you reflect on your answers to these questions, you will start to become aware of your own rules about the way that money is to be used in your life. Day in and day out you live with our spouse and you both have many unwritten rules about the way that you should spend, manage, and organize around money. This is called your family financial system, which is less about the actual amount of money, and more about who says and does what with the money. At a deeper level this is a reflection of the way that the family dynamics play out, and the way that the power is dispersed throughout the family.
Sadly there is often disagreement between spouses/parents about their financial values. The ways in which couples go about addressing these differences can vary, but the reality is that there is a big opportunity for couples to start to build financial intimacy in their life. Financial intimacy is being known at a deeper level about why we hold the values that we do. I surely work with many couples who can pretty easily predict their spouses spending patterns, which they take issue with. But at a deeper level it’s not the spending patterns that they’re upset with, but rather the values that those spending patterns communicate between spouses, kids, and their community.
Dan grew up in a family where he often heard from his dad, “Modesty is a necessity.” Which Dan internalized to mean that splurging beyond the basic experience is unacceptable. So with the trip to the zoo Dan felt as if he was betraying one of his family rules about splurging by getting the all access pass, fancy top lids, and then a gift from a gift shop—it was all too much.
On the other hand, Sally grew up the younger of two girls. Even though her father earned a very modest living, he lavished his girls with gifts—even when he didn’t have the money to pay for the presents.
So now as Dan and Sally go through their married life, they continue to replay out the messages about money and how it is to be used in within their families. The reality of Dan and Sally’s finances is that they are in a financial position where they can afford to spend the “extra” money at the zoo—it won’t have a big impact on the rest of their family finances. When they slow down long enough to recognize the pattern they’re in and give credence to their own respective experience of living with their fathers and the way that they spent money, they will have a much better sense for the source of their frustration. This can lead them to find new ways of relating to each other that make sense for their family. But without taking the time to understand the connection between the past and present, they are doomed in the future to keep repeating the same problems over and over again.
This post was written by Ed Coambs, MBA, Finance – McColl School of Business, Queens University.