A Conversation About Power, Sex, and Money

by Meghan Nesmith

This past winter, the guy I had been dating for a few months asked me to be his plus-one to a black tie wedding. We didn’t make it to the wedding, since he later broke up with me for having “too many feelings,” but in that moment, before all that, what I told him was that I had nothing to wear.

“So, I’ll buy you a dress,” he said.

I had been sort of mystified since we met about his financial situation. He was a film editor, but didn’t work much, as far as I could tell. He owned an apartment in Murray Hill that was notable mostly for the great bagel place across the street, but it had a doorman and it was his. It seemed clear that his parents helped him out, and even nearing 30, he still felt he could use those funds to buy me dinner, which he did with seeming impunity. The point of all this is that I didn’t ask questions, because despite how it factors into every moment of our lives, money is often the last thing we talk about in a new relationship.

“I don’t want you to buy me a dress,” I replied. And I didn’t, suddenly faced with all sorts of gender panic flags.

“Why not? You can’t afford it. Look,” he said, cutting me off, “we just won’t go out for dinner this week, and I’ll use the money I would have spent on that to buy you a dress.”

We were walking down Park Avenue. It was early spring, sunny but cold. I stopped short.

“Wait,” I said. “That’s not how it works. There isn’t some quota of money you’re supposed to spend on me each week.”

But there was, to him: I was a column on his expense sheet, and he could distribute those funds as he saw fit. This isn’t to say he wasn’t generous, or that I ever did anything more than meekly reach for my wallet at the end of another spectacular dinner, but I held firm about the dress, and the relationship dissolved soon after.

What is it that happens with money in relationships? I’ve seen it with my parents, with friends: with the exception of infidelity, no one thing has wrenched apart more couples than money, and the value judgments, petty arguments, and power struggles that come with it. In my most serious relationship, my boyfriend and I were just young enough that we could avoid talking about our finances if we wanted to, which we mostly did, for all of our eight years together. When we did argue about money, it was because I thought he spent too much on beer. Also sometimes cheese, but I really like cheese, so I griped less about that.

I’ve seen couples who split all income and expenses down the line, and others who are blindly proprietary. Some rely on government-worthy spreadsheets, while others maintain a strict code of silence. I’m fascinated by the myriad of ways in which partners approach these loaded, complicated issues. And since I’m currently exponentially single, I wondered if I might be able to work on my own financial hang-ups before I inadvertently screw up my next relationship by giving each complex a seat at the table.

Enter Zach Teutsch. Zach is a labor educator and financial coach in Washington, D.C. As Sandy was rolling up the East Coast, he and I chatted about happiness, power, and how your finances reflect how good you are in bed.

Meghan: Hi Zach!

Zach: Hi Meghan!

Meghan: Beautiful day out there!

Zach: Happy Hurricane Sandy to you.

Meghan: So, money! Could you tell me briefly how you got into what you’re doing?

Zach: Sure. While I was in college, I was very interested in how money related to happiness and fulfillment, and I lucked out to find a brilliant professor who worked on that intersection, Dr. Brooke Harrington.

After college, I went to work for a big union (SEIU) in their Capital Stewardship Program. It focused on pension policy and helping to protect members’ collective retirement assets. After that, I joined AFSCME to run their Investor Education for Working Families project, which helped that union’s members learn key financial and investing concepts. Eventually, the project moved to the NLC/AFL-CIO where it exists today. I got to help teach thousands of union members over the years.

Outside of work, I enjoy occasionally taking on financial coaching clients. A lot of my clients are couples in their 20s and 30s who are working on integrating their financial lives.

Meghan: Wow. There are a lot of acronyms up there. What was it was about the money/happiness balance that interested you?

Zach: I always wondered what it was that makes people happy. It was clear that money must play some role, but it was also clear to me that just having money wasn’t enough. And in some cases, it actually made it less likely that people would be happy.

Meghan: I was reading recently that the difference in the level of self-described happiness between someone who makes $30,000/year and someone who makes $70,000/year is substantial, but after $70,000 there are no perceived differences.

Zach: There is a lot of debate in the literature about how strong the correlation is between money and happiness, but everyone basically agrees that having enough money to subsist is important to being happy, but having enough to live a luxurious life isn’t.

Meghan: I find that fascinating.

Zach: Me too. Once a person is financially secure, then the strongest drivers of happiness are things like community, friendships, family connection, fulfillment (often through work), and a sense of giving back. Most of those things are free. I felt a little bit like a Hallmark ad when I said that.

Meghan: So do you see that emotional correlation a lot in your work? Like, do you become a de facto therapist from time to time?

Zach: Yeah, money issues are usually tied to broader relationship issues. You can’t competently work on money challenges without touching non-money concerns. Here’s an example: Lots of couples have problems talking about money. To untangle those issues requires understanding whether the couple communicates well about other things and where they don’t, why they don’t. Many couples, for instance, have a fight and then try to work on the underlying issues while they are still steamed. That doesn’t work for Becca [Zach’s wife] and me, and it doesn’t work for most other couples either. Whether the topic is money, sex, or in-laws, it’s best to talk about it when everyone is calm and removed from the thing that initially triggered it.

Meghan: You are a therapist! I knew it. So, was money something you and Becca talked about early on in your relationship? When is the time to have that discussion?

Zach: Well, Becca and I famously met on Craigslist. But in the housing section. She moved into the co-op house I lived in, so we actually had a financial relationship before we had a romantic one. Most people don’t have that experience. But for us, it was great to know we had shared financial values before we were together. For most couples, I think they mostly find out how the other views finance by watching rather than by discussing, which is too bad: It’s much more effective to talk about it! Most people don’t know where to begin though.

When I facilitate conversations about this, often when couples are thinking about long-term commitment, I start by asking for stories from their past. Emotion is very powerful in this area and much of that comes from our childhoods. In a sense, financial approach is largely autobiographical.

Meghan: Meaning how your parents dealt with money?

Zach: Exactly!

Meghan: I am acing this course.

Zach: Amen sister.

I ask people what they worry about when they worry about money. The range is surprising sometimes. Some people worry about running out. Others worry about having too much left when they die. Some worry about people trying to be their friends to mooch off them (we should all have so much money as to worry about that!).

Often worries are so specific that it is immediately obvious where they are from. Like, I am worried that things will seem good and I will switch jobs, then the economy will get bad while I am chasing my dreams, my startup will fail and I’ll wish I hadn’t changed jobs. Money is hard to talk about for lots of people. Especially people who come from families where it is taboo. Lots of families just. don’t. talk. about. it. So, for some, it feels transgressive, almost dirty, to have an open, frank discussion.

Meghan: Have you ever worked with a couple whose views were just wildly far apart? Do you ever think, Oh, well this isn’t going to work out.

Zach: It is very stressful when a saver and spender throw their lot in together, since there is a kind of judgment involved. It isn’t just that they have different approaches to money, but slightly different values.

Meghan: Right, it feels so personal.

Zach: Exactly.

Meghan: How do you get around that?

Zach: Savers often feel that spenders are judging them as un-fun. Spenders often feel that savers are judging them as irresponsible. Often, though, they aren’t! Just one of the reasons it’s good to talk. Sometimes couples learn that their fears about what the other thought just aren’t true. When that happens, there is usually a palpable feeling of release. They had been avoiding talking for months or years because of what they feared the other thought and then, it turns out, the fear was unwarranted. Chats about money are almost never as bad as anyone thinks.

Meghan: So, let’s say a spender and a saver get together — do you ever recommend that a couple not merge their finances?

Zach: I haven’t ever recommended that, but I have occasionally suggested waiting, baby steps, or a trial period. Some couples do better to keep finances separate for sure. It depends on how one views what it means to be a couple.

Meghan: What do you mean by that?

Zach: For instance, some couples view themselves as a team. That when one of them succeeds, they both win, and vice versa. Becca and I usually think of ourselves this way, so it is natural for us to have completely merged finances. Other couples think of themselves more as individuals who go through life together but are more independent. For them, keeping partially or wholly separated finances can work. Personally, I hated tallying up bills when I lived in a co-op house. I found the spreadsheet super annoying. As soon as Becca and I moved into our own place, well before we decided to get married, we opened a joint checking account. We each kept our original accounts as well. When either of us would go to the grocery store or otherwise spend money on house stuff, we’d use the debit card from our joint account.

Meghan: See, that seems so rational. To get uncomfortably personal for a second, I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that. Sharing finances. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of using someone else’s money as my own. What’s wrong with me? Am I just insanely selfish?

Zach: I’m sure that’s not why! Tell me more about what you are worried about.

Meghan: This has taken an alarming turn, sorry –

Zach: If it isn’t too personal for you, it surely isn’t for me.

Meghan: I think a lot of it has to do with power? Maybe? I hate the idea that I could feel beholden to someone, or that I could be seen as entitled. I just have this knee-jerk reaction of, “But it’s not mine. I didn’t earn it. I don’t deserve it.” Does that make sense?

Zach: Totally! A lot of our lives are spent learning to keep score. For some people, it is an amazing release to eventually stop keeping score. But it takes time, and works best if it happens gradually. Or, not at all! It’s fine not have shared finances. In fact, if a couple tried it before they have done enough trust building, it will usually cause more trouble than it will create connection.

Meghan: So for people who are alone and bereft like me, is there work you can do to prepare for being in a couple and being more open about money and spending? Even if you never decide to share finances across the board?

Zach: Absolutely. We might have to cut this next analogy…There are some parallels to sex here.

Meghan: Oh, no, this is perfect.

Zach: Being a good sex partner requires having some sense of what your own needs are and experience with meeting them. It’s really the same with money. The more a person gets to know themselves financially, the better shape they are in for talking about and working with someone else on it. Paying attention to what felt good and what felt shitty helps each of us know what works for us and what doesn’t. Knowing how we react emotionally to different situations is very important. The more you know yourself and your needs, the better a financial relationship will work. We get to know ourselves by paying attention and identifying patterns. The more self-aware we are, the better we can know and communicate our needs.

Now I think I am sort of rambling.

Meghan: No, I suddenly totally understand money.

Zach: Do you ever listen to Dan Savage?

Meghan: Religiously.

Zach: I think part of his shtick applies here. He encourages us all to be GGG: good, giving, and game. I sorta think it’s the same with being a good financial partner as it is with being a good sex partner. Think ‘good in bed,’ ‘giving equal time and equal pleasure,’ and ‘game for anything — within reason. Or, in financial terms: Good at communicating, giving the benefit of the doubt to your partner’s decisions, and game for anything — within reason.

I should probably tighten up the definition.

Meghan: That’s great. I think Dan would be proud.

So, for the poor souls who don’t get to meet with you in person, do you have a Top 3 list — 3 practical, concrete things that couples can do to better their financial relationship?

Zach: 1) The Your Partner is a Reasonable Person principle: When a partner’s position seems odd, it is usually because the couple hasn’t talked enough about specific personal experiences they have had. When it seems like our +1 is over-reacting, it is usually because we don’t know the full range of what they are reacting to. Sometimes something seemingly small really pisses one of us off. If the other is surprised, try to ask: “You seem really upset, did this remind you of something?”

Usually it did, like, “The way you just talked to Y reminds me of when my dad used to talk to X. That relationship was really mean and it makes me sad to think about it.”

The same is true for money: small things can make a big difference! Find out why they trigger such intense emotions and you’ll be most of the way to the answer.

2) Sweat the Big Stuff: Cutting out lattes is great. The strongest way to become more financially secure, though, is to focus on recurring expenses, especially big ones. When we got rid of our cable, we started saving $60 a month (we had cheap cable). That’s more lattes than either of us drunk in a month.

3) Start: The first, hardest, and most important step to having a good financial life is starting! There is a great old joke on just this theme: “Question: How many therapists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One, but the light bulb has to want to change.” It’s exactly the same with money. Both people have to want to change their financial life or it isn’t going to work. It is critical to have open communication and shared values. It is good to start small.

Bonus tip: Have a Vision: Starting is the hardest part, but sticking to the plan can also be hard. It is hard to save up for the sake of saving up. It is much easier to avoid buying a new pair of pants or whatever if the thing in the future is tangible, like a trip to Vietnam, moving to a place that doesn’t have roaches, or something else super awesome!

Meghan: Like super awesome pants! Those are incredible. Thank you so so so much for talking to me, even in a hurricane!

Zach: My pleasure. I had a ton of fun.

Meghan: Me too! Say hi to Becca. Stay dry.

Zach: You too!

(Postscript: We did. We were very lucky.)

Meghan Nesmith hangs out in Brooklyn and on Twitter.

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