By Micah ToubUpdated Mar 27, 2023
One day last September, I spent my lunch hour looking at bills—and spiralling into a catastrophic mood when I realized we wouldn’t have enough left over to pay down the line of credit we’d taken out to cover daycare. After work, I came home to our junior kindergartner screaming insults at my wife, who hadn’t slept well the night before. Dinner was a disaster—how dare I put sauce on his pasta!—and once we put the world’s smallest food critic down to sleep, we collapsed onto the couch, and I let loose my worries.
“We’ll never be out of debt,” I said. “We have to change the way we do things.”
My wife was silently staring at her phone, so I peeked over to discover she was shopping for a new living room armchair. I snapped, accusing her of not caring about our finances, which led to her striking back that I let my overblown worries get me so down that I never do anything about the situation anyway. We both became defensive, ramping up the volume until it wasn’t possible to continue.
Later, as we got into bed, we agreed, as we often do after these fights, that we shouldn’t be so hard on each other. As new parents, our financial reality was nerve-racking, to say the least. For the first four years of our son’s life, our expenses skyrocketed—bigger apartment, first car, diapers and daycare—while our income was dramatically reduced by an extended parental leave, my wife finishing graduate school and my lack of energy to take on the side gigs I used to do in addition to my day job.
At a time when we were overwhelmed with the needs of an infant who quickly became a toddler, we were also going down into a demoralizing debt hole. We agreed we needed to figure out how to pay it back while still functioning, but first we had to understand why the subject of money so often pitted us against each other.
According to Christine Molohon, who provides couples therapy at the Calgary Counselling Centre, it isn’t just us—when people become parents, she says, they often enter into one of the most stressful stages of life and can see an attendant increase in conflict. “Having a child can be an extremely positive thing, but you are also more sleep deprived, have new financial responsibilities and don’t have the same amount of time to take care of yourself,” she says. As a result, she explains, our bodies release stress hormones that make our brains less capable than ever of calmly thinking things through and working co-operatively.
As was the case in my relationship, becoming parents is often a couple’s first experience of shared debt, and they can bump heads over a difference in how they interpret that new fiscal reality. “For some spouses, debt is the devil,” says Rona Birenbaum, a Toronto-based financial planner at Caring for Clients. “To them, so long as they owe anything, particularly non-mortgage debt, the family is close to crisis.” If that person is co-parenting with someone who is more comfortable with being in the red and would rather not delay all gratification, it’s a recipe for fierce debates.
This was true for us: As the debt-petrified person in my marriage, I’ve found myself triggered by random spending decisions my wife makes, even sensible ones. A new swimsuit and pair of sandals for the kid can make me feel as if we are headed toward certain doom. I usually hold my tongue, because when I try to crystallize the fear into something that will actually happen to us, I can’t come up with much. The best I can do is: We won’t pay off our debt as quickly and may not be able to travel as often in retirement. I have luck and privilege to thank for this non-apocalyptic situation, but it doesn’t change something else I inherited—my anxious disposition toward money, one that morphed into a monthly feeling of crisis once we were faced with the costs of raising a kid.
When I asked Molohon if I could blame my parents for my imaginary insolvency, she immediately agreed they were partly at fault. “We learn a lot about money in our family of origin—whether we had a lot or a little—and we develop core beliefs around how we view money,” she says. Some people carry forth their parents’ frugal or spendthrift practices, she explains, while others soundly reject them and do the opposite.
When I was growing up, my parents were extremely tight with money, despite the fact that we weren’t poor. Most of our things—including my clothes and toys—were purchased second-hand at yard sales. They never sent me to camp, nor did we ever take a family trip to somewhere far-flung and fun. Throughout my youth, my father worried needlessly about money, and it felt to me like our life could implode at any moment. That never happened, but now, I can’t help but still feel that way.
Meanwhile, my wife’s father always sought quality, from designer shoes and furniture to a summer camp that was a bit outside their means. My wife doesn’t understand why we would buy something that isn’t going to last, and I sometimes envy the way she can spend without worry. She’s by no means extravagant—and she worked all through her PhD, which she’s paying for on her own—but she lives more for today than I do and admits it can sometimes mean she has less money down the road.
But while Molohon says we tend to see money through our own lens, we can step outside that narrow perspective by identifying and questioning our perceptions: “We can ask, Where does my belief come from? And what do I really want to believe?”
As Molohon promises, I’ve found that unpacking my personal history has helped me keep a cooler head when faced with the expenses of family life. Recently, my heart quickened at the sight of a mysterious package from a clothing store arriving in the mail—but instead of falling deep into distress, I thought of my parents. I don’t want to carry on their legacy of fear. And while I can’t always prevent the automatic anxious reactions, I can remind myself that they’re outsized compared to what’s really going on.
That package turned out to be a coat for my son that my wife ordered just in time for winter, and I avoided a needless argument. It’s helped that my wife has conceded that her desire to make a nice home for our family can sometimes slip into materialism. Whenever she notices that happening, she reminds herself that spending quality time together is more important than having things.
Of course, it would be ideal to begin discussing money before it becomes a problem, and Birenbaum wishes couples would engage in creating budgets ahead of their child’s birth. However, she understands why they don’t. “There are 50,000 more fun things to do than that,” she says. “In fact, there are people who would rather clean their toilet.”
But underneath the avoidance of the administrative toil, she says, is also a resistance to accept that starting a family means spending decisions now have implications for others. “Looking at the details of your finances may mean you have to change your behaviour, and it’s much easier to just put your head in the sand and carry on as you always have.”
Despite my ability to imagine the worst, I’ll admit I spent the first four years of my son’s life putting off taking a closer look at our accounts and spending. A few times, I made itemized budgets on a spreadsheet, but I never followed through with tracking how realistic they were or whether we were actually staying within them. At the end of a long day as a working parent, I would rather share a relaxing evening with my wife, watching TV or reading a book.
However, never stepping back to clearly see our situation—or making a more realistic plan of action—meant that fights would erupt whenever a large expense we should have saved for squeezed us. Before getting pregnant, we had never even broached the subject of how we’d pay for daycare, which, in hindsight, seems like a shocking omission.
After you’ve discussed the current state of your finances, Birenbaum suggests that ongoing fights (even divorce) can be averted by having an important discussion about goals—which should entail everything from the kind of daily lifestyle you’d like to live right now all the way to what you want for your kids and yourselves when you’re in your golden years. “If you can get to a point where you agree on your core goals and values, it makes financial decisions easier,” she says. “And it makes crystal clear whether your current spending aligns with those goals.”
Some shorter-term objectives, she explains, include taking annual vacations, dining out, buying new clothes each season and sending the kids to summer camp. Long-term goals would be buying a new car, funding your kids’ education, supporting aging parents and living comfortably in retirement. These discussions go deep into our hopes and dreams, and while they’re ostensibly about money, they are actually a powerful test of a couple’s compatibility. “One person might say, ‘It’s important for me to stay home until my child is in grade one,’ and their spouse may say, ‘We can’t afford that,’ thinking about how their line of credit will run up for six years.”
Most of the time, Birenbaum says, people base opinions like these on intuition and emotion instead of facts. The argument can therefore often be resolved before it’s even started by looking at financial projections. “The numbers may speak for themselves,” she says, explaining that either the expense really is unrealistic, or it is doable and the reluctant person can see there’s no need for concern.
If one partner continues to dig in their heels, Birenbaum says it usually helps to remind them that decisions they make now are not unalterable—and that the couple should, in fact, revisit them every year or two. Priorities might shift, but the family also may need to react to job changes or other unexpected life events. “When I tell them they can adjust as they go along, they always take a deep breath and their shoulders relax,” she says. And in the end, Birenbaum says couples tend to recognize which person feels the most strongly on a particular expense and will agree to give it a try.
Even if couples have aligned their goals, disagreements about money are bound to come up. But I’ve learned from Molohon that there are some ways to make them fruitful discussions rather than fights. The most important one sounds deceivingly simple: Learn to listen better. “When couples are in conflict over anything—whether about money or sex or kids or laundry—they have to manage their emotional reactions long enough to be able to hear their partner and try to understand where they’re coming from.”
Molohon says when a person feels their point of view isn’t being heard—even if they would later agree they were wrong—they often fight to the end for it, because what they really want is to just be considered. On the other hand, if they feel like their position is seen as valuable, they’re more willing to negotiate. It’s difficult, though, because it means parking what can be intense emotions. “When your wife is saying, ‘I really want to buy this couch,’ instead of hearing her, you’re already formulating your arguments as to why that’s not a good idea,” Molohon explains. (It was a chair, but yes, you got me.)
Unfortunately, Molohon says, people often strike the wrong tone from the start, focusing on the other person’s faults rather than taking responsibility for their own feelings. “If I say to my partner, ‘You’re so irresponsible with your spending,’ this is blaming language and likely to lead to defensiveness from my partner,” she says. “But if I say, ‘I’m concerned and worried. Money issues scare me, and I need us to be able to talk about them,’ most partners will agree to enter into that conversation.”
With both partners feeling heard—and consequently, more relaxed—Molohon says solutions are much easier to develop. “When we’re not feeling like we need to be defensive, we have more access to the cognitive part of our brain and are more able to be collaborative and come up with creative ideas.”
It’s advice I wish I’d heard sooner, but I’m happy to say my wife and I did learn to listen better in a roundabout way. After one of our fights where I’d made some blanket statement about how we should never buy anything ever again—causing my wife to feel blamed because she did most of the shopping—I looked around at our apartment and really saw for the first time all the love and effort she had put into making it a comfortable, suitable home in which to raise our child. I went to find her in the bath, where she was soothing herself, and told her I was grateful. I said I knew I benefited from her confident approach to our finances, even if I couldn’t rid myself of worry. In turn, she said she was happy I was looking after our future security, and she would keep trying to find ways to shave our expenses.
All along, it seems, we had been hearing each other—but acknowledging that fact, even if retroactively, made us let down our guards and work better together. Since then, we’ve made steps to piece together a plan for our future. My wife started an RESP for our son, and I made another budget—one we’re now checking against at the end of every month. We still haven’t discussed retirement in detail, but we are aligned on another important long-term goal: having another baby. Sure, it’ll put us into debt again just as we’re climbing out, but this time we’ll go down that path with far fewer fights.
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