Money. It's a loaded topic. So loaded that it happens to be one of the three most common things couples fight about. Sex and children are the other two. Just in case you were wondering.
Last week, a reader asked for help with compulsive spending behavior. Since this issue is actually quite common, I am posting both the letter and the response here on the blog.
If you've got thoughts on this subject, feel free to share them in the comments section below.
Dear Dr. Jill,
I have a little spending problem. Actually, if I’m really being honest, the problem is more than little. I seem to have a penchant for maxing out credit cards. I maxed out three credit cards in ten years. Whenever I saw something I wanted, I was pretty good at convincing myself I *had* to have it, even though, deep down, I knew I really couldn’t afford it. After making a purchase, I would feel good for a while. But then the bills I couldn't pay would show up at the end of the month and I would end up feeling guilty.
I was hopeful for change when, three years ago, I met and got engaged to a really wonderful man. When my fiancé and I met, he had a good job. He was really good with money (he had no debt because he preferred to pay cash for everything). In an effort to start our financial lives off with a clean slate, my fiancé agreed to pay off my debt. I thought my problems were solved!
We shredded all of my credit cards too. I felt scared about the idea of not having any credit cards but I also felt free. My fiancé put us both on a budget that I promised to stay within. This seemed to work for a while.
A few months ago, I received a credit card offer in the mail. I knew it was a bad idea but I went for it anyway. Here’s the worst part: I didn’t tell my fiancé. I can’t say for certain why I didn’t tell him. I guess I thought I could handle it on my own. I was wrong.
I told myself I would use the card only for emergencies. But, a few weeks into it, I started making purchases. A pair of winter boots here, a new sweater there and so on. I told myself I would take care of it by the end of the month but, when the bill came, the balance was more than we had in our checking account! Afraid that my fiancé would find out, I shredded the statement and told myself I would take care of it next month. That was almost two months ago and I still haven’t done anything.
The wedding date is now three months away and we will soon be required to make the final deposits for the caterer, venue, etc. If we pay off my new credit card, we won’t have the money to pay the vendors for our wedding.
I’m scared to tell my fiancé what happened. I’m afraid he will be mad or, worse yet, end our relationship. He is really the best thing that has ever happened to me. I don’t want to screw this up. Can you help me figure out what to do?
Dear Secret Spender,
I am relieved that your secret has finally been given a voice!
Engagements and weddings can bring up a lot of complicated feelings. I’ve yet to meet anyone (well--anyone who is being totally honest!) who hasn’t had at least some fear or self-doubt prior to getting married. “How will marriage affect my independence?” and “What if the relationship doesn’t work out?” are two of the most common questions asked by the betrothed. Perhaps the recent bout of spending is your way of grappling with these questions, without addressing them directly.
Compulsive behaviors, such as drinking or spending money, are often used to help mitigate painful or difficult emotions, like fear or self-doubt. The only trouble is, by engaging in compulsive behaviors, we end up creating more of the feelings we were hoping to assuage in the first place! In other words, you are now quaking in the very boots that were originally meant to keep some of your fears at bay.
When we choose to make something a secret, we give it power. It’s possible the latest transgression may be inviting you to reclaim this power, first by telling your fiancé exactly what happened. It is better your partner hear it from you than a disgruntled wedding vendor or agent seeking to resolve a debt he is completely unaware of.
Regardless of what your partner chooses to do with the new information, you will have taken a bold, brave step toward reestablishing trust in the relationship. Assuming you both choose to proceed with the relationship, you and your partner, as a united team, can make informed decisions about how to meet your impending financial obligations.
Another way to empower yourself is by seeking therapy with a qualified addiction specialist. A professional of this nature will have the skill set needed to help you learn constructive new ways of managing discomfort while protecting yourself and the relationships you treasure. Organizations like Debtors Anonymous are also great places to get support from like-minded individuals. Compulsive spending is treatable but it can also be tenacious. So I urge you to consider getting the support you deserve and committing to it for the long haul.
You’ve made an important first step by sharing your secret with this community. I encourage you to keep the conversation going, both with your partner and with a good therapist. Thank you for writing in!
Yours In Health,
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.