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Sex and money -- an impossible mix?

Do men and women have a different approach to money?  Wow, do they ever!  Can they come together, financially? You bet! It's a matter of communication -- blending what he said and what she said into We Said!

User WeezyNig writes: "I've been married for 13 years and have always handled all the financial responsibilities.  My husband has always been the breadwinner. Now all of a sudden he is demanding me to turn everything over to him.  I don't want to do this.  But when the slightest thing goes wrong he blows his stack. Help !!!!!"

At times, sex and money seem an impossible mix. You like going to the movies together, reading the Sunday paper in bed, and windsurfing in a gale. But you both bare fangs when it comes to paying bills. And no wonder. According to psychologists, our attitudes about money are forged in early childhood (isn't everything?), and we don't even know it.   So we may bring more to a relationship than love, compassion and a great stereo. We're likely to drag along some deep-rooted, weird quirks about spending and saving.

How we were raised
"We handle money depending on how our earliest influences trained us,'" explains Linda Barbanel, a New York psychologist and author of "Sex, Money & Power." "We hoard it, we spend it lavishly, we use it to get our needs met, like empowerment, assurance and attention.  It's a stand-in for how we're really feeling about ourselves and our needs ... and we're not usually aware of it."

Let's look at those early years. Growing up, she spent weekends baby-sitting, and he mowed lawns and trimmed hedges.  She was praised for raising her own "petty" cash to buy clothes, while he was Dad's entrepreneurial son "building a business" by signing up the neighborhood. Those experiences with money took entirely different directions.

Go back to WeezyNig.  Will the battle for control break up the union? Maybe not, but they need to get to work. Though probing a mate's thoughts on money can be a bit like teasing a rattlesnake, sometimes it's necessary.

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"Find out what the money is trying to satisfy. Does that person want attention, want to feel more control, more respect?" asks Barbanel. "If these words come up, then we have a very large clue about what's going on under the surface, and it's worth exploring."

So there you are, glaring at each other, trying to find harmony in love and money.   But it's come down to the gender thing again. According to Barbanel, men use money as a form of power, and while both sexes use it as a symbol of security, women are more cautious. Why the difference? Women have never had much money to control.

"We are relatively new as big wage earners -- that's why there's so much confusion," says Barbanel, "In all of history women have never had this kind of responsibility, respect and opportunity."

Not only that ... they're scared of math.

Math resisters
User ALDOMIN writes: "My money is her money and vice versa, we decide on where to invest the money, but she manages the bills and other expenses because she does a better job than what I did. The way I see our money grows, I'll say it's working just fine."

Does it take a real man to admit that his wife pays the bills? Aldomin's wife obviously felt comfortable with her high school mathematics. But most women enjoy math about as much as changing flat tires, according to the Gender Investment Study published by the National Center for Women and Retirement Research (NCWRR) in March 1997.

Survey results showed that only 28 percent of their female respondents were comfortable with their high school math skills, compared to 41 percent of the males. Those comfort levels have a direct impact on today's financial attitudes.

"There is some correlation with success in mathematics and planning for their future and making investments," recounts Dorothy Clarke, director of NCWRR.  "It became clear within that study that those with problems in math in the early years have problems investing today."

Math anxiety leads to investing anxiety that leads to ... a couple with conflicts over money.

There is no "I" in we
Writes user RokitPilot: "We have a prenup. What's hers is hers and what's mine is mine. I pay all the bills except for her car, insurance and credit card. She gives me $200 per month on bills. I also take care of the retirement investments.  We never argue about money and have been investing a lot of money.  Virtually everyone I grew up with has declared bankruptcy because they let their wife handle their finances."

Ouch! I can see the headlines "Women Found to be the Leading Cause of Bankruptcy in America!" Is this guy just generalizing, or outright chauvinistic? There may be a thin thread of truth to his theory, though.  When it comes to making a financial decision, a woman's personality matters far more than marital status, age or income, according to a report called The Women Cents Study developed by the National Center for Women and Retirement Research (NCWRR) in January 1995.

While security is a woman's biggest motivator, fear of failure and the unknown are the greatest obstacles when it comes to investing, according to the study. So she invests in overly conservative products, like CDs, and avoids aggressive growth funds.

While that doesn't mean she'll go bankrupt, she will have less to retire on. That's unfortunate because women live on average seven years longer than men do, so they need more money. The good news in the report? Contemporary women are now moving boldly into the market place and making smart investments. This takes some of the burden off the partner.

"Couples are finding that when the woman becomes aware, the couple can do better," explains Dorothy Clarke, director of NCWRR "She may say, hey, we only have $10,000 in life insurance on you, and we have four kids to put through college. Let's look at that again. Whereas the husband was so busy with his career, he may have forgotten." Spousal letdown is greatest among couples who leave all the financial work to one partner. Couples who share the decisions also share in the outcome, whether that's success or failure.

"It sounds really sexist, but after 25 years of doing this, I've got to tell you, the wives who lay it on their husbands to earn and manage the money are almost always disappointed ... like, what do you mean we can't retire yet?" says Paul Maura, financial adviser from Boston and co-author of "Love and Money." "The ones that are the coolest to work with and get the most accomplished are the ones who work together right from the beginning."

OK, but what if they keep separate bank accounts?

Yours -- mine -- or ours?
User SHebert761 writes: "My husband and I have been married for about eight months. When we had our money separate everything financially was fine. He now tells me he is falling out of love with me because I want us to have separate accounts. He claims that anything I buy is his because he makes more money than I do. I know that financial problems destroy marriages but my husband does not see that he is wrong. I need help."

Perhaps it's due to higher wages for women in the work force or a deterrent to battles over bills, but separate bank accounts are cropping up in new marriages.  That's OK for his and hers spending money, say psychologists, but anything more smacks of a lukewarm commitment.

"It's a barometer of their relationship." says Barbanel. "A lot of women don't want to give up their autonomy after having worked for awhile and they tend to be territorial with their earnings. But married people need to know it's all our money, legally."

After all, says Boston financial adviser Paul Mauro, if you're going to risk the rest of your life with this person, what's wrong with risking your money?

"I have seen a lot of the -- 'well, if you want to invest in that, use your money, I want to keep my money out of it,' " explains Mauro. "It sounds nice on paper, but that creates a crack in the relationship that's almost impossible to plaster up. The project of building money is what keeps couples together; I think the effort of keeping things separate keeps couples separate."

How do you build that bridge between love and money? Start with a little gift to each other.

A gift for us
What a relief! We can blame mom and dad (you know, the early influences) for our money phobias, and our math teacher for our bad investments.  But we still have to get over it and move on.  Why not start with a peace offering gift of a financial software package? Planning your financial decisions on the computer is very non-judgmental, and you can both share the joys of creating a family budget.

"It's loving to share," says New York psychologist Linda Barbanel, "It's loving to talk about what you like and appreciate from each other, such as each other's ways of handling money, too. Some people are good at paying the bills, others can be appreciated for not running up so many bills," she says with a laugh.

Writes user Nitram21: "I think it's important to set up a budget and always work from a point of strength. This way if one person is spending too much on clothing, then you both can let the 'budget' do the talking.  Of course, initially both husband and wife have to set up the budget and the spending categories and agree to where the money should be spent.  

"Now that you are no longer one, but a union of two, working toward common goals should be the first priority. Once you're on track, then a splurge or two would be forgiven more easily than a constant habit of irresponsible spending.  Well that's what I think, and I've been married for 11 years and we have three children."

Before you both dive back into your financial fray, why not find out what kind of money partners you both really are? This may help when the growling starts and the teeth begin to bare.

Take the money and mates quiz
Are you a Power Seeker, a Keeper, Freedom Searcher, or Love Buyer? This quiz can help you learn the truth about your approach to money.

Take this test with your partner, marking your answers on a separate sheet of paper.   Then review your answers according to the key that appears after the test.

1. It's your anniversary and you and your mate are dining out with another couple in an expensive restaurant, and it's their treat.  Both of the people taking you out are old friends who have recently started dating.  When the check arrives, the woman with whom you're double-dating picks it up.  Her date seems uncomfortable.  Which of the following actions would you most likely take if you were in his position?

a) Firmly ask for the check.
b) Shift around in your chair for a moment or two, then offer to pay the tip.
c) Smile and mention that you'll pay for dinner next time.
d) Make no mention of the check whatsoever, and silently conclude that your date must really like you.

2. You are a serious tennis fanatic.  You know your mate is trying to save for a vacation this year, but you just saw your dream tennis racquet, marked down to $350 from $650.  The sale ends today.  Which of the following actions would you most likely take?

a) Dip into the money market account and buy the racquet.
b) Walk away from the sale, repeating the mantra-like phrase "Don't buy it, don't even think of buying it. Don't buy it, don't even think of buying it."
c) Find some way to consult with your partner before the sale ends, no matter what it takes.
d) Buy the racquet but fib about exactly how much it cost.

3. You're part of a two-career couple.  Each of you is excited about your respective career.  One day, you return from work and learn that your partner has been offered a spectacular position with a huge salary.  There is a catch.  The firm is located 1,500 miles away, in a city where the cost of living is substantially lower than where you now live.  Which of the following options reflects your most likely reaction to this situation?

a) Since there's all that extra money to go around, you conclude you can now afford a bicoastal lifestyle.  You urge your mate to accept the offer, and explain that you can keep your own position.  The two of you can connect on the weekends.
b) Explain that you're willing to move on two conditions: the new job represents guaranteed long-term financial security and the new employer pays all moving expenses.
c) Try to explore, in an optimistic way, the risks and opportunities you both face, and determine how willing your partner is to consider maintaining the status quo rather than accepting the new job.  Then follow whatever approach seems to make the most sense for both of you.

d) Agree to move immediately without having an in-depth discussion because you don't want your partner to think you're trying to keep him or her from earning more money.

4. You are the sole breadwinner in a relationship.  Your partner wants to contribute to a nonprofit cause which you don't support.  Which of these options best reflects your response to this situation?

a) Tell your partner you simply refuse to donate money to the cause.
b) Agree to give the money, primarily because you don't mind the tax deduction.
c) Agree to give the money, primarily because you know that people have different philosophies in life.
d) Agree to give the money, primarily because you don't want your partner to think you're unwilling to support him.

5. Your mate buys you a lottery ticket and gives it to you as a gag gift. The ticket ends up being a winner and you win $500.  Which of the following would you most likely do?

a) Splurge and spend it on yourself.
b) Use the money to pay bills.
c) Spend half on yourself and give the rest to your partner so they can have something special, too.
d) Tell your partner they can choose to spend the money however they see fit, on the theory that this will encourage your mate to appreciate you more.

6. Your parents recently passed away.  At the reading of the will, you learn that their estate is being held in trust for you.  You get a modest interest income, but the principal will eventually go to your children.  Which of the following sentiments would most accurately express your reaction?

a) "They wanted to show who's boss, and they took the opportunity to do it."
b) "Great! A little extra income for us, and we don't have to worry about the kids."
c) "I didn't want anything from them anyway, so it's no big deal."
d) "This is awful. They must not have cared about me much."

7. When you met your partner, you had a number of investments, some of which your mate did not know about.  Which of the following would you be most comfortable doing?

a) Keeping to yourself as much of your financial information as possible.
b) Keeping a couple of accounts secret and separate in case of an emergency.
c) Telling your mate in detail about all aspects of your finances, and addressing financial issues as equal partners.
d) Keeping a couple of accounts secret and separate so you can spring a surprise such as a new car, or a fancy vacation on your mate, thereby improving things in the relationship when the situation demands.

8. You're planning to give up your apartment to move into your partner's apartment. You're ready to have your first discussion about how you'll contribute to the joint household expenses.  Which of the following approaches would you chose?

a) Divide expenses proportionate to your relative incomes.
b) Contribute only to those additional expenses caused by your living in the apartment.
c) Split everything 50/50 and not worry about who earns more or less.
d) Suggest that, if your mate is truly concerned about making the relationship work, they will find a way to redecorate the apartment to your liking before you discuss financial arrangements.

9. You and your spouse want to buy a computer, but money is tight.  Which of the following options appeals to you most?

a) Buy top-of-the-line and finance everything, since quality counts for something, and a good computer is an essential these days.
b) Research extensively over a period of two months or so, and save until you find the best option in your price range at that time.
c) Buy a second-hand computer and splurge on the software for it.
d) Agree to buy a machine that meets your basic requirements, but make your spouse promise to allow you to upgrade it within a certain time frame, regardless of what your finances are at that point.

10. Which of the following statements best describes your philosophy when it comes to exchanging gifts with your partner on birthdays and holidays?

a) Set a clear dollar limit.
b) Agree to save money, rather than exchange gifts, in order to make a future purchase or payment that will benefit you both.
c) Set a broad range that identifies what you are each willing to spend, but allow the person a certain amount of leeway within that range.
d) Drop broad hints about gifts that your mate really ought to track down and, when you can, identify similarly expensive gifts for your mate so that they will know how much you care.

If you answered most questions with "a," you are probably a Power Seeker.  Such things as winning, being the decision maker, and having veto power are in all likelihood quite important to you.  You don't want to be taken advantage of, and you often push for your own way when you have a say in the matter.  Control is a major issue for you, and you generally feel most comfortable when you have it.   Keeping the occasional secret, having immediate access to important information, and identifying exactly what you want from a situation are all approaches with which you feel comfortable.  You feel that quality matters, and you have a natural attraction to the best when it comes to name-brand goods.

If you answered "b" to most of the questions, you are probably a Keeper.   Given the choice, it's a good bet you'd prefer to bargain, barter, or borrow before paying good money for something.  The more money you can hold onto, the better you feel, even if that means temporary inconvenience.  You like to think "in the long term."  You probably draw a deep sigh of relief when you can assure yourself that the bills are all paid and there's something left in the bank and you consider that a real accomplishment.  People may occasionally bandy about words like "penny-pinching" and "cheap," but you prefer to think of your no-frills approach as pragmatic and disciplined.  When you know your money is safe, you sleep better.

If you answered "c" to most questions you are probably best described as a Freedom Searcher.  Your preference is to take an easygoing approach to financial affairs, and you don't think getting worked up over money makes for better decisions.   As a general rule, you believe that if you make intelligent choices on an ad hoc basis, things will probably turn out for the best.  You have an optimistic viewpoint on most matters, including discussions of money, and you realize that people often disagree on important issues.  If your mate feels strongly one way or another about a financial question, you will certainly be willing to provide intelligent observations on the situation, but you are unlikely to have a high "stake" in the issue one way or the other.  It's likely that you take a "two-heads-are-better-than-one" approach to pressing financial questions, and that you have a fairly high level of trust in the answers that collaborative decision making will provide.

If you answered "d" to most of the questions above, you may be linking love, approval, and self-esteem with material things, and you may be doing so to a degree that may cause problems in your personal relationships. If you fall into this category, you may be what I call a Love Buyer, and you may be in for an unpleasant series of experiences.   Expensive dinners and quality clothing are nice to have, but you should work to change your outlook on money and status, because the amount of money spent really has nothing to do with how much someone is loved.  Even spending more money than you want to or can afford on someone does not really make someone like or appreciate your for who you truly are.  Instead of tying purchase issues to your self-esteem, you may need to work toward developing a caring, open-minded attitude toward financial issues, one that clearly separates personal worth from prices, products, and expenditures.

Quiz from Sex, Money & Power, by Linda Barbanel
Copyright (c) 1996 by Linda Barbanel
Used by permission of Macmillan Publishing U


-- Updated: Dec. 13, 2002

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