I am a hopeless romantic. No one can say for sure if it was society, or genetics, or Barbie, or Shakespeare that made me this way, but I have always been a sucker for love. I love all weddings all ways. Romeo and Juliet reduces me to heaving sobs every time. My parents met in the eighth grade, and it was my favorite romantic tale; I tried to manipulate my poor high school boyfriend into mimicking their adolescent relationship down to the locket my dad gave my mom for her sixteenth birthday. (He failed at every juncture, although he did buy me the first Jewel album.)
Poverty Is Purity
Growing up, I was also dedicated to an unconditional, Christian acceptance. I was kind, forgiving, and fought against social injustices from a young age. Everyone was perfect in God’s eyes, and money was a superficial measuring stick. Money was frequently included in lessons about false idols. Humility was virtuous, and poverty was honorable. Jesus was born to a poor carpenter and was willing to wash his disciples’ feet. The kings, the pharaohs, the Pharisees were rich and greedy, corrupt and bad. Money won’t make you happy, and you can’t take it to heaven anyway.
Conflated with my love for love, my belief system about money was a little flawed. I thought, when it came to relationships, money doesn’t matter. Deep down, I believed that the lack of money made a relationship more romantic. Support for this model was all around me: The Princess Bride, “The Gift of the Magi,” Aladdin, um, hello… Titanic? Money didn’t matter because love mattered.
This fantasy was all well and good until I became an adult, and then a single mom.
But Money Buys Health Insurance
Here is the thing: money does matter. It matters because health insurance. It matters because food. It matters because resources for any and all emergencies. It matters because flat tires and diapers and vacations and holidays. And money has nothing to do with whether I am a good person or not.
I asked my dad once if he wished we were rich, and he said, “My children are my wealth.” Now, I wished he’d explained a little more about mortgage payments. To be fair, he did try to teach me about money. But if money doesn’t matter, why would I learn about it? As an adult, it was embarrassing to need money, and I felt guilty when I had it. The problem was, I didn’t feel virtuous when I overdrew my bank account; I felt ashamed.
If money didn’t matter, why was I measuring my worth by how much money I made, or saved, or spent, or needed, or wanted? I felt confused when I broke up with a man who kept spending all our money and wouldn’t get a job. (What would Rose have done if Jack had a chronic spending problem in America?!) Whether I had it or not, I felt confused about money, and burdened by the stress and emotions tangled up in the numbers.
But Whatever You Do, Don’t Talk About Money
On top of all that, there is also a social expectation that money is a private and personal matter, not to be discussed. No wonder I was confused.
Now, I know I wasn’t alone. So so so many people have a confusing relationship with money, for myriad reasons. The only way to cut through this confusion, I’ve found, is to talk about it, and separate the numbers from the feelings. I know that’s often easier said than done, but as a marriage and family therapist who works with people from all walks of life, I tell my clients time and time again: the more you talk about it, the easier it becomes. Talk about what you have, what you want, what you understand, and how it all feels. Find someone to remind you that money is not emotional in and of itself. In my experience, the easier it gets to talk about money, the more shame sheds away from it. The less shame around money, the easier it is to be honest about what you have, want, and need.
The first step for me was acceptance. For the things I want in my life, money matters.
Facts About My Financial Life
I have graduate school loan debt. My husband makes more money than me. I want to pay for my children to go to college, but I don’t know how we’ll do that, yet. My parents paid for my wedding. We order take-out for dinner at least once a week. I’ve been in credit card debt, and I’ve managed to pay some of it off. I have overdrawn my bank account many times. I have benefited from a financial windfall and wonder now if I handled it right, because it’s all gone.
These are facts. That is all. But those facts aside, money does not define who I am as a person.
That makes a lovely mission statement, right? But the truth is, I have to work on believing this all of the time. I believe it and forget about it seemingly minute to minute. So do my clients. So I practice it at home by working on open communication about finances with my husband, and I talk about it with my own therapist. (Fun fact: therapists have therapists.)
Women, Let’s Talk Honestly About Money
I have to say to myself over and over again: I am not “bad at money.” I want money for practical and comfortable things, and that does not make me a bad person. Silence about money is a tradition that no longer works for me and, arguably, for this country. Wage parity will only be achieved if there is total transparency, so if that’s what women really want, I’m arguing that we better become much more comfortable stating our needs, wants, and worth without shame. I’m not ready to start totally publicly broadcasting my personal financial information, but I’m getting braver and calmer about talking about it with my husband, unpacking it with my therapist, addressing it with my bank, and abandoning my mixed-up beliefs that serve no one.
I can still appreciate romance, and I also acknowledge to myself that I think Rose was going to struggle more than she imagined in America with Jack, if he ever were to make it off that plank in the ocean.