How to Talk to Your Family About Money If You Now Have Less of It

Times are tight. So how do you talk to your partner, your kids, and yourself about the change? Here's what to know.

Originally Published: 
Chloe Giroux for Fatherly

This is a time of less. There’s less movement, less socializing, and, for many Americans, less work. Because of that, less money. Talking about finances isn’t always easy. But it becomes more difficult when budgets change and belts are forced to tighten. So how do you talk about money now that you have less of it?

First off, having a reduced income can often strike at one’s role as a provider. For young dads, who have been on a steady climb of career, spouse, and kids, the economic woes brought on by COVID-19 have upended that. And if you missed the 2008 economic crisis, this might be your first setback. But the uncertainty of our ongoing crisis makes it all the more difficult for everyone.

Marilyn Wechter, a St. Louis psychotherapist and financial therapist, puts it this way: If you had to stay home and eat only beans for six months, you wouldn’t be happy, but you could do it. But with no seeming endpoint or clue what back-to-normal will look like after the pandemic, we’re all struggling with a horrible uncertainty. It’s understandable if you want to be a glass half-full kind of guy. But that can’t always be the case. “For some,” notes Robin Norris, a financial therapist in Sterling, Virginia, “the glass isn’t half empty. It’s shattered,”

It’s important to remind yourself that this is a global situation, and your downturn is not because of some personal failing, Wechter says. But getting through this depression is not a one-person job. It requires getting support and having conversations with your family and friends.

Discussing money is certainly difficult. But the subject needs to be raised with your partner, your kids, and yourself. Here’s some advice on doing just that.

What to Say to Your Spouse: Talk Freely and Form a Plan

In an ideal world, you and your partner would already be talking about finances. But the ideal doesn’t always happen, and a furlough or reduced savings could be a shock. Before you bring it up, it’s important to get a hold of your feelings first. Your spouse will be hearing the news for the first time and gets to have their own reaction, Norris says.

Once the news is shared, couples need to turn it into a planning meeting. Make your own lists of your hopes and what you’ll miss, and compare it with one another. You’ll see all the items, but also why they’re important. This will help you to prioritize. Ultimately, you’re both shifting into problem-solving mode, identifying what your individual and collective strengths are, and realizing that not everything is beyond control.

“We have input on things,” Wechter says. “Focus on things you can change and stop gnashing on things you can’t do.”

As parents, think about what you want your kids to take away from this time. It could be resilience or flexibility. Whatever it is, hone in on them, as the different focus and motivation can reduce the stress.

Most important to note is that when discussing financial topics, whatever feelings that arise are discussed and respected notes Kathy Haines, a licensed professional counselor and financial therapist in Marietta, Georgia. If you take away anything from here, make it that.

What to Say to Your Children: Let Them Know Things Are Different, But Not Too Different.

Very little kids don’t need to be told about a major shift in finances. They probably won’t notice. For all other children, the tact is different. Kids can sense a change, and if you don’t say anything, they’ll create the story, and since everything is about them, they’ll see themselves as the cause. This needs to be avoided, for many reasons.

So how do you have the conversation? Simple. You want to let them know that things are different, that you need to spend less, and that many people are going through a similar situation. As feeling safe is key, convey that they’re not the fixer. You and your spouse are. And you’ve got it handled.

Here’s something else to add: Have them make their own lists of what they love. You can fit things into the budget, and if it’s too much, let them know that now is not the time. But make it a goal, setting up a schedule and revisiting it, so they know that it’s not forgotten. Another important trick: Have everyone in the family list what they love most to eat, and have it in the kitchen. It’s a small gesture, but important for setting a positive atmosphere. “If you feel like you haven’t lost your favorite food, you still feel settled,” Norris says.

How to Be There For Yourself

It’s important to seek out support here. So, if you’ve lost work, try to network a bit – remember, everybody is struggling – to stay out of your ruminating head. Use social media, and ask, “What’s everyone doing to get through?,” to generate ideas.

Will this initially feel intrusive? Sure. But extraordinary times call for experimentation. Treat it like the dance floor at a wedding — a lot of people want to get out there, but no one wants to be first, so be first, says Anne Brennan Malec, a clinical psychologist and financial therapist in Chicago.

When talking with friends, don’t let your feelings stew. Model directness with, “I gotta get this off my chest. My kids are driving me crazy. My wife is stressing me out. I’m freaking about …” You’ll probably hear some form of, “I’m with you.” Even if a conversation doesn’t ensue, you’ll feel relief like when you write an idea down on paper. “You got it out,” Malec says.

Unemployment — or a reduced income — likely has you in perpetual survival mode. You need to find a meditative state, Haines says. The goal is not to eliminate worrying – that’s never the goal – but to be able to have thoughts, recognize them, then say, “Now leave.” It could be through music, breathing, or exercising. Something daily is more important than length, but try for five minutes; chances are you’ll extend to ideally 15.

There’s one more element that might be keeping you stuck, and that’s guilt over the things you’ve been putting off. Think of this opener, “I really should …”, filled in with texting a friend, calling your mother, or taking your kids to the beach. Now that you have your to-do list, start checking stuff off.

“You’ll feel better about the role you’re playing,” Malec says. “It’s like immediate gratification.”

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