It might surprise you to learn that:

  • Americans spend, on average, $1.10 for every $1.00 they earn in wages, according to a Congressional committee report.
  • A $3,500 credit card balance, paid in minimum monthly installments at an annual interest rate of 18%, will take 40 years to pay off and cost an additional $9,431 in interest, for a grand total of $12,931!
  • The average consumer owes 17 percent of after-tax income to creditors. Since 80 percent of family income is typically spent on housing, food, transportation, and insurance, 97 percent of income is already spent before tacking on clothing, gifts, out-of-pocket health expenses, and dozens of everyday expenditures that many people don’t plan for ahead of time.

These three points convey a very clear message: many people are living beyond their means, and the sad fact is that, because they’re not tracking their expenses, they may not even realize what they are doing until it is much too late.

The Meaning of Money

Money is not simply money. Money represents power, love, joy, and much more. If it was just money, our “money problems” would be easily solved. We could just stop spending more than we make and live happily ever after!

To understand the problems we experience with money in adulthood, we must go back to our early years; we must explore the meaning of money in our own lives and the lives of our parents, since the attitudes each of our parents had about money more than likely shaped those attitudes we hold today. If we are in a relationship, our partner’s attitudes (not to mention those of his or her parents) must be added to the mix.

What did money represent in your family when you were growing up, and what were you taught about its uses?

  • Do thoughts of money bring up feelings of worry, guilt, anger, sadness, power, love, or joy?
  • Did your parents fight about money? Use money to control you or one another? Use money to show love?
  • Do you feel grateful for the money you have earned or acquired?
  • How do you decide how or when to spend it?
  • Do you give a portion of your earnings back to your church or your community?

The answers to these questions can set you on the path to understanding how your emotions influence your spending patterns.

Relationships and Repetitions

Many of us equate money with power. If one partner in a relationship is a “spender” and one is a “saver” (as so often happens), it is important to listen to and understand one another and to make deliberate choices about how to deal with this dynamic so that neither partner takes on the powerful “parent” or weak “child” role in the relationship.

We also learn spending patterns from our parents. If Dad spent money when he was upset, for example, we may do the same. Understanding this impulse and where it comes from is the first step toward making a current, conscious decision to spend money or to deal with the painful feelings in a way other than overspending. Alternately, we may recognize this pattern and plan it into our yearly spending plan, taking control of it—not letting it control us.

What To Do

  • Compare your current income to your current expenses: When we think of finances, we need to remember both the economic and emotional realities of money. Deliberately setting out to tally a year’s income and comparing that figure to all the expenses we incur in a year’s time (yes, even visits to the veterinarian, postage stamps, movie tickets, and a million other little things) will help us to identify where we stand in relation to the “average” American who lives beyond his or her means. We can make wise choices about how we spend our money if we take time to identify exactly how much money we have to spend each year, dividing this figure by 12, and then only spend that piece of our income (or, ideally, less) each month.
  • Develop a spending plan: While this may seem obvious, many people do not take the time to do the math and come up with a “spending plan.” It may, in fact, help to think of this as your “spending plan,” rather than a budget, for several reasons:
    1. The word “budget” has very negative overtones for many people; and
    2. A spending plan enables us to control what we want to spend on a regular basis. This then provides us with the freedom to enjoy spending money, knowing that we can cover our expenses. This knowledge, in turn, reduces worries about making ends meet at the end of each month.
    • Get a handle on those feelings that motivate spending: Many people fall into the trap of thinking the issue is “not enough money.” More often the issue is power, or a way to show love, or some other emotion attached to money. A therapist can help you to sort all this out, set you on the path to identifying underlying issues, and help you to work them through to an emotionally satisfying (but less costly) resolution. When insight into emotions is combined with a good spending plan, you will be better able to sort out feelings from facts when making financial decisions and, as a result, manage money in ways that minimize stress and strain every time you reach for that wallet.