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relationships and money

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Today’s WSJ had a story about the impact of money changes on a marriage. You can read the story when you click this link. 

Apparently, researchers found that changes in money can destroy a marriage, even if the shift is in a positive direction. Windfalls threaten a marriage as much as job loss.

The truth is, money matters in relationships, families, and friends. In fact, I’d argue that loneliness often results from changes in financial status…whether the relationship is family, friends, or casual acquaintances.

Rachel has always struggled for money. She’s worked in nonprofit and art organizations. She’s had periods of illness and struggles with depression. She now owns a small home, which she considers selling. She resists advice.

Rachel’s the “poor cousin” in her family. One year she was invited to Thanksgiving at a relative’s home. Although the family lived ten minutes away from a bus stop, they didn’t offer to pick her up. Rachel dug into her bank account to rent a car.

Another time, Rachel was invited to a niece’s wedding. The family sent her a plane ticket and invited her to stay in a guest room. They said they really wanted her there. Rachel scrambled to pay for a dress and a gift. Yet somehow the family photos were taken when she was taking a bathroom break and she was seated with the children for the reception dinner.

Rachel cares a lot about family, so she didn’t like my suggestion: “Divorce them! No unsupportive people in your life!”

Samantha, on the other hand, had been extremely successful in her career. She paid her own way through advanced degree programs and sought jobs with good salaries. She hired a financial advisor and accumulated a substantial sum by the time she reached “retirement age.”

Samantha’s family resented her. They felt she should help out her less fortunate cousins and siblings, who had dropped out of college and started families early.

“They want me to visit,” Samantha says. “But when I see them I’m either the fairy godmother who dispenses gifts or the greedy witch who won’t share what I have.”

Samantha and Rachel are composites of real people I know.  Both never married and have no children. I’m not presenting research, like the studies cited by the WSJ.

Both find themselves estranged from families because of money differences that grew wider over time. Both families were resentful, for dramatically different reasons.

An economic disparity will kill a relationship. So will a difference in spending values.

Once I joined a professional group that was seeking ways to offer benefits to members. They came up with the idea of dinner events at upscale restaurants. When someone protested a spending level of $75-100 per meal, some members were surprised.

“We all are doing well enough to afford these amounts,” one said.

Yet the truth is, even successful people have different values about money. I’ll happily upgrade to business class for a long flight, but I won’t go out for an expensive gourmet dinner. I’m not a foodie. When I travel, I eat in cafes and get take out from small, low-cost places. That’s how the locals eat.

I know business owners earning high six-figures who won’t stay at a Hilton, let alone the Four Seasons, when they travel. One female business owner stays at a Days Inn, not the conference hotel.

Lots of high earners drive older economy cars. They mow their own lawns when they could easily afford the top gardening service in town.

Variance grows wider in everything as people get older – health, well-being income, and wealth accumulation. Colonel Sanders of KFC fame became a millionaire at age sixty, but that’s hardly the norm.

When people are younger, they (and everyone they know) can think, “Well, things good change.” Now they’re fixed.

Some families want to see the older person as a generous grandmother, bringing expensive gifts to the kids and treating them to special events. Others want to include their financially challenged family members, but on their own terms.

Those who are “better off” often see lack of money as a symptom of a lack of ambition or a set of different values. Why, they wonder, should they provide subsidies to others who chose a different path?

Those who feel like “the poor relations” often see abundance as a symptom of luck. Why, they wonder, shouldn’t the richer folk share their good fortune?