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Understanding Overspending

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America is in many ways a young nation. Born and raised in a pioneer mentality of endless expansion, we have little experience with the other parts of the natural cycle: contraction and rest. We know how to spend, but not how to delay pleasure or nourish ourselves simply and deeply. This lesson has never been more important than in the current economic crisis.

Q: A client of mine has lost his job as an investment banker, and he and his wife (an airline service rep) need to cut back drastically on discretionary purchases. However, he insists on spending as if he’s still earning big bucks. This couple already has a huge mortgage and hardly any savings. How can I get through to my client?

A: I would begin by meeting with each of these clients separately. Otherwise, you may find that the wife’s emotional comments hurt your chances of reaching the husband.

In fact, you might confer with the wife first to let her air her frustration, fear, and resentment at her husband’s continued lavish spending. While empathizing with her feelings, you may be able to help her understand the humiliation he probably feels at the loss of his job identity. (She may also be worried about her own job.) The two of you might then strategize ways to help him feel more valued for what he does contribute.

I would also ask if there is some aspect of her money behavior that her husband would like her to change. If she is willing to do this, it might help him feel less like the “identified patient” and more willing to modify his own patterns.

If you discover during this conversation that the husband has always been a compulsive spender, this will give you some cues about what to discuss with him. But I would withhold judgment when you and he first get together. For men who are driven by nature and socialization to compete with others for the alpha position, it can be a tremendous blow to suddenly feel less successful. Take time to hear him vent about the pressure on his self-esteem, and persuade him that you understand and are on his side.

Then take a few minutes to revisit his long-term dreams and desires. Remind him compassionately that if he keeps spending at this rate, he will compromise his and his wife’s cherished goals. As you did in the conversation with her, you may be able to brainstorm with him about meaningful ways to cut back on his expenditures.

If his wife’s perception of a spending compulsion is confirmed during your discussion, ask him if he has been able to scale back his spending desires in the past. If so, how did he do it? If he admits that it’s agonizing to set limits, or that he’s fairly incapable of it, you might suggest some avenues to try (see “Getting Help” sidebar).

When you regroup with the two spouses, review what they want to achieve in life, and try to elicit their renewed commitment to work as a couple toward these goals.

Q: Before they retired, my clients worked out the level of annual income that they would need, and I restructured their portfolio accordingly. For the past three years, they’ve carefully limited their retirement spending to this amount. Unfortunately, no one foresaw an across-the-board market collapse. When I advised them to reduce their spending until their investments recover, they agreed, but haven’t changed their lifestyle–they say they can’t bear to deprive themselves and their family after so many years of sacrifice. I understand, but the more they spend now, the greater the chance that they will outlive their assets (as I’ve told them). What else can I say to make a difference?

A: Clearly, this couple is suffering from the trauma of their financial losses. Although they are not totally in the denial phase, they may be secretly bargaining with God or the universe to be able to keep enjoying the life they’ve worked so hard to make possible.

The irony is that when I ask clients what makes them happiest and how much it costs, most people come up with situations or activities that are free, or nearly so: time alone with loved ones, sex, being surrounded by natural beauty, listening to beautiful music, etc. This leads me to surmise that you can help most clients figure out a way to satisfy many of their needs, and some of their wants, more frugally.

In this case, the first step is to make sure you listen empathetically as this couple describes how hard they have worked and sacrificed in order to attain the lifestyle they wanted. Allow them to mourn the loss of their financial security, and help them understand that they are not alone in feeling sad, angry, and betrayed by a system they trusted.

After you have heard them sufficiently, ask a few simple questions: What gives their life meaning? What gives them the most pleasure? Once they identify these connections to happiness, help them think up ways to keep meeting most (if not all) of their needs without spending so much money.

By being with your clients more fully as they mourn their losses, I believe you can help them become aware of life-enriching opportunities that are hiding in plain sight.

Q: As a frequent reader of your column, I’ve been amused to realize that one of my client couples is a Hoarder married to another Hoarder. When their TV recently died, one of the spouses went online to research specs, prices, and product reviews, then drove to the stores and to make comparisons and to choose the best replacement they could afford. The next day she got home from work to discover that her partner had bought an extremely expensive high-definition widescreen television on store credit, after being assured by the salesperson that it was the top of the line. My office walls are still vibrating from their argument. Can this marriage be saved?

A: You may remember my observation that if two partners start out as the same money type, they will usually battle each other until one becomes more extreme, inducing the other to turn into an opposite type. The husband’s spending binge may have been spontaneous or a reaction to his wife’s super-hoarding.

I would also note that when it comes to major buying decisions, there is a big gender difference. Men–who tend to have more rigid boundaries and behave more autonomously–are more likely to make unilateral decisions. By contrast, women generally prefer to consult, cooperate, and share decision-making. This can lead to situations like the one you describe. I’m sure the husband was proud of his hunting skills when he declared, “Look what I bought us, honey: a new TV!” The wife, shocked and hurt after painstakingly gathering information to share with him, probably said something like, “How could you have bought this without talking to me? I thought we were partners!” Then, because people revert to their primitive survival mode when tired or under stress, the husband may have snapped, “I don’t have to ask you for permission! What are you, my mother?”

If the tension level between these two is too high, you could speak to them individually at first. Try to find out what went through the husband’s mind when he bought the TV. Was he excited to have discovered what seemed to be a great deal? Was he feeling depressed or put-upon, and the purchase seemed like a reward? Did he make any connection between his quick decision and his wife’s careful research?

Try to help him see that women need shared decision-making in order to feel comfortable and close to their partner. Men don’t usually operate on the same teamwork model, but they need to develop this skill if they want to have a fully intimate and warm relationship. Would your client be willing to do something to repair the rift?

When you speak to the wife, talk about these same gender differences, but with empathy for her feelings. Then, when the couple is back in the room together, they may be able to heal enough of their hurt and anger to devise a solution that will satisfy both of them.

In our time of financial pain and loss, you may well see more addictive and compulsive behavior in your clients: from mindless overspending and extreme hoarding to couples conflicts that reflect polarized money styles, priorities, gender differences, and stress patterns. After careful and patient listening, try to teach clients about these patterns and behaviors, and help them find a way to thrive despite these challenging times.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through the Investment Advisor Bookstore at She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors and for the general public. E-mail Olivia at [email protected].


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