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.
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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.