ANNA SALE: Previously on Financial Therapy from Death, Sex & Money...
Amanda Clayman: Do you guys have any sort of regular money talks with each other?
Cora: No, we've tried, but it's never worked.
Garrett: I used to have personal goals monetarily, and I don't feel like I have any because I don't feel like I have that control.
C: I think my fear is seeing you choosing to do things that spark an interest in the addict part of your brain.
G: You don't have to worry about me making drastic decisions that are going to alter our life.
C: I still feel like I don't get let in fully.
AC: This is Financial Therapy from Death, Sex & Money. I'm Amanda Clayman.
AS: And I'm Anna Sale. Over the last few weeks, we've been sitting in on financial therapy sessions between Amanda and a married couple we're calling Cora and Garrett. Amanda is a licensed clinical social worker, who specializes in helping people sort out their money issues. And if you missed the first two episodes before this one, go back and listen to those first.
AC: I met with Cora and Garrett over two months earlier this year. In our sessions, we talked about all that's changed in their relationship since Cora learned about Garrett's secret gambling habit and $18,000 gambling debt. We also heard more about his suicide attempt late last year.
Garrett is an ironworker and Cora is a teacher and artist. And as we talked about their feelings about money and how they communicate about it, they were also working hard to pay down that debt.
AS: Cora and Garrett now have another big change ahead. They're expecting a baby next month.
AC: How are you guys doing today?
C: I'm so tired and feeling very pregnant today. [Laughs]
AS: In this final session with Amanda, Cora and Garrett talk about their future as a family of three. And they started things off by telling her about their recent appointment with a financial advisor.
AC: Tell me how that came about.
C: I was talking to my mom, just kind of like, "I still don't know what I'm doing, and ahhhh." Then she was like "Well, we see this really great guy and he's super good at being neutral because your stepdad and I have a lot of money conflicts too. He's been really good for us to talk to." We were like, "Well, why not?" We made an appointment with him and it was on a Friday after work. Of course we were like, "Oh, yeah, ugh," but then we did that and it was - what did you think of it?
G: Yeah, he's just very um - matter of fact, he's not privy nor interested or committed to our emotional state about money. It was nice to hear a third perspective, fourth perspective on where we're at right now and what we can be doing.
AC: What advice did he have?
G: He talked about just having goals, like having six months of expenses saved, and then how to approach buying a home, things like that, that were based around the things that we are aspiring to do.
C: Yeah. And it was very like, nice and neat and not messy I guess, or muddled. It was just very clear cut. But also we were able to talk a lot about ourselves and what it's going to look like when we have a baby and how that will change things, because that's something that's been on our minds a lot.
AC: Did you guys talk to him about a timeline? There are goals around saving for the emergency fund, goals around saving up for housing down payment. Did you talk about where debt fits in to these other goals?
G: We told him all the numbers, so calculated the numbers based on where we were at right now. He said, "Okay, based on that, you should be able to either eliminate a majority of your debt by - ," I think it was something like a year, a year and a half or something like that, and then he said -
C: He said, "You need to eradicate the debt before anything else," is what he said.
G: Yes, and the general timeline, I think for everything was somewhere in the matter of three years or so. I think.
C: To me, it felt really nice to have it laid out a little bit more. I was feeling like I wasn't capable of handling it, doing the math basically. I was like, "Nope," pretty cut-and-dry actually, like I'm overthinking it. I'm doing it right - just like all of those spreadsheets I built when I was freaking out before are actually going to be really helpful.
AC: Great. It sounds like it affirmed too your sense of like, "Okay, we have the capability to do this. We can trust our own assessment and our own judgment here."
C: Yes, I think the mistake I made or we made, I think it started with me, it was calling these debt forgiveness places or consolidation places, like these financial wellness companies and asking for advice and them basically trying to sell a product. Then he was able to say like, "No yeah, it's really messed up that you have this debt, but also it's totally okay and you can get past it, and it's very attainable."
AC: Garrett, how'd you feel about that when you heard that perspective?
G: Um - I had a lot of faith in Cora's financial aptitude, like right off the bat. Like we spoke about before, it was kind of a weight off my shoulders a little bit to have somebody else taking care of the finances and give a little bit of a respite for that. So when he said, "Okay, based on making these three-set decisions, you can eradicate the debt, eradicate it."
C: I liked that word.
G: That was really affirming.
C: Also we did talk a little bit about the fact that Garrett is in recovery, and has this history that is the reason we have this part of this debt. He said part of that recovery also needs to come with like a budget for him to be able to do things that he enjoys, because that gives positive steps forward, and the reason to go to work. How we had talked about how hard it is when things are tight, and then Garrett maybe gets to a dark place, and goes like, "Well, why am I even working then if we can't -," so I feel like I was able to be like, "Okay, no, it's okay. We should once in a while do some nice things." And like he made an Amazon return for work stuff, he like got some new clothes at Kohl's on super sale, but it was like, "You know what? Yes, we do sometimes need new clothes," [laughs] things that I honestly am like, "Nope, we don't need that." Things like that still make me nervous when there's debt involved, but I feel that gave me permission to be a little freer about that.
AC: And Garrett, you told him about getting into a dark place when it comes to money, you talked about that?
G: We talked about my issues with gambling and why the current setup is the way it is, as far as who's handling the finances. Because that was one of the leading questions, like, "How do you handle finances? Do you do it together, or is somebody the primary financial person?"
C: Yeah, it kept getting awkward, because then he'd be like, "Wait, why do you not do it together in some way collaboratively?" [Laughs] And we were like, "Uhhh." So it did end up coming up, but I don't know how you thought about that.
G: Well, I mean, it's not the most comfortable thing to talk to somebody about, that's for sure. I guess I would have preferred that we didn't have to mention it, but it's like the elephant in the room a little bit with at least coming up with a system.
AC: This is the thing that is maybe different between straight financial advice and financial therapy, is that there may need to be a period of digging into the mess, if you will, of what stands between where you are today and where it is that you'd like to go. It's not as simple as, "Here's the perfect way to organize this. Now, just go do it." I mean if that was the case I would have zero clients because that's essentially - [laughs] my business model is all about like the reasons that we can't do the things that - or we don't feel ready to do the things that we're supposed to do when it comes to money. You know what I mean?
C: Yes, totally. It's not always that cut-and-dry.
AC: I'm thinking that it may be helpful to reframe the way that money has taken on the category of "chore" in your life. If we can instead move money from that chore category into more of an intimacy builder, or potential intimacy builder, and instead of saying, "I want to opt out of this and hand it over to you," to think of this as a place where you really get to build something together and that this is a place to solicit your partner's participation and input. So think of money as an opportunity for you to share some of these things that you might be more inclined to hold back. Like, I know Cora for you, we talked about, like sometimes you get anxious because you feel like, "Is Garrett really okay, or is he not okay and he's hiding his not-okayness from me?" And to make a practice of it being okay for you to come over and go like, "Knock, knock, is there a wall here?" and Garrett to go, "Hey, there's a door. Look, I'm showing you the door and what's behind the door." And the answer is either like, "Yes, there was something here maybe that you were sensing," or, "Nope, I'm totally good." But you Cora get reassured by just not having to hold on to like, "Am I being needy? Am I being judgmental? Is he going to react in a negative way if I share the fact that I'm feeling really anxious and disconnected?" And that in itself becomes an opportunity for connection.
C: Well and it has been an opportunity for us for sure. I feel like we had that conversation and I've been able to ask that more, and Garrett, you've been okay with me asking it. You know? But also, I think we've been better about checking in with each other in a way that isn't assuming that there is something wrong, but instead just be like, "How are you feeling and what's on your mind?" That's been really good.
AS: More of Cora and Garrett's last session with Amanda after the break.
This is Financial Therapy from Death, Sex & Money, I'm Anna Sale.
Last year was a difficult one financially for Cora and Garrett. They both lost work due to the pandemic and while they both received some unemployment, Garrett spent much of his on gambling. That habit added to their credit card debt, which they held on top of student loan debt, and then after Garrett's suicide attempt last year, there was medical debt—about $2,000 in unpaid hospital bills.
Since the start of this year though, they've both had steady work and Cora has been making payments on their credit card debt, which has the highest interest rate, every time they both get paid.
C: Every time Garrett gets a paycheck, he will send me a mostly chunk of it and then save a little bit of it, and tell me what he's doing with that. Then we'll have a text conversation on Friday morning or whatever, or we'll talk after work about what he's planning to do with that money and what - sometimes I'll say, "This is the big chunk of debt that I'm paying off with this other money." And then he'll be like, well can we pay our rent if you do that? And I'll be like, yeah! And since we had the conversation with the financial advisor and I really looked at the numbers, I was like, "Oh, we can pay this off a little faster right now, because of the way things are doing and then save some money." And so we actually just got done paying off the credit cards which is super exciting.
AC: Wow, hey. That is awesome.
C: Yeah! I'm super happy about it.
AC: I see this big smile on your face, I see you guys looking at each other.
C: Yeah, so that's one less thing looming over us, and then we have - what?
G: Yeah, agreed.
C: Are you annoyed?
G: No, I was just agreeing with you.
C: Oh okay.
G: I didn't want to interrupt. I'm literally listening to what you're saying.
G: Yes, I agree.
AC: Knock, knock.
C: [chuckles] I'm feeling like maybe you're annoyed with something that I said.
G: No, oh, my gosh. No. I literally did not want to interrupt what you were saying, because [crosstalk]
C: I'm checking in with you right now.
G: No, I don't feel that way. I was just trying to be an active participant in the conversation and not interrupt you. Literally, that's it.
C: Did you have something you wanted to add?
G: Just nodding my head. All I wanted to add was "yeah."
AC: Do you guys feel like job well done? Do you feel proud of yourself and/or selves and/or each other?
C: I do, but I haven't - I feel like when I've been like, "We paid off the credit cards!" I'm super excited and that Garrett maybe isn't as excited as I expect him to be.
G: I'm not that excited.
C: Or wish he would be.
AC: How about this, if you are feeling like you would like praise for this, you can literally say - and this is so cheesy and I recommend it to all my clients and I do it in my house as well. This is a tool I came up with literally for myself, and it is called, "I would like praise."
C: Mm yeah.
AC: "I looked at the numbers and I determined that we could pay off our debt faster and we paid off this credit card and I would like praise."
C: Yeah, I guess that is part of it, but I also feel like I feel personally connected to wishing that he would want praise which isn't my place, or wishing that he would be proud of himself too because he's been working really hard for that.
G: Well, do you want praise?
C: Well yeah - see, yes, I love that technique and I think that's a really good idea, but it's like this mutual thing where I'm proud of us though. There's me and there's him, and then there's us. And I'm proud of us but you're not proud of us. I can tell, and that makes me feel sad.
G: Well it's not that I'm not proud of us, that would be not an accurate way of describing it. I'm just not jumping out of my socks, or whatever. I'm just not head-over-heels about everything because I know that this is just one stage. Don't get me wrong. I feel almost more stressed about it than I do feel like willing to be congratulatory about like, you know.
C: Yeah. So that's why I don't really bring it up.
G: You've done an excellent job monitoring the finances, and for what it's worth, your fiscal responsibility with the money that you are contributing to everything is pretty amazing.
C: Thank you, but I guess what I more want is that you can look at our relationship from your individual vantage point and be like, "We did a good job at something."
G: Yes, you're right. We are on our way.
C: No, we did a good job at this step of the way.
G: Okay. I don't know.
C: The - chunks. It's like a to-do list. I made a to-do list so I could check off things on the to-do list. This is one of the checks but it's a bigger check, and it deserves some happy feelings to get us through the day slash our lives.
AC: Where do you get to be proud, Garrett, and excited and happy? If this is one step in many, what is the end step where the happy accomplishment happens?
G: For me, it would be recouping all the money that I gambled away and saving enough to essentially be the equivalent of the amount of debt.
AC: So repaying, catching up on what was lost and a commensurate amount of savings.
G: Yeah, because the amount of money that I gambled is not necessarily the amount of money that we owe. I don't know, it's a big number.
AC: You know, these are things - I can't remember if I've shared my philosophy with you before which is that money often points us toward those places in our lives, or in our relationship where we most need to grow and heal. It's like there was a moment, Cora, you shared the news, "Hey, we paid off the credit card." You had a particular emotional response to that which was happiness and pride, and wanting to share that. Not just be in that by yourself, but wanting to reach out to Garrett and share that with him.
The feeling that you got back from Garrett was that he was not in that boat with you. And so these are all places where if we can tolerate the frustration of needs being unmet, if we can let that exist for a minute, we can find out a lot more about the work that would need to be done in order to really be in that kind of a moment together. It may be, Garrett, once you hear yourself describe her, "Well, If I'm being specific, I feel like the debt has to be repaid, I feel like I have to save this. I feel like maybe this is something I need to explore more in my recovery program, because this seems to be really about maybe feeling guilty about the consequences of my behavior, so I might need to do some work on that," et cetera. This is where your money and discussions about your money are helping you see the lay of the land, if you will, about how to keep reaching for each other. Even through these points of difference, or a little bit of friction, even between the two of you. Does that make sense?
G: Yeah, to be fair though, the question was about how I feel about it, right? It wasn't about necessarily how I feel about how we've done with money, or about how I feel like we could do. I think my feeling about how I feel about myself is different than how I feel about us as a couple.
C: I'm thinking a bit more about us in general when I think about it.
Anna Sale: After the break, Cora and Garrett talk about having a baby and what they want to model for their child when it comes to money.
AC: This is Financial Therapy from Death, Sex & Money, I'm Amanda Clayman.
AC: So, a few minutes ago you were talking about like - when I asked about what's the mechanism for staying on plan, and you have a sense of each week Cora looks at where the money needs to go. Garrett, you are talking about like, "This was my paycheck, and I put some of this over here in savings, and here's a portion of it to go into household expenses," et cetera. Then there's a flurry of texts that get exchanged around the mechanics of what's happening. Is that correct?
C: Pretty much.
C: No? Oh, how would you describe it?
G: I would describe it as I wake up Friday morning, normally by the time eight o'clock rolls around, Cora has received about 98% of the money that I have for that week through "Zeal" -
G: - or Zelle, whichever one.
G: Then after that, from my perspective, right at this moment, I don't have much input. This is not necessarily a negative thing one way or the other. That's where we're at right now, and then there is some money, a certain portion of that money, that is money that I choose to either save specifically for something for myself, or just general savings. As far as my understanding, the only time that there's any real text exchange like that, is for when we don't necessarily fall - like we don't have a parallel thinking about how something, how money is being spent. That's it.
AC: I just want to explore though, and make sure this doesn't get lost. Garrett I'm picking up on maybe a feeling of discomfort on some level, that this has gone as far as it has into Cora's domain. Would it be fair to say that you want there to be more mutuality in this than there currently is?
G: Well, I have a certain amount of autonomy and I also have, almost like - not ultimate to say, but I basically have - the money is being put into my account. So it's almost like a test every time like, “All right, I'm doing the right thing." It's actually a good thing for me to be able to do the right thing in that moment, and feel like I am too.
C: Yeah, because we thought about putting the money that you make into our joint account.
G: And we have - at this point, we have all the passwords, of course shared, and Cora can go look at my account. If there's activity, there's a text sent to her phone and to mine and emails, blah, blah, blah. Anyways, so to answer your question, I like the level of autonomy that I have as far as where we're at right now. I did feel a little bit reluctant, I get vacation checks which is a very awesome perk of my job. Every six months we get vacation checks, twice a year you get a vacation check and it's commensurate to how much time you've worked.
You literally get a check based on how hard you work, which is great because if you work really hard, you're like, "Wow, there's going to be a several thousand-dollar check coming." Mine wasn't great because where I was laid off so much, but it was a lot of money and I did feel a little reluctant to giving that over, I have to say. I did feel a little bit like, "Oh, my God, this sucks."
C: But you made a - what, we talked about that, and then you made a choice about that.
G: Yes, and I took a percentage of the money and I invested it.
C: Which is not something that I was super comfortable with, but we talked about having an amount of money that he could do what he wanted with.
C: Donate it to charity, or invest it, or spend it on donuts. [Laughs]
G: Yes, I have the autonomy of that, which is I think for right now is good enough.
AC: I think you guys are doing great honestly. That all sounds very healthy and healthy is not always easy. Healthy choices are often very hard choices. I think the fact that it hurts to give up that money, that feels very yours in a certain situation -
G: Yes, it does feel very painful, yes.
AC: - that to acknowledge the pain of that and how that feels is much healthier than cutting ourselves off from it, or trying to avoid it completely. That's when we're getting more into an addiction mentality of, "I don't want to face the reality of how I feel, I'm going to avoid it." So - I'm curious. We are at the conclusion of our work. And in the beginning, there was crisis, right? We are looking at some impending changes ahead for you guys, to say the least. And I'm curious where you guys feel like you are, when you think about that moment in time and everything that was happening then versus where you are today.
G: I had the feeling last night of just being appreciative of both Cora and the natural progression of time. I guess things have naturally moved forward, and a lot faster, honestly. A lot of things have progressed a lot faster than I would have anticipated them progressing in a positive way, both financially and also just in our relationship and just things getting back to normal a little bit.
AC: What kind of things are you noticing, Garrett?
G: I'm noticing that we have been able to laugh together a lot more. I mean, we're definitely petty arguers as well, but we've been able to laugh together a lot more as of late, than we would have historically done, and we've had a family around a lot, which has been helpful, I think just to make things feel more grounded. And then we have habits and schedules that are consistent. We're making dinner together every night. It's just these little things that contribute to everything feeling normal again.
AC: Would you say that you're feeling closer to Cora?
G: Yeah, I feel closer to Cora. The fact that we're having a child together is pretty significant in that equation, I think, because it's a big deal and a big responsibility. But it's also a connector for the two of us. And then we also just - we've been talking more, so, yeah.
AC: Cora, how about for you? What has changed for you in this time?
C: Yeah, I feel like we are closer, and I feel like we can have a lot more of a light-heartedness to our conversations and talk about hard things without it getting as heated all the time. And like we still have moments where it's hard to talk about certain things, but it's got like - it's overall gotten a lot better, and I feel like I've gotten a lot more grounded just in how I approach certain things and how I see them monetarily and stuff like that. And feeling maybe a little bit more confident in how I approach it versus fearful. And we've been able to - we went up to visit his parents. They have a cabin in Northern Michigan and we went up to visit and our big family purchase for the summer, we decided, would be a wind chime, so we picked out a really nice wind chime. That was our big, exciting thing. And we like have been sitting in the living room, listening to it on the porch and it's been really nice [laughs]. And I feel like a year ago, I would've been like, "Oh, my God, we're not spending money on a wind chime," but then we would've spent money on a bunch of little things. And that feels nice and it's something that we feel, "Ooh, we're grownups and we're going to buy a wind chime, and then our baby's going to listen to the wind chime too," [laughs] but we can enjoy that, truly, and it's nice.
AC: What kind of a household and a relationship and an environment do you want to have between the two of you as you become parents, in terms of what you are going to teach this child about money and how it works?
C: I want to be seen working hard because we do, but I also want you to seen enjoying life because that's the most important thing.
G: Well, I've never been really great at saving money, historically, so. I want to keep fostering that, and have that be a consistent model for our child.
AC: And what will he hear his mom and dad talking about, when they're talking about money?
C: I think I would like us to be collaborative, seen as being collaborative. We can pretend. [Laughs] No, I'm just kidding, but no, I think that's important because I think that it wasn't ever modeled for us, a healthy way of mutually handling money. Not one of our parents did that.
AC: Even modeling healthy conflict, and what do we do when we see things differently, that there are ways that we can disagree and share our points-of-view and still respect what our partner has to say, and still be able to tolerate those feelings and show up and deal with them honestly, that end up being the best lessons that we can learn about money. Because the things that are hard about money, it's not the encyclopedic stuff. The things that are hard about money are the much more personal aspects of it, the much more emotional aspects of it.
And I think that you guys - you were thrown into a crash course about that, but throughout this process, you have consistently really searched yourselves and then looked to each other to try to find answers, and to find places to grow and to try to find places to connect and be healthier. And you're certainly allowed to have different points-of-view. This isn't about one person capitulating to the other and saying, "Okay, you are correct and I was incorrect." This is the process by which we get to know ourselves better and think about what it's like to not only be an individual but to be part of the team. So it has really been a joy and an honor for me to share this space, so thank you.
C: Thank you. Yeah.
G: Yeah, it's definitely tough conversations, but they're really important.
C: It's been really an opportunity for us to reflect on some things with intention that we might otherwise have brushed under the rug.
AS: Since Garrett and Cora had this final session with Amanda, they've kept paying down their debt and Garrett's continued having steady work. Cora sold a couple of big art pieces and they've gotten the $18,000 of gambling debt all the way down to under $3,000. They're hoping to have it all paid off by the time their baby comes in September. Garrett has been sober from alcohol, drugs, and gambling since November of last year.
And Amanda Clayman, again, thank you so much for having these conversations with Cora and Garrett on our show. I've learned a lot from listening.
AC: Thanks, Anna. It really was very meaningful to work with Cora and Garrett. You know, every struggle is unique in its own way, but so much of what they're going through is also really universal. And I bet a lot of people can identify.
AS: I certainly could. I got a lot from just hearing you talk about using moments of conflict in a relationship as moments of opportunity to realize that there's some things that you could learn about each other.
AC: That's right, and so much of the work becomes, "How do we recognize the feelings that are coming up and look for the information that those feeling carry with them while still being able to stay in a frame of mind that allows us to be constructive and collaborative, and connected.
AS: And less thinking about how we're going to win the argument, is that what you're saying, Amanda?
AC: Yes. I know the brain so loves to win an argument.
AS: To hear more from Amanda about her principles for financial intimacy within couples, you can listen to the NPR podcast Life Kit. She's on their most recent episode. Life Kit is available wherever you listen and @npr.org/lifekit.
AC: If you're struggling with a gambling problem, call the National Problem Gambling helpline at 1-800-522-4700, or you can get peer support by going to GamTalk. That's G-A-M-T-A-L-K.org. Finally, if you're experiencing thoughts of suicide, please tell someone, call the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
AS: This special series was produced by Yasmeen Khan and Katie Bishop with the rest of the team at Death, Sex & Money, me, Afi Yellow-Duke and Emily Botein with additional editing by Anabel Bacon and Jenny Lawton. Thank you to our Yasmeen Khan interns who also help get this out in the world. Marty Harding and Christie Song who are moving on from their summer with us. Good luck to both of you.
AC: Andrew Dunn is our mix engineer, original music by Isaac Jones. You can find me, Amanda Clayman on Instagram @amandaclayman and on Twitter @mandaclay.
AS: You can find all of our past Financial Therapy episodes with Amanda at deathsexmoney.org/financial therapy. While you are on our website, sign up for our newsletter. That is how we stay in touch with all of you and keep you updated about special projects, just like this one. I'm Anna Sale. This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.