It's only money.
Although nearly everyone utters that well-worn phrase from time to time, the fact is that money almost never is "only money."
That's because for most of us, money represents a lot more than just dollars and cents. It's love, power, security or dependency, freedom or control, even self-worth. The symbolic load shouldered by money makes it much more than simply legal tender.
The reason we view money with so much emotion, says Olivia Mellan, a Washington psychotherapist specializing in money psychology, "is because people are not taught that money is just a tool to accomplish our goals."
"We don't have a rational model for how to handle money," says Mellan, who speculates that this might be a "uniquely American" problem, making us "a nation of overspenders."
Keeping up with the Joneses is just one of the reasons we spend more than we have on things we don't need. Because of our psychological attitudes toward spending money, we often use money and what it buys as a "pseudo-solution to a real need," Mellan notes.
Spending money "has to do with filling up a hole," says Mellan, referring to an emptiness in some part of our lives. "This is a busy culture and people want quick fixes." No matter how much we spend, though, "it doesn't fill up the hole."
It's not hard to tell when someone has an uncomfortable relationship with money. Both spenders, who neither budget nor save, and hoarders, who are great at budgeting but have trouble spending, are controlled by money; having more money isn't the solution for them. Indeed, having more simply serves to amplify their problems.
The same is true for the other kinds of money personalities Mellan identifies:
Money bingers, whose spending is like a tidal wave that overtakes them.
Money monks, who think having too much money will corrupt them.
Money amassers, who need large sums to spend, save and invest to avoid feeling like a failure.
Money eluders, who sabotage their own attempts to make more money because they fear power and success.
Money worriers, who are constantly concerned about having enough or what to do with it.
Money avoiders, who prefer to ignore bills, debts and checkbook balances.
Although everyone leans toward one of these personalities, Mellan says they still can become comfortable with money.
"People need to do what would move them out of their rigid, habitual modes," she says. In other words, she says, one must do the obvious: If someone chronically doesn't keep track of what they spend, then they should; someone who never spends frivolously should go buy something just for fun, and someone who fears having more, should accept that new, higher-paying job.
Change, however, should occur slowly and deliberately. When someone achieves "harmony with money," says Mellan, "it's real obvious."
For many people, dissonance, rather than harmony, pervades.
A classic example offered by Mellan involves a couple about to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary.
The man, quite sentimental, equates money with security. The woman relates money to love. He spends three days in record stores until he finds "their song," the old song the couple danced to the night they met. When he triumphantly presents her with this gift, she is angry and hurt that he spent so little on so significant an occasion. He, in turn, feels misunderstood and unappreciated.
What happens when couples have different, and perhaps conflicting, money styles?
Several studies have shown that financial expenditures (along with household responsibilities) are among the most intense areas of disagreement for married couples, and even are a leading cause of divorce. Money is a common problem regardless of income, age and education of family members.
What makes it worse is that even couples who start with similar money personalities often end up at opposite extremes:
"When family members have different values and attitudes toward spending and saving money, or when families strive for unrealistic goals, there is a potential for conflict," says Mary Stephenson, associate professor at the University of Maryland in the Cooperative Extension Service.
Like Mellan, Stephenson recommends honest and candid communication about money among family members. Otherwise, money fights will occur without the family members grasping what the fight is about.
Start by identifying personal values and goals -- the qualities, situations and material things you cherish most.
Dissimilar values and goals between spouses can result in marital conflict. But rarely, says Mellan, are goals mutually exclusive, even if they appear that way on the surface.
Mellan cites an example of a husband who is a sailing enthusiast and a wife who's immersed in city life. A sharp look at what these symbols stand for could point to some middle ground. The husband may be trying to satisfy his desire for freedom or adventure and may be able to achieve it without purchasing a boat.
In fact, recognizing one's true goals is required both to learn how to work with one's money personality and to formulate a budget.
The very act of writing down income and expenses can serve to show which goals perhaps can be achieved and which are unrealistic.
Then people can see whether their spending habits are governed by their psychological attitudes toward money or by basic arithmetic.
Mellan says that having unrealistic goals "is like not having your feet on the ground." She tells of a client who received a raise when she moved to Washington, but the bigger paycheck basically left her standard of living the same as in her previous, lower-cost city. For this new Washingtonian, "there had to be some coming down to earth," Mellan recalls.
Her first important step was dealing with the emotional issue of not being able to afford what she had counted on, such as purchasing a house. After that could come a more rational plan for how to live on what her salary could buy.
Men and women have very different attitudes toward money, according to Charlotte Churaman, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Development, University of Maryland at College Park.
Churaman developed the Personal Money Management Profile (PMMP) as a means of measuring the psycho-social factors that relate to personal and family financial decision-making. She administers the PMMP to college students enrolled in Personal and Family Finance classes.
By rating themselves in such areas as ability to save, adequacy of financial resources, openness in talking about money and desired involvement in money management, students become aware of their personal money style.
What Churaman discovered was that women generally are more conservative in terms of risks, with many unwilling to "go for broke" or speculate in stocks. Men are more likely than women to seek out financial news, select their own investments and feel confident about how they manage their money.
The differences in the scores of men and women, however, have been lessening over the past six or eight years, Churaman notes.
Because of their career choices, women now "have more contact with business decisions," she says. But the differences that remain are "potential sources of intrafamily conflict in an era of changing household responsibilities."
Once individuals understand why money is more than just money and in what ways, it's time for the nitty-gritty exercise of creating a budget. "I'd be surprised if one or two people out of 10 have a budget," says Joanne Kerstetter, executive director of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Washington (CCCS).
The CCCS, which provided 6,300 debt-counseling sessions last year, is a local, nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Foundation for Consumer Credit.
According to Kerstetter, "The standard of living now is based on credit, on what people think they can afford."
Purchase decisions are based on whether a lender gives the okay, rather than on whether the paycheck can stretch far enough to make the payments.
It isn't until people sit down with a budget that they realize, "So this is why we're having problems," says Kerstetter, who advises that people keep track of their spending for a month. The biggest surprise for most is what they're spending on incidentals.
Then, when reality strikes home and people find out they can't buy it all, they need to decide what's most important. Sometimes it's private school for the children, but these people may not have much left over to spend on their social life. Or it's living in the city versus owning a car. What's vital is that the couple decides together where to spend what they've got.
"So many times one person is handling the finances. The other person is kept out of the picture and so goes out spending the money without knowing what's happening," Kerstetter says.
Understanding why people spend as they do can help them put their relationship to money in perspective. Learning to spend only what they have can keep them from losing sleep at night. Together, both bring true money harmony.
Some guidelines for communicating about money:
1. Recognize that whoever earns the money does not also earn the right to dictate how it would be spent.
2. Allow all family members to have input in financial decisions.
3. Clearly identify the issue at hand. Is the problem one of spending too much, spending at the wrong time or spending on something you feel is unnecessary.
4. Avoid judging or criticizing others. Begin discussions with "I think" or "I feel," rather than "You always" or "You never."
5. Listen carefully and show through your response that you understand. Or, ask questions until you do understand.
6. In many cases, family members must compromise. Be willing to negotiate for a realistic settlement of differences.
From "Communicating About Money" Fact Sheet by Mary Stephenson, University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service.