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Families, Money and the Tincture of Tenderness

What can all of us stand to have a little more of right now? A little more tenderness, please.

A few months ago, I put out an article on my Top 10 list of Financial Skills needed for modern living. Among them was #7: Have respectful and productive conversations about money. Today I’d like to amend that recommendation, just slightly, in light of the financial stress being faced by hundreds of thousands of families: Have respectful and productive and TENDER conversations about money.

My original recommendation was meant to encompass everything from talks about co-mingling of finances to what constitutes “reasonable” spending to how much support to offer adult children. Important skill, indeed. Without that skill, assumptions run rampant, and the ability of the family to prosper relationally AND financially is compromised.

Now, more than ever, money conversations do need to be happening within our families. Change demands accommodation. Formerly wise decisions may well need to be discarded and remade in light of new realities. But we all need to dial back on the … shall we say… earnestness of those money talks right about now.

What spurs me to write this article are the dozens of requests for media interviews filling up my email inbox every week. It’s clear that, around the globe, families are reeling from the effects of direct and indirect financial stress. Even if current earnings are unaffected in a given household, indirect financial stress enters via the empathy and worry people have for laid-off loved ones and co-workers and complete strangers; it comes from the constant wondering about whether or when it might be that household’s own turn to experience financial hardship.

And in families where earnings are reduced and/or debts are mounting, the effects of financial stress are often more immediate and observable: disorientation and grief stemming from economically-mandated changes in routine; fretfulness over dwindling cash reserves, foodstuffs, and the other commodities necessary to keep a family afloat; sleeplessness; an inability to settle oneself, both physically and emotionally.

The end result of this financial stress is often an increase in conflict. With everyone feeling a little more ragged and tense than usual, it is all too easy to let loose with harsh pronouncements and critical commentaries. Researchers have been telling us for some time that marital conflicts about money have the potential to be especially damaging. Financial disagreements are associated with nastier fighting techniques and poorer relational outcomes. That’s why the tincture of tenderness is essential today.

How can we set ourselves up to have respectful and productive and tender money conversations? Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  1. Set aside a specific time to deal with a given financial issue. I’m usually a big fan of spontaneity, but not for money conversations between depleted, stressed-out people.
  2. Mutually decide ahead of time what should be on the agenda. Keep that agenda short and sweet — shorter than you think it should be, and sweeter than you might be feeling. Better to have several short and successful meetings than one mondo discussion that risks leaving everyone raw and alienated.
  3. Make a point of truly settling yourself, emotionally and physically, before starting the discussion. Don’t just distract or numb out; instead, really give yourself what you need to get into a calm space. Listen to or make music. Exercise. Read or listen to something that reminds you of what matters in family life, and tap into the spirit of love and compassion (or lightheartedness and hilarity!) that such material revives in you.

Across cultures and classes, humans tend to reserve their best levels of self-control and politeness for people outside their home. The people closest to us get the leftovers. These days, that might not be so pretty! But with a little bit of foresight and intentionality, and a commitment to staying respectful, productive, and tender, we can help ensure that financial stress does not undo our most important ties.

There are lots of great resources to help individuals and families solve money dilemmas. Here are two of my current favourites:

The Ellevest newsletter – Sallie Krawchuk and her team keep it real and keep it relevant.

Kelley Keehn’s Talk Money to Me. A soup-to-nuts treatment of personal finance.

Sending you all a big bottle of the tincture of tenderness.

Got clients or workers in distress? Got people who are distressing you? You’re in luck!

When it comes to accessing mental health treatment, timing can be everything… AND NOW’S THE TIME! (But not for the reasons you might think.)

Nothing says “Time for Therapy” more than the last few months of the year. You can likely guess some of the more common reasons why that’s so. Here in the northern hemisphere, for example, when the days grow shorter and the skies get gloomy, moods can darken, too. All around the globe, work stress mounts as people scramble to finish major projects before year end. And then, of course, there’s all that extra time spent in the warm prickly embrace of extended family. (That’s why my favourite seasonal game is Martha Beck’s Dysfunctional Family Bingo. You only win if your family is crazy, and I always win.)

But one of the major benefits of getting therapy at this time of year has to do with paying for treatment. Most private benefits plans run on the basis of a calendar year. Any funding that hasn’t been used by December 31, 2019 simply vanishes. On January 1, 2020, employees with benefits packages have access to a new pool of funds that will have to see them through the next 12 months.

By booking a series of therapy appointments between November of one year and February or March of the next, your employees or clients may be able to access two years’ worth of benefits in a short period of time. Timing wise, that’s the equivalent of doubling the number of sessions they’re eligible for. (A typical benefits package will cover 2 to 3 sessions for 2019 and 2 or 3 for 2020. These can all be used in a period of a few months.)

Admittedly, that still falls short of the 8 to 10 sessions typically required to treat depression and anxiety; nevertheless, a lot of good work can be done in a compressed period of time with a practitioner who is (a) skilled in short-term treatment approaches and (b) aware of the client’s funding limitations. If the therapy has been proving useful, many people then find ways to self-fund additional sessions. (An encouraging word from family, friends or financial advisors can help them feel confident of their ability to absorb such costs, especially when considered against the costs of NOT getting help.)

Some of the readers of this article are in positions of power within private industry, insurance companies, and Human Resources departments, and it’s to them that I address this paragraph. Most employee benefits packages are woefully inadequate when it comes to coverage for serious mental health concerns (e.g. suicidality, addictions, etc.).Typical packages that I see in Canada provide only $350 to $450 of psychological treatment per calendar year. That amount hasn’t changed appreciably in 25 years. Meanwhile, what is the fastest growing cause of short-term and long-term vocational disability? You guessed it: mental health issues. Disability insurance companies should be throwing money into psychological health care benefits packages if they’re serious about reducing longterm costs, and HR departments should be demanding much more mental health coverage from their benefits providers. If you’ve got the power to influence such matters, please do. This article might give you some ideas.

For the rest of you, let me just encourage you to be champions of mental well-being. Take care of your own mental health and happiness. Look into taking a mental health first aid course so you can sit more compassionately with people in distress. Consider giving time and money to community organizations that are on the front lines of service delivery.

Eggnog plus year-end reports plus psychotherapy. It’s a winning combination. You might want to suggest it at your next family gathering.