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Three Rules for Talking With Your Partner About Money

I know how it is. You’re exhausted from your day. You’ve been putting out fires and solving problems at work, and the whole time in the back of your mind you’ve been hearing that nagging voice reminding you that your bank account is uncomfortably low.

All you want is to sit back and zone out with a good mystery story or a few laughs, but here it is: The Conversation. He’s worried about money. The car needs to be fixed in order to pass inspection. School’s out for the Summer, and childcare is expensive. Someone is having health issues and the therapy isn’t covered by your insurance. It’s time to talk, ready or not. Don’t you wish someone had told you how to work these things out?

I know how it is because these are just a few of the pressures I’m feeling at the moment. The scenario above? That was last night, for me. Happily, our conversation lasted roughly 20 minutes, and we worked out a solution quickly. It hasn’t always been so easy. If statistics can be believed, it’s safe to say that it’s not easy for most couples.

Sex and money share the spotlight as the top two reasons couples fight. Money is especially hard to talk about when there isn’t much to work with, and a lot of people have fallen on hard times in the past few years.

Since it’s fresh on my mind, and I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling the pinch at the moment, I thought I’d write out a few words of wisdom (I use that word generously) about how to avoid letting money issues drive a wedge between you and the one you love.

Three Rules for Talking With Your Partner About Money

1. Stay calm.
The story doesn’t matter, really. However you got there, and whatever the problem is, the story isn’t the most important issue. You have to disconnect from the narratives you’ve attached to your money stressors. Do your best to focus on these simple questions:
a. “How much do we need?”
b. “When do we need it?”
There is always a way out. Debt consolidation, overtime pay, selling your unused things, bankruptcy, loans, and spending cuts. There is a way out. Stay calm so you can find it.

2. Remember: You’re a team, you’re not competing.
Assigning blame is useless, even if it does feel satisfying sometimes. When the emergency is over and the dust has settled, you can have the conversation about whose bad habits were to blame for the trouble you’re in, but this is a different talk. This is a time to work together to find a solution. You both want to fix it, so put your heads together, don’t attack each other.

Build what you can from your collective resources. Be each other’s cheerleader. Support/help each other to do what it takes to make ends meet. If one of you needs to take an evening job, don’t punish them by complaining that they’re never home. If someone needs to cancel an expensive gym membership, go for walks together instead. You can work it out. Brainstorm. Get creative. Whatever you do, stay on the same team!

3. Listen for needs.
If she says, “I can’t stand how high our cable bill is. What do you need four sports channels for, anyway?” or worse, “You watch too many &^&%* sports. You’re lazy!” Try to hear what she’s really saying: “I’m scared that we won’t have the money for more important things. I want to feel safe. When I see you watching sports and relaxing, I worry that you aren’t taking this issue seriously enough.”

This is hard.

It takes practice, but listening for the underlying need will help you find peace together instead of allowing the moment to broil into an episode of Jerry Springer.

We all have the same basic human needs. Marshall Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and a personal hero of mine, has written some very helpful books and pamphlets on how to communicate on the level of needs instead of emotions. I highly recommend his work since it has taken the communication between my husband and I to new levels of clarity and effectiveness.

Talking about money may never be easy or fun, but it will always be important. Be open. Be honest. Be vulnerable about your fears and your concerns. Play nice. Don’t be evil. You’ll be fine. There is always a way out.

Sample Chapter – By request

I’ve had a request for a sample chapter of my book.  Since I like to window shop as much as the next guy, I decided it was a great idea!  Here you go…


Why I’ve got an Attitude
“Go to the store for me,” my sister would say, “And I’ll give you a dollar.” She was 14 at the time, and I was 12. Thinking about the candy I could buy with that dollar, I’d gladly run across the busy four-lane street to do her errand for her.

“I was just kidding,” she’d say when I arrived home with her goods, and I’d rage and fume. The next time she proposed the same deal? I’d try again.

I lost at Monopoly, too. My sister diversified her investments by buying a few properties here and there, and bleeding me dry for rent while I held out for Boardwalk and Park Place because I thought that’s where the big money was.

In real life, she saved up, spent wisely, and she has always been careful to save enough money for her favorite hobby: traveling the world.

My sister is the responsible one. I’m the creative, artsy one. I just don’t care about money – except that I need it, and I hate that.

By the age of ten, I had become very worried about my family’s financial situation. It seemed to me that my parents were always stressed out about money. The most common reason why I didn’t have the clothes other kids had, or eat at out on school trips (or even attend the school trips half of the time) was that we didn’t have the money. Having less than the other kids was always on my mind.
The allowance I received every week was another reminder of how different my sister and I were at handling money. She saved hers up over several weeks to pay for things like clothes and trips to the movies with friends. I spent mine on penny candy as soon as I got it so that for one hour every week I didn’t feel deprived. One hour sitting on the stoop eating Fortune Bubble gum. The irony is not lost on me today.

I’ve always been bad at business, and with money. It’s just the way I am. I’m a high roller. The faster and riskier the game, the more I want in. I wanted to solve my family’s money troubles, so I looked for buried treasure & old coins, played the lottery (when I could convince a friend’s parent to buy me a ticket with my allowance money) and dreamed of becoming a musical superstar. Eventually, I knew I’d win big, and I’d set us free.

Years later, I was accepted into a world-class conservatory to train as an opera singer. We couldn’t afford the tuition. While my sister worked her way through college, I sat in my crummy apartment ruminating about how unfair it was to have to pay for something like electricity.

Finally, my big break came! I was offered a 4-album contract with an independent record producer who liked my songs and wanted to sponsor my career. A dream, come true, right? Sure it was, but he was talking about some really big numbers. More than I dared hope for. I found myself so uncomfortable with the thought of actually having a lot of money that I froze. I panicked, and I turned down my dream because of money – Too much money.

I didn’t want to sell out. I didn’t want to become like the rich people I’d grown to hate and resent over the years.

That’s what I get for being the artsy, irresponsible one. Money has always been the obstacle to my dreams, somehow or another. The lesson I learned?

I HATE money!

…And, boy did that stick.
Well into my twenties, I still felt like a spectator watching myself struggle. I rarely had enough to cover my bills, let alone to finance my dreams. Every experience I had with money seemed to prove my theory right. I hated money, and it hated me.

When I turned down the New England Conservatory, my dreams of college all but died. I studied for one semester at a local university, but couldn’t pay the bill, and so I had to drop out until I’d worked it off. That kept me out of school for a long time.

When I was 24, and legally allowed to take out student loans without a parent cosigning, I enrolled at the local state college. I went in undeclared – they had no music major at the time – and I fell in love with math. I liked the challenge and the problem-solving aspect of the classes, so I just kept taking them. I also liked the sense of accomplishment I’d get after working out a really tough puzzle.
Little by little, I started to change the way I saw myself. I enjoyed the little victories of hard puzzles solved and difficult codes cracked. I eventually found myself getting to be pretty good at what I was doing. I won scholarships and awards, and graduated Sigma Cum Laude with a degree in mathematics.

How could that happen? I’d thought I didn’t have the mind for analysis. (Remember, I was always the sucker in my sister’s business deals?) As it turns out, I just hadn’t given it a chance because I was supposed to be ‘the creative, artsy one’.

That’s when the tide began to turn for me. By this time, I found myself in the best paying part-time job of my life answering phones in the mortgage department of a local bank. The job mostly involved spending several hours every week pulling credit reports and filing mortgage applications. At first, I felt like an imposter in the evil underworld of finance, but I was given a snapshot into the financial lives of thousands of people in those four years.

It fascinated me to see how one person could earn $12,000 in a month and spend it all, while another earned $2,000 a month, and had saved a significant down payment for a house. I was intrigued, but still deeply hated money, and I considered myself a voluntary outsider to that world. Maybe I could answer phones, but I certainly could not be counted upon to make important financial decisions!
It’s embarrassing how many sleepless nights I spent worried about bills, and how many times I had my phone service cut off because I just didn’t pay it. Before my bank job, I lived on bagels and coffee for weeks at a time. For six months I rented a 10 x 5 ft room with no phone, no kitchen, and no television. I made faces at myself in the mirror when I got really bored. It was sad. I was sad. Actually, I was desperate.

As much as I hated money, I had to admit that ignoring it was doing me no good. I lost a lot of sleep over it, and I felt my life revolving around the lack of it. My security was so uncertain while I lived from paycheck to paycheck. Car trouble could mean I had no rent money, or worse: no job. Getting sick and missing a paycheck could mean I couldn’t buy food that week.

Finally, one day I asked myself, “So long as I ignore and hate money, what am I losing sleep over? Money. What am I working for? Money. What do I think about every day? Money. What is REALLY the focus of my life? Money.”

I decided to challenge what I had formerly believed about money, and about myself. I may have lost at Monopoly, and I may have fallen for a lot of bunk deals, but I was determined to master this nemesis of mine. Focusing on my strengths, I gathered my courage to face down my long-time enemy with sheer willpower.

I used my math degree to get into graduate school for business, and I earned a Master Personal Financial Planner Certificate™ from Bentley University. I wanted to turn my weakness into strength. By the time I finished my time there, my financial position was completely reversed. The transformation was real. My financial attitude had changed.

I learned about how my emotions and personal history affected my perspective on money and business. I spent time thinking through how each part of my life had played its role in shaping the stereotypes I had internalized about people and money. I thought deeply about these things.

I also learned skills and tools that helped me understand how to manage the money I had. I finally saw the truth: Money is a tool. When you learn how it works, you can use it however you want. Finally, I held the power in my relationship with money.

I want to help you have the same experience.

Today, I think very little about money, even though my job and studies are intricately linked with it. I don’t worry about it, and I don’t hate it or resent it. It’s no longer an obstacle in my path but a tool that I know how to handle.

That’s not to say that I’m perfect at handling money now. I still find myself churning on occasion through the deep emotional things that drive my unhealthier financial habits.

In spite of my lingering imperfections, I now have enough money to be comfortable and secure. My non-material goals are much more within reach today because I know how to put my material assets to use in service of my dreams. I enjoy the money I have, but I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. I don’t fear it. I understand it, I value it, and I use it, and that’s all.

New Website!

I’ve set up a new website with the bog, my podcasts, book info, and more HERE

Establishing Credit

I got an email from an undergraduate student who is interested in building her credit, but has no experience with credit cards. She wanted to know if there is a bank or credit company that is more trustworthy and less predatory than most, since she’s heard a lot about how awful credit cards can be. I decided to answer her question here since I’m sure she is not the only one wondering about this.

Feel free to send me questions, I’ll be happy to answer them here, and I’ll keep you anonymous, if that’s what you prefer! My email is sarah(dot)morehead(at)maine(dot)edu.

To answer the question about credit cards:
1) It’s all about interest rates.
When you open a credit account, you need to make sure that you are choosing a company with a long-term interest rate that is low. “Teaser” rates are the limited-time 0% APR offers that you get in the mail that are meant to entice you into opening an account with them, but after 6 months, the rate defaults to 14% automatically or some nonsense like that.

There are three critical things to think about when opening a credit account:
1) The standard interest rates on purchases, cash withdrawals, balance transfers, and the DEFAULT rate.

Purchases – what is the standard rate (NOT the teaser rate) for purchases on the card?
Cash Withdrawals – If you need emergency cash, and you use the card to get it, what interest rate will you pay on that amount? (Normally, cards charge higher rates for cash withrawals than for purchases).
Balance Transfers – Sometimes, people open new accounts in order to transfer the balance from a card with a high interest rate to one with a lower one. Credit companies usually charge a separate rate for this kind of thing. Make sure you know the interest rate for balance transfers, specifically.

Default – If you miss a payment, the rate you are charged will automatically revert to the default rate (usually forever on all purchases from that point forward). KNOW THIS RATE!  If you have a hard month, or you forget a payment, you don’t want to be stuck paying 29.99% on your balance and all future purchases from then on!

2) Annual fees!
Paying $60 a year for a card is not necessary. Look for a low (or zero) annual fee.

You can compare rates and fees for different cards HERE

3) Use credit cards for convenience, NOT for borrowing.
What does that mean? If you borrow money to buy things, you will pay more than they are worth, and you end up poorer in the end. Yes, you need to build a credit history, but you don’t need to shoot your financial self in the foot to do it.

Set up an account, and pay your normal expenses with the card. Then, pay the card off from your bank account. Pay your phone bill, your electric bill, your rent, whatever. Then have the card paid off from your checking account. I suggest having one or two bills automatically tied to the card. You can set this up online. It’s an easy process, and once you set it up, you can put that credit card in a drawer and forget about it. Every month, your phone bill (for instance) will be charged to the card. A few weeks later, your bank account is charged for the balance. Everybody gets paid on time, and YOU build a good credit history without paying extra for junk you don’t need in the first place.

You can learn more about credit cards, investments,and the differences between good credit, bad credit, good debt and bad debt in my BOOK.

Book Reviewed on WABI-TV5 Bangor!

Click Here to watch the clip!
Marion Syversen, currently my biggest fan (and my new favorite person), is the president of Norumbega Financial. Her firm has been consistently voted the #1 financial planning firm in the greater Bangor area three years running. She is also the author of “The Real Deal – Making big changes with small change,” which I own, and love. When it comes to money, Marion knows her stuff.

You can imagine, then, how excited I was when she showed up to one of my workshops last month.  I was presenting my personal economics seminar at a Women, Work and Community event where Ms. Syversen was the keynote speaker. She decided to check out my work, and the rest is history. Marion understands the innate connection between mind and money because she witnesses it every day in her practice. She asked for an advanced copy of my book, and I gladly delivered.

Today, Marion reviewed the book on her weekly money segment (which you can watch every Tuesday at 12:15 on WABI-TV5 Finance is Fun!. And tomorrow, she will devote her monthly column in The Maine Edge to the review.

I am deeply honored by Marion’s support. Thank you, Marion!!! You rock my world! I will be returning the favor with a detailed review of The Real Deal in a few days…stay tuned!

I’m No Superman.

I’ve recently discovered Scrubs. Please, don’t ask me to comment on how old it makes me feel when I think about the fact that it’s 2011, and I’m ‘discovering’ a show that ran in 2001. 

Actually, it’s a good time for me to be discovering Scrubs. In 2001, when it first aired, I was only 23 and I hadn’t dug into college and career yet.  Now, I’m finishing a Master’s and planning out a doctorate. I’m publishing my first book, and I’ve had a couple of years’ experience counseling and consulting individuals and businesses.  I’m in a state of quasi-professionalism. I have the training, but limited experience.  Every case is still new.  Every puzzle is still a complete mystery at first.

Still, I’ve seen some things, and I’ve done some things, and I believe now that I actually do have a deeper understanding of finance and economics than most.  I can help people get to their goals faster than they could alone. Scrubs follows the budding careers of medical interns and residents-in-training as they come to grips with the responsibilities, and anxieties of being doctors.  It’s all the same.

Most of all, I think it’s J.D. the hero of Scrubs, that I react to most.  J.D. is the kind of anti-hero we’d expect of Superman’s insecure twin.  J.D. is hero, alter-ego, and arch-enemy, in concert.  He is his own worst enemy, and his only hope for happiness.  That’s what I love about coming-of-age. It’s a terrifying, and exhilarating process!

It’s the same when we come of age financially.  Accepting more responsibility over our financial lives means growing up to the realities we face as people who cannot realistically work until we’re 80, but we may live until 100.  How can we prepare for that?  If you have kids, you know that you can’t teach something you don’t understand yourself.  Eventually, we realize that if our parents/teachers/mentors didn’t teach us about money, then we have no choice but to teach ourselves.  Don’t you know it, though; as soon as you decide to be your best, you’re faced with your internal obstacles and your conflicting desires. I think we all have a Superhero, an Alter-Ego, and a Supervillian/Dark Side that play in our minds.

Financially, my Superhero self is daring, creates lots of value from simple things, and gives to those who have great potential and heart, but need a leg up. My Alter-Ego is diligent and responsible, making sure that I stay on track with slow and steady progress in the right direction, and my Supervillian hangs out in the tropics, wears Prada, and drives a Benz.

How would you describe your inner financial Superero, Alter-Ego, and Supervillian?

A New Normal

…is what I’ve been avoiding.
A different me, one that maintains focus and gives consistent energy – to work, to family life, to friendship, to finances.
One that retreats inward to rest less often, but with better results when I do.
One that handles each and every form of responsibility in my life, never dodging or complaining.

I haven’t wanted to.
Lazy me just wants to rest.  “I’m not inspired. I’m too busy. Moving is always such a process. I’d simply rather not make the move from this Normal to that one. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’ll have the energy. Things are good enough for now.”

and tomorrow,
and tomorrow…

Tonight, I feel that gentle buzzing of my mind, like the smooth, quiet idling of a well-engineered car.  Tonight, I understand that this new Normal is not an enemy or a challenge.  It’s not trading one scenario for another.

It’s me, focused.
Me, centered.
Me, mindful in each moment.
Me, present.
Me, the way I want to be.

“If you take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.” Maria Egeworth
“If you take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves.” – Ruth Whateley

These are ideas I’ve turned over many times in my mind.  There is an element of planning to life, and working toward a future you desire, but there is also the art of being in the moment.  Both are vital. Knowing the long-term direction helps inform our short-term efforts, but living in the future steals the rewards of life from each moment.

Long-term goals, short-term focus
As long as I see my goals as far-off (and retirement certainly is far off yet!) I will feel as if I have all the time in the world to kick myself into gear and ‘really’ get started.  Ciao, incentive!  Hasta la vista, mojo!  See ya later, motivator!

As a person, I want to be awake and aware in each moment, maintaining my focus and center, not because I HAVE to in order to reach my goals, but because living that way is in itself it’s own goal, and it’s own reward. Mindfulness is what I want to cultivate.  Mindfulness in all the things I do, and say, and think about. That sense of inner wakefulness is my best guide.  Once I’ve set my long-term intentions with sincerity, I can put myself completely into the present moment and relax into it, knowing that the decisions I make in the moment will lead me in the direction of my goals.

Responsibility and tortoise-like discipline is not a starting point.  It’s not even a goal.  It’s simply the natural side-effect of growing more centered and more focused on the inside. Only, when I’ve gotten the hang of it, I won’t be a focused, centered turtle.  I’ll be a lightning-fast rabbit that can stay in the game!

Maine’s Economy is getting much better for Singles, but not for Single Parents

Cost of living / Income Trends in Maine

Click on the graphics to zoom in.

Income Growth in Real Dollars
Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Center for Workforce Research and Information, and from the Maine Center for Economic Policy were gathered and complied into Figure 1 and Figure 2 above. These statistics show the growth trends in per-capita income in Maine both statewide and by county. Alongside the nominal growth numbers, we show the change in the livable wage in each county for varying households from 1999 when the Maine Center for Economic Policy was first charged with calculating the Living Wage to 2008.

What we see from the data is that for most household categories, income has risen more than the cost of living, inferring that the average Mainer has more disposable income today than in 1999. One notable exception is the single parent household. When we compare the change in living costs for single adults to those of single parents with two children, we can see that independent workers have enjoyed a steadily growing standard of living, but it has become increasingly difficult for a single wage earner to support a family in Maine. This is especially acute in places such as Hancock and Washington county, as well as the major metropolitan regions, where the cost of living for single parents has risen more than income, leaving that demographic poorer than in 1999.

The shrinking real income of single parents puts upward pressure on the demand for social services and government programs. When compared to the Nation and New England, Mainers receive a higher percentage of household income from government transfers (welfare, unemployment and disability) even though the 7.2% unemployment rate in Maine is lower than the National average.

Employment By Industry

Of the fifty largest private employers in Maine, only 26 employ more than 1,000 people statewide.  Of these, ten are healthcare and social service related, seven are manufacturers, six are retailers, three are finance/insurance firms, and the final three are a utility, a private school, and a research laboratory.

Implications for Maine’s Budget
Maine’s government faces the following problems as they contemplate the budget:
A) Rising demand for social services and government expenditure coupled with
B) Shrinking manufacturing and construction sectors, which leads to the need for retraining of Maine’s laborers for high-tech manufacturing and other skilled trade labor (health care, finance, etc.)

Both of these economic forces put pressure on policymakers to expand funding for social services and education, which directly opposes the current administration’s goals to cut costs.


Meanwhile, in the Land of the Hare…

I finished a big project today.  Five months of work (albeit only part of my time) has manifested into a 50 page business plan.  This is my work. I have loved this project and hated it, but I have brought it to the last stage of editing, and that’s a very turtle-like thing to do.

Still, I can’t help but think, as I look at it, that I might have done the same quality work in five weeks if I had the determination and the stamina.  What is the power behind stamina, anyway?

I’ve been going over the rabbit and the hare in my mind, trying to find my inner turtle.  I’ve been searching for a vision or a motivator that can keep me on track with my financial goals, and quite frankly, it’s just not happening.  The best I’ve come up with is actually pretty mundane:

Make a list of things I want to accomplish every day and hang it on the wall next to my side of the bed.  Every night before I go to sleep, I’m bound to glance at it just because it’s so close to my face.  If I hang a reminder of my goals in front of my own eyes, I’m pretty sure I’ll take stock of the things on the list.

So, what should go on the list?

In my case, I realized that having a goal to save $100/mo on convenience foods wasn’t working because it was a goal NOT to do something.  Instead, I’ve decided to spend no more than $100/mo on convenience foods.  This is something I can quantify.  My SMART goal really wasn’t very measurable since you can’t easily measure what you don’t do or spend.  Wow, last month I didn’t spend $10,000 on a boat.  Does that mean I saved $10,000?  I don’t even want a boat.

Once I figured out that I want to limit my spending on convenience foods to $100/mo, I could break that down to daily amounts.  That gives me a $3/day food allowance (apart from groceries).  This is helpful.  On Saturday, when I went to Border’s to work for the day, I ordered a small pot of tea to last me a couple of hours.  When I got hungry, I looked at the sandwich choices.  My $3/day rule came to mind, and I remembered I had already bought tea.  I decided to go home for lunch.

Today, when I was packing my daughter’s lunch for school, I also packed my own.  At work, when I needed a mental break from spreadsheets and business planning, I made tea in the next room rather than buy it from the cafeteria. This $3/day rule may be a good tool for me.  On my bedside list, I think I will put “Daily food spending:” as one line, knowing that my daily average should be $3.

Still, I won’t pay attention to a list like that if it only deals with monetary things.  When I was home with my daughter full-time, I came up with a list of things we should do every day. There were 8:

  • Exercise
  • Spend time with a friend
  • Make something beautiful
  • Help something grow
  • Clean something
  • Save something for another time (money, food, etc)
  • Spend some time alone
  • Exercise your mind

To be honest, I don’t want a list this long facing me every night when I’m trying to unwind, but I do think I can pick the best from the list and create a short list of small things I want to do or contribute to each day.  Introspection is certainly one, and benefiting others in some way is another.  Spending $3 or less on forgettable things like easy food (with the real goal of providing for my family and myself in the future) is an important part of my personal growth.


30 min (or more) yoga ______

Helped something grow________

Connected with a friend ________

Smiled with each person in my home ______

Amount spent on food/coffee $3 or less Y/N ( If N, amt:  ________)

1 hr personal, introspective time _______

Impressed myself at work  Y/N


I’ll most likely make a spreadsheet that has each item in a list, and the days M T W TH F S Su  along the top row.  That way, I only have to put a new one up once a week, and I can watch my habits over time, and challenge myself to be my best.

Challenging myself toward personal growth: That’s what gets me in a running mood!

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