About 15 years ago, I had the pleasure of covering an event for CBS News that celebrated the greatest athletes and sports moments of the 20th Century. Muhammad Ali was named the Sportsman of the Century. Michael Jordan was named Basketball Player of the Century, and Carl Lewis was named U.S. Olympian of the Century.
As a financial journalist, I spoke to the recipients and nominees about their biggest financial mistakes and their biggest financial victories. I’ll never forget my interview with tennis great, Martina Navritilova. Before I could even get the words “What do you consider your biggest financial mistake,” out of my mouth, she emphatically said, “Relationships. Relationships. Relationships.”
While Navritilova’s numbers likely make her choices seem more dramatic, the spending she did in past relationships magnifies behaviors that most of us give in to, particularly when our significant other does not have the same financial resources we have, or are having financial difficulty. The problem isn’t wanting to help someone we love who is ‘in need,’ or unable to make ends meet. The real trouble comes when we spend money in ways that hurt our own financial and psychological well-being.
“If you have a meaningful relationship with someone, it’s really about honoring that attachment. We sometimes use money as one way of doing that,” says California-based psychologist Dr. Jeanette Raymond. “Money is one way of saying ‘I care.’ The unwritten deal is that you’re going to behave in the relationship in return. People often give it without being asked. It’s a kind of co-dependency,” she adds.
Raymond also says the ‘hero’ complex can also be at play in situations where one partner ‘over gives’ financially. “When we help someone in need, we get a rush of dopa-mine that is the same as the release when we feed an addiction. We’re chemically wired to be drawn to situations where we can rescue someone. It’s very hard to stop,” she adds.
If you think you may be an ‘over-giver,’ ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you engaging in financial behaviors with a partner that you would be ashamed for others to know about? For example, are you hiding from your friends the fact that you’re picking up the tab every time you go out with your beloved? Are you paying a loved one’s bills in secrecy?
- What do you tell yourself to justify your financial behavior in your relationship? How do you feel about what you’re telling yourself? How does it make you feel?
- What would happen to your relationship if you stopped over-giving? Would your loved one respond negatively? Would you be afraid of losing the love?
- Does your spending in the relationship have an impact on your personal financial well-being? Are you taking care of your primary financial responsibilities and paying your bills on time? Are you skimping on saving for emergencies or retirement? Are you going into debt?
- Have you seen this pattern in yourself in other relationships?
If any of these are ringing a loud bell of truth, take a deep breath. Over-giving is very common and very human. One of the most important things you can do is find someone you trust and tell them you’ve identified this problem. Ask them for help. Ask them to help hold you accountable – literally – and pick regular times when you will check in with them.
If you’re having trouble making the changes you need to make in reference to this behavior, even after you’ve asked a friend for help, don’t be afraid to get professional help. Ask your doctor to help you identify someone to help you master this part of your life once and for all. Don’t be hard on yourself about financial choices you’ve made in the past. The way we use money is indicative of how we feel about ourselves, and can help us make the changes we need to make in order to live lives that reflect our immeasurable value.
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