Why This Couple Is Losing Their Money and Marriage

by Neal Frankle, CFP ®

Bert is a friend and  he and his wife created tremendous financial stress for themselves. I was glad he contacted me but after I listened to him for a bit my compassion sort of melted away.  Even though the couple was struggling with credit card debt  they continued to spend more than they earned. I really don’t know what he wanted from me.  What kind of advice would you give this couple?

Pretty simple, right? Spend less. Earn more. End of story.  Bert and his wife knew this already.  The couple had committed to getting on track in the past, but when push came to shove, Cynthia (Bert’s wife) would not make the cuts she was supposed to and Bert was unwilling to call her on it.

To understand this mess, we have to go back into the couple’s history. A few years ago, Bert made a huge mistake. He had an affair with another woman and spent money on her lavishly. Cynthia found out about it and was about ready to leave the marriage. The couple worked through their problems, but Cynthia was still (understandably) angry. Bert was willing to accept the consequences of his behavior. He understood Cynthia’s pain and tried to help as best he could.

As the couple’s finances deteriorated, Cynthia’s anger got the best of her. She told Bert’s to fix the problem. In her mind, Bert “owed” that to her. He had spent their money on the other woman. Now he had to make amends. She thought that Bert should find a way to make more money and cut spending.

When I discussed this option with Bert, he agreed that he should find a part-time job to increase the family cash flow. After a few months of hearing Bert agree but not seeing him take action, I asked him why he hadn’t looked for a part-time job.

“Well Neal, I’d love to, but who is going to watch the kids?” Bert asked.money and marriage

“How about Cynthia?” I responded.

“Cynthia goes out and gets her hair and nails done on Saturday and she has lunch with her friends on Sunday. We can’t afford a sitter so I’m the designated Mr. Mom,” Bert told me.

I just about fell out of my chair.  If they got together and pitched in, they could both really make a lot of progress towards fixing their finances. Cynthia could cut her spending and Bert could get that job. How much simpler could it be?

Why didn’t they do this?  Well……Bert wasn’t willing to bring it up with Cynthia. He was afraid of opening up a can of worms. Cynthia was so angry that she was willing to subject her entire family to financial instability rather than become part of the solution.

The bottom line is that nobody can help Bert and Cynthia except Bert and Cynthia. This is a problem that money alone can’t fix. But it illustrates the importance of communication and willingness to take responsibility – for both parties. Even though Bert made a huge mistake several years ago, does that mean Cynthia gets a hall pass to act like a 15-year-old? Even though Cynthia is acting irresponsibly, does that mean Bert has an excuse to be a coward?

Has your anger or ego contributed to financial difficulties? Do you know anyone who is dealing with a problem like this now?


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark June 6, 2014 at 5:12 AM

Well I think it looks like C should just have her real hall pass and get it over with. Bert has to realize there may be more to it. If this was going on in the first 6 months – 1 year . I believe acceptable. After that it s just selfish and irresponsible . It sounds like C has checked out a long time ago. Using his affair as a crutch for this foolish behaviour. She is not only letting her family down but her kids to by not spending time with them. By no means am I excusing the affair but if they have chosen to move on then after time they need to move on. Either way very bad situation . I wouldn’t want to be on either side. Good luck.

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Neal Frankle, CFP ® June 9, 2014 at 9:38 PM

Mark – you sum it up nicely. You are right. Either move on or move out. Thanks!

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Neal July 28, 2009 at 7:37 AM

I completely agree w/you. He has to get Cynthia involved in the solution and they have to start a dialogue.

Interesting you should comment on this today….I just got off the phone with my friend Bert. He’s still stuck precisely because he hasn’t worked out the courage to talk to Cynthia as you suggest…..

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FFB July 28, 2009 at 7:15 AM

Sticky situation. This is where the “personal” in personal finances comes in. Maybe Bert needs to sit down with Cynthia and ask her realistically how he can go about getting a part-time job? But do this without suggesting cutting out any expenses. Just say “hey, I want to do the right thing by you and the family. How can we work it out for me to find time?”

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