Ten minutes into a discussion about family finances, Joan Carlson is already shifting uneasily in her chair.
Her daughter, Sarah, a 19-year-old with long blonde hair, bell-bottom pants and a pierced tongue, has begun describing what she calls her "exotic animal stage."
Last spring, Sarah used money earmarked for her college education and started buying pets - lots of them. Snakes, geckos and iguanas filled her bedroom. She even bought an Australian sugar glider, a bat-like flying possum known for its shrill yapping sound.
When she grew tired of the animals, she gave them to a pet store and asked for nothing in return.
"It's a topic we'd rather not discuss," said Joan, who cast a disparaging look at her daughter. "I believe in focusing on the positive."
Even in boom times, American families are not eager to talk about money. A survey by Falls Church, Va.-based credit-card company Capital One found that almost one-third of adults have never had a conversation about finances with their spouse or significant other. Not even once.
But a weakening job market and rising levels of consumer debt are making it harder for families to ignore thorny discussions about money. Often, these talks ignite long-simmering conflicts about a wide range of family issues - including personal freedom, career choices and family responsibility. The rifts can be deep enough to tear apart marriages and turn children against parents.
The good news is that more families are getting help. Psychologists and marriage counselors report an increase in the number of people seeking professional advice on how to deal with financial anxiety. And the more families discuss their differences, the better chance they have to solve them, therapists say.
In the past, it would take hours of counseling before married couples would confess to having anxieties and disagreements over money, said Dr. Peter Battis, one of 18 psychologists with Human Resource Consultants of Raleigh, N.C.
Now families readily admit these problems - often on their first visit with a therapist, Battis said.
"A lot of it has to do with the 'Oprah culture,' " Battis said. "People, women in particular, are more willing to air their grievances in public. If you can talk about alcohol, drugs and sex in public, you should be able to talk about money."
The consumer credit counseling center at Triangle Family Services in Raleigh also has noticed the change. Normally, the center is slow in November and December, largely because customers prefer to postpone difficult discussions about money until after the New Year.
But this holiday season is different. The nonprofit agency has provided debt counseling service to 193 families in November, up from 99 in September. "Maybe it's Sept. 11, but people seem far more willing this year to vent frustration about their financial problems," said Tom Harmon, director of consumer credit counseling at the center.
Talk of falling stock values, corporate downsizings, rising unemployment and Enron's collapse dominates the financial news channels. But according to counselors, most families are stressed about something closer to home: Credit-card debt.
"If you could get rid of the credit cards, you could eliminate many of these family disputes," Harmon said.
According to Claritas, a San Diego market research firm, the average American household owes $13,672 in credit card debt.
Often, the mere question - "How much credit-card debt do you have?" - can ignite nasty disagreements between married partners, Battis said. One partner might start blaming the other for using the card impulsively. The other objects to being told how to behave. And often, the couple can't answer the question because one member of the family has been hiding the credit-card bills, Battis said.
Often, people underestimate the amount of anxiety that debt can create. According to Myvesta.org, a credit-counseling center in Rockville, Md., 49 percent of people who confess to having debt problems also experience some symptoms of depression. Thirty-nine percent report symptoms of severe depression.
Depression only makes debt problems worse, Battis said. Instead of trying to find solutions, a depressed family member will either ignore the problem or attempt to lift his or her mood by spending. "People become emotionally paralyzed, which means they are unable to take action," he said.
The best prevention against this sort of anxiety is communication.
Family members must realize that it is extremely rare for two people to have the same attitudes about money. Some people come from families that emphasized material gratification; others count every penny, Harmon said. Once family members recognize these differences, they have a far better chance of resolving them.
Keeping finances separate is the most obvious way to avoid fights over money. In 70 percent of American marriages, both partners work, which means they can keep at least some of their money in separate bank accounts. Then disagreements are limited to issues such as how much money they spend when the couple eats out or goes on vacation.
For most families, however, especially those with tight budgets, finances cannot be segregated so easily. The spending habits of one family member have a direct effect on the others.
Take the Carlsons. Five years ago, Joan decided to quit her career as a corporate buyer and pursue something that she found more fulfilling - working with hearing-impaired children in a classroom.
The new job involved a significant cut in pay. Joan works close to 60 hours a week, often coming home at midnight so exhausted that she doesn't have the energy to cook a full meal.
Given her sacrifice, Joan was dismayed when she discovered that Sarah was dipping into her college savings account to buy pets. Joan felt it was time they had their first candid talk about money.
"Mom made it very clear to me that if I wanted to continue living the way I was, then I would have to get a job," said Sarah, an 18-year-old student in computer animation at the School of Communication Arts in Raleigh.
After that discussion, Sarah stopped buying animals and got a job at the same Borders where her mother works part-time. Now, Sarah fills in for her mother, and works extra hours when her mother is tired after a day at school.
"It's nice to have her around," said Joan, who talked between shifts at Borders. "We lean on each other."
Added Sarah, laughing: "But I still miss my pet sugar glider."Tips for couples who want to avoid fights over money:
- Get the facts: Learn as much as possible about your partner's finances - and financial habits - including salary, savings and credit-card debt, before marriage. This way, you avoid surprises when you go to make big purchases, such as a car or home.
- It's you or me: Pick one person to pay the bills. This makes it harder for a bill to slip through the cracks. Late payment fees can add up and cause nasty arguments.
- Consolidate the credit: Cancel all but a couple of credit cards. Some families have more than a dozen credit cards, which makes it difficult to track spending.
- Hands off: Maintain an emergency fund with at least six months' worth of your combined income. That minimizes stress if one partner loses a job.
- Focus on the future: Set goals together for your financial future. Just stating certain goals, such as owning a home or paying for a child's education, can help you achieve them.
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