Couple earns up to $70,000 a month, still feels stressed about money: ‘We’re not broke, but it feels like we are’

Sandra, 46, and Brad, 48, have checked off two important aspects of wealth-building: a large net worth and a clear idea of where their money goes each month. But Sandra still doesn’t feel like they’re doing well financially.

“On paper we’re not broke, but it feels like we are,” she recently told self-made millionaire Ramit Sethi on his “I Will Teach You to be Rich” podcast. Their last names were not used.

The couple has been married for 25 years, amassing a net worth of $1.3 million as of the time of the podcast’s recording. But they’re at odds with each other over how they each approach and handle money.

Brad has been the primary breadwinner throughout most of their marriage, but his income varies month to month. Sandra didn’t contribute much income-wise to the couple’s finances until a little over a year ago, she told Sethi.

Sandra’s main financial contribution is tracking the couple’s inflows and outflows and policing spending whenever money is tight, which happened often at the beginning of their marriage.

“[Budgeting] became easy when we were making a lot of money,” she said on the podcast. “When it’s not easy, it’s watching everything and being meticulous with where the money’s going and keeping track of it and being stressed about it.”

Sandra maintains a number of spreadsheets where she tracks dozens of goals and spending categories, but doing it on her own and having to tell Brad when they can’t spend any more in a given month makes her feel stressed out and guilty. Brad feels like he does all he can to achieve their goals, but will never meet the high standard she sets, he told Sethi.

As Sethi has pointed out to other couples, it isn’t always about the numbers.

“Most people genuinely believe that this process of tracking every last cent puts them in control of their money,” Sethi said. “People even describe this process as ‘managing money.’ But it’s not.”

Here’s why Brad and Sandra struggle to see eye to eye and how Sethi helped them understand what it really means to take control of their finances.

They have false money identities

Brad works in the mortgage industry, which has meant earning between $60,000 and $70,0000 a month in a good year for the housing market. But there have also been leaner periods where he relied on income from an event business and savings from the better years.

Going through so many ups and downs has contributed to the fact that Sandra never feels secure about money, even in a month when they’re bringing in $70,000.

“The identity you have created for yourself around money might not be fully accurate with reality,” Sethi told her.

There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe when it comes to spending, especially when you have a variable income. But being too afraid to spend the money they do have has added stress to Sandra’s budget plan and the couple’s relationship.

On the flip side, Brad tends to overcompensate for his lower-earning periods with risky investments that add to Sandra’s unease.

“One of the primary reasons for Brad’s extremely risky approach with money is that once people feel behind, feel like they have to catch up or even that it’s too late, they start to make increasingly frantic, risky decisions, which, of course, is a cycle,” Sethi said.

They get hung up on small details

Because they’re so focused on budgeting around the fluctuations in Brad’s income, the couple has become somewhat paralyzed in terms of long-term goal-setting and financial planning, Sethi said.

“They use [variable income] as an excuse not to move forward, when in reality, it’s the tiniest of speed bumps,” Sethi said. “And by using that as an excuse, they get to avoid doing the real substantial, often hard work.”

It goes back to Sethi’s point about what it truly means to manage money. Brad and Sandra may be getting caught up in small details that won’t ultimately move the needle. Brad says he goes so far as watching his speed while driving to ensure he’s maximizing his fuel efficiency to fit in with Sandra’s budget, for example.

“Managing money is focusing on high value areas, like deciding what your rich life is, setting up appropriate categories and discussing what kind of monitoring you want for those categories,” Sethi said. “[It’s] deciding on critical questions like your savings rate and your debt payoff date — those decisions are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

They struggle with communication

While Brad and Sandra may be too hung up on the numbers, Sethi said the bigger issue is that they don’t have the same goals for those numbers.

“The real issue is that they have so many layers of distrust and contempt that they can’t really communicate about this one thing,” he said.

Sandra stresses the budget and the frugality so much because she’s afraid they won’t be able to take care of themselves and their kids. Brad also wants to make sure his family is taken care of, but feels like there’s not a dollar amount that will actually make Sandra feel satisfied.

“I get very frustrated with that same conversation over and over again, whether we’ve got a lot of money in the bank or whether we’ve got very little money in the bank,” Brad said. “I feel like we’re playing a very opposite game.”

Sethi challenged them to ask each other what safety really means to the other person and how they can get there together. If it means a higher income, then they have to compromise and work together to bring in more money, not rely on one party to handle it on their own.

Communicating more clearly and specifically, plus collaborating to find solutions that work for both partners, can help them figure out a financial plan that fits their needs, allowing them to stop fighting over every dollar.

“I understand the fear, [but] being frantic is not going to get you what you want,” Sethi told Sandra. “It’s actually going to be more important for you to connect with Brad.”

Check out the full podcast episode here.

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