Define the new normal; assess the damage

If we look at a family, whether that is just a couple or including children, we can look at their baseline normal behavior and consider that homeostasis. The normal routine and emotional stability that a family seeks to create is what helps move us through the days emotionally secure, and physically healthy as a family unit. When there are outside events that start to change the balance for our family situation, our basic psychological desire is to return things to normal. Of course, reality is always giving options to choose that will create positive and negative outcomes for others and us. Will we sacrifice a short-term desire for the well being of our family long-term? Will the things that bring us into debt create a better life and a return to homeostasis for the family? These are questions that make or break financial freedom for families. When debt becomes overwhelming to the current conditions a family finds themselves, it is a fork in the road moment. Extreme debt can bring out sides of our personalities that may have been hidden from our partners when things were more balanced. When blame is introduced into the relationship the debt becomes the runaway train that a couple can’t jump from as it heads for a cliff.

The strength of any relationship is in the way a couple is able to communicate and handle issues that threaten their security.  Often we bring our personal habits into our relationships and if we are not able to create new blended beliefs with our partners, we might have the urge to break away instead of sticking together with our partner when an issue as heavy as extreme debt affects us. Parents must be able to devise a plan for financial recovery together that both partners will buy into. When one or both people are on the brink of bankruptcy or foreclosure, or buried by student loans and consumer debt, the couple may need to bring in professionals to guide them through even the smallest financial decisions. Couples that want to Couples need to draw that line in the sand together, and if one partner can not bear to make the changes in their lifestyle to recover financially, then that might spell the end for that relationship.

Come together as a team

When we decide to join our lives together with another person and maybe even bring children into that family, we are accepting that person for their strengths and their weaknesses. We might have some hope that they will adjust any part of their behavior over time, but once the cow is bought, we better get comfortable with the taste of the milk.  For couples that co-habitate before marriage, they might get a clearer picture of how their partners spend. Of course families don’t have to include a wedding, but financially, once you are bound legally, you are on the hook for the actions of your partner in many cases. For a family utilizing a joint account as the only pool of funds, everyone is hurt by the actions of an over spender or a large debt burden for both partners. When people get together they think until death do us part, but maybe one or both of the couple is in poor financial health from the beginning. If the old normal for the partners created a debt monster, it will take both partners to slay the beast to create a new normal. Family should be looked at as an “all-in” situation. If one partner resents the need to make cutbacks and changes to their lifestyle because the partner created the issue, it will lead to conflicts and potentially sabotage of the financial recovery. If the debt comes from an outside source like an accident or treatment of illness, it might be easier to swallow the need to emotionally accept the need to make changes. When the debt is man-made in nature, it is natural to want to escape blame or not confront the source of the issue.  However the debt originated, it will only benefit the family unit to address it together. If one person is left with the burden to pay, not only will it take longer to pay down the debt, more interest will accumulate. With any family or relationship issue, united we stand, divided we fall. Going back to the debt as a child metaphor, if a couple does not have a united front when disciplining the child, the inconsistency will create more conflict. With debt, there is no good cop bad cop, and no going it alone. A life built together is going to be full of compromises. For the creator of the most debt, they should be aware that they have put a great strain on the unit. The other partner should be empathetic and not make them feel worse than they do already.  When we support our partners we are rewarded in many ways. A stringent financial plan can keep both partners accountable and take some of the animosity out of lifestyle changes that might hurt one partner more than the other.

Don't blame one another

Having open communication about the debt lingering over the family is not the easiest habit to become accustomed to. It is natural that when habits are changing and major transitions from one kind of lifestyle to a more frugal kind of living occur that negativity will arise. Both adults should be honest with one another when the feelings become stressful. The couple can help each other through the moment. If the negativity is too much, seeking psychotherapy or confiding in a close friend can make the difference for people feeling stuck in a bad situation. The partner that carries guilt for the problem will be looking for signs of resentment to justify their guilty feelings. If that is fulfilled, it is that seed for conflict. Part of facing a debt monster is recognizing how it came to be in the first place. If partners look within to recognize their behaviors that created the issue, and are able to communicate these moments to their partner, the team building and understanding gained can be the energy that helps break bad habits and the reinforcing of better behaviors by the partners will keep the debt monster isolated as a source of conflict for the family.

Whatever it takes

The ideal way to start facing a debt monster is to be ready to do anything possible. This is a major step towards a higher quality of life for a family in the long run, but it may require some short-term pain to get back to homeostasis.  This is a make or break moment for a family, and they will need all hands on deck to steer the ship. Building a plan that includes every kind of debt that the couple has, along with all the possible ways to avoid taking on new debts need to be addressed. This family will need to look at all aspects of their life and maybe even need to do some emotional work together to stay in alignment as they plan their fiscal future. The plan should build solutions in the order of which the problems present the most harm to the family. Sacrifice is the key word for crating a new standard of living while the debt is decreased.  Downsizing in many ways is going to be an obvious start, and that kind of behavior should be well thought out, especially if children are involved. You shouldn’t run a marathon without training, in the same way; you should have a training regimen devised for financial health. Humility will be a must during this restructuring of the family lifestyle. Once the plan is in place that has short-term and long-term goals, a couple can gather strength from one another and even seek support from their close friends and extended family as they transition. This planning may be the most important step in any debt situation. Blindly throwing money at debts might leave not enough money to live a minimal lifestyle. Not feeding the kids is not an option, so following the six P’s will be a constant aspect of any debt plan. Prior planning prevents piss poor performance.   

Sustain good habits

My psychological perspective is based in behaviorism, that rewards, consequences, and incentives can make a change in behavior sustainable. Anyone can choose to make changes, but it becomes harder to maintain a new habit without any positive feedback or consequence for non-compliance. A family that is doing their best to reduce an extreme debt can be in the process for years or even decade or more. Without recognizing their strength as a family to keep the faith in one another as well as to stay on target for the long-term plan, the habits may start to break. Encouragement from the partners is obviously important. Another way to feel good about a very difficult process is to gamify the process. Set up a reward for the family when milestones are reached. They don’t have to cost money. A special moment to celebrate together is all it takes to help a couple reconnect and stay motivated to keep moving in a positive direction. It could be a meal out of the house, a visit to relatives, or something sentimental to the family. Without reward and consequences change becomes difficult to sustain. If things go negative and there are mistakes that increase the debt along the way, then a consequence can be created as part of the plan.

What to tell the kids

When children are affected by the lifestyle change, it doesn’t do a family any good to ignore that issue. Parents should be introducing children old enough to ask for stuff about how things come to be in the home and how money works. Games like Monopoly and LIFE are good introductions to buying and spending for children. When a family needs to change the current standards that the children are used to, parents can explain the importance of paying what we owe and what might happen when we do not pay back or give back things we borrow. Obviously we don’t want our children to think that they are being punished as we tighten our belts, so setting our children up with an understanding that sometimes we can not have what we want immediately, we have to work towards things we want, to earn good things. Parents can be creative in the way they transition their family to more frugal living. If they can make eating at home fun and try to make mealtime full of fun and teachable moments, kids might forget about eating out back in the day and the desire to go places that cost. Having a positive attitude, as parents will be contagious for children. Hit the libraries and find free sources of media instead of going to the movies. Introduce more family time at home and once consequence of having a debt monster might be a stronger family bond once you come out the other side.  Major transitions like moving homes and downsizing cars might be a reality, and in those cases kids don’t need to know everything, just that we as a family found a place that will make our lives better after a while, and we want to be as happy as possible.   

This was the follow up to an article written for

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Author of I’m Sorry, You are Not a Pick-Up Artist