Holiday Stress and Overspending: When is Enough Enough?

 

In December, I find myself having great expectations and bracing for the traditional chaos. The Christmas season not only includes my birthday, but all three of my childrens’, and now my two granddaughters’ as well. Because of this, I am exceptionally aware of the potential for increased spending and heightened emotions.

 Every year I strive for a perfect and memorable Christmas holiday and birthday celebrations for my entire family. Perfect means having the right tree with glistening ornaments, exchanging thoughtful gifts, and preparing food to be savored and remembered. But here is my confession. I’ve had a history of overspending, over indulgence, and showing my love through gift giving. Every year I vow that I’m not going to do it again, but I end up running around like mad at the last-minute buying one more gift and wrapping at midnight. Predictably, when the tree comes down, the Christmas music has ceased, and the kids are gone, I’m left with the bills to pay and increased stress. Every year I say never again, but every year I repeat the cycle. Sound familiar?

 As a financial coach, I am very aware of those who struggle with impulse buying, and that the holidays are especially triggering.  When there is a tendency to overspend, it is easily justified when doing so for others. Even with the best intentions, holiday spending can put people deeper into debt which often results in increased fear, anxiety, guilt and shame. It is a vicious cycle. In the United States, because there is a never-ending supply of shiny new toys, we often buy to fill a void. But the void is in our heart and soul and can never be satisfied by simply buying more stuff.

This year I am going to do things differently.  A few days ago, I received a powerful gift from an old college friend who has lived in Zimbabwe for forty years. In exchange for a photo of my perfectly trimmed tree he sent photos of a “shopping mall” and butcher shop outside the city of Blantyre, Malawi. If ever I needed a reminder of the abundance and extravagance we have in America, I have received it.

 Small shopping center in Malawi, Africa

Small shopping center in Malawi, Africa

 After seeing this photo, I felt a heightened awareness of all that I and those around me have. Later that day, I ran out to do some errands to prepare for my weekend and the upcoming celebrations. Shopping at the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver, Colorado is quite the retail experience.  Every international designer is alluring.  I was incredibly tempted to buy more toys and darling matching outfits for my granddaughters. I admired an expensive designer scarf that would be stunning on my daughter. Yet, as I shopped, the images of Africa came to mind, and I questioned my own reality. When is enough is enough?  In that moment I recognized the point when my generosity and giving-spirit can become excessive.

 Extravagance at a local shopping mall

Extravagance at a local shopping mall

Now with the holiday shopping season in full swing, I ask myself, “What is the deeper meaning of Christmas and what is it that I desire this season?” On the 22nd of this month I will turn 59 years young!  My commitment to myself is to take time to reflect on the holiday.  From the lens of a financial therapist, what is the best possible advice I can give to myself and practice in my own life?

With intention, I will spend quiet time considering what the Christmas season means to me. How do I want to feel in the days and weeks to come? What can I do to create a joyful experience and not overindulge in all of the merriment (eating, drinking, and over-spending) that may result in more anxiety? How can I take good care of myself this season? Before I shop, I will decide how much I can afford to spend on each gift. I will stick to my budget. Most importantly, I will remember that happiness cannot be bought with gifts. I will focus on gratitude and the experience of time spent with loved ones and welcome in a new year. This Christmas, I am going to be less stressed and more grateful for the abundance that I am blessed with.

$1.6 Billion Spent by Americans Every Year.....What’s With Tattoos?

I consider myself an open-minded person, but when it comes to some of the newer trends in fashion and self-expression, including body art, I admit that I have been judgmental at times.  If one of my (millennial) children was covered in tats, I might have a difficult time accepting their newly decorated skin. It’s difficult for this baby boomer to understand why a beautiful young person would want to be covered in tattoos. But given that Americans spend over $1.6 billion a year on this ancient art, I grew curious.

While in Miami visiting my family recently, I decided to conduct some nonscientific research by stopping into the most famous tattoo shop in the US, and perhaps the world. Love Hate Tattoo Studio is the home of the artists featured in the popular reality show Miami Ink. As a middle-aged, white woman without a spot of anything, anywhere (I pay a lot for spots to be removed but that’s another blog). I somehow found the courage to enter. My intention was to gain further understanding of this financial and cultural phenomenon. I wanted to learn about the artists, the motivation, and most of all, the money.

 Although I felt self-conscious, I was warmly greeted by Darren Brass, one of the shop’s founders .  Because of his skill, artistic flair and reputation, he is a successful millionaire. Had I met Darren on the street, I probably would have had a subtle and not favorable opinion of his tattoo-covered body.  I might have even felt a little intimidated.  Certainly, I would not have thought him to be a wealthy man. But I found Darren to be a generous, open and humble guy who was willing to spend his time with me.

 photo by maureen kelley

photo by maureen kelley

But here’s the twist. On this spectacular afternoon in exciting South Beach, I not only learned about tattoos, but I also learned an important lesson in family dynamics, parental support and honest financial communication.

While I was waiting to talk with Darren, I met a married couple named Sal and Christina and their 18-year-old son, Sal Junior, who was celebrating his 18th birthday. Sal Jr. was a tall, handsome, bright, athletic, and mature young man who was ready for his first tattoo. Having researched and thought about it for a couple of years, his mom and dad were not only in full support of his decision—they were also paying for it. They anticipated it would cost between $1500-2000.  Sal Jr. was going to have a Bible verse that was meaningful to him etched across his chest.

Given my own judgment about tattoos, I was quite surprised by this display of family unity. It would have been very easy, once he turned 18 and no longer needed parental consent, for Sal Jr. to go off and get a tat on his own. Lots of kids his age go down that path, only to surprise their disapproving parents. This scenario plays out every day across America.

By comparison, even though Sal Jr.’s mom and dad were not initially thrilled about his tattoo, this family chose to engage in honest conversation about his decision and ultimately provide emotional and financial support. Christina shared that “their parenting style is based on open communication.”  They believe in less talking and more listening to what their kids have to say. “Being respectful of each other and no shaming. Whether its school, choices, relationships, and yes, even money.” When faced with a challenge, they meet it head on.

This family turned what could have been a volatile situation into a relationship-strengthening moment.  Will Sal Jr ever regret his tattoo? Possibly. But I suspect this family will never regret their ability to talk openly and support each other.  By the way, his parents explained that his next tattoo, if he chooses one, is on his dime.

 

Women Empowering Women: Microfinancing in Guatemala As a Global Solution to Addressing Poverty

When it comes to making financial decisions, there is a shift that is occurring not only in our country, but around the world. Now more than ever, women are empowering women to take control of their financial futures. On a recent trip to Guatemala, I saw a shining example of what can happen when oppression is turned into opportunity. 

  Guatemalan entrepreneurs host American investors thanks to a microfinancing program that seeks to empower women.

Guatemalan entrepreneurs host American investors thanks to a microfinancing program that seeks to empower women.

We were a group of female professionals,- the senior management of Capital Sisters International and fourteen of its investors on a mission to discover the true impact of our investment. Our trip was in partnership with Friendship Bridge, an organization that empowers women through microfinance. A visit to the field makes a lasting impression - it stirs the soul in a way that writing a check does not.

Our one-week trip began in Guatemala City. Traveling by van, standing in the back of pick-up trucks, in tuk tuks, and in boats, I ventured through small lake towns, villages and cities, including San Marcos La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna, Santa Catarina Palopo, and Pana. Homes located in remote and isolated rural areas contrasted with crowded, street-filled, chaotic city scenes. These scenes were a far cry from our comfortable homes back in the U.S.  On this trip, the women of rural Guatemala and their day-to-day lives became real.

As part of the trip we were invited into the homes of the recipients of our support – women who use micro loans to help fund their businesses -- for a glimpse into their most personal spaces. Although they had very little — often no running water or electricity — their homes were simple and clean. Inside children were safe and loved. Greeting us with warm smiles, they were bashful, yet very curious about getting to know their new visitors.

Like the rest of my group, I was quickly humbled by the difficulty of life in Guatemala. Many begin their day at 4 am to cook breakfast for their families and get to the market to sell their goods. Often their days do no not end until after 11 pm as they complete their daily work. Yet they work with pride and determination, the result of being empowered to take hold of their own lives through microfinance.

Olga Marina Martin Cumez, a 31-year-old mother of four, earns her living by weaving brightly colored huipils (traditional blouses) in a distinctive design representative of her village. Each huipil takes over three months to create. She travels 3-4 days a month by “chicken bus” and foot, with her one-year-old baby straddled on her back, to sell her intricately woven textiles. Her 13-year-old daughter Olivia and her husband care for the two little boys. Olivia is an eager student who loves math and music and wants to be a doctor.

  Olga travels miles in order to sell traditional “huipil” blouses to support her family.

Olga travels miles in order to sell traditional “huipil” blouses to support her family.

At each client's home we enthusiastically purchased their creations: placemats or scarves, trinkets and jewelry; gifts to share with loved ones at home. 

I saw incredible passion and perseverance, but I also made connections with humanity in general. My work in Financial Therapy leads me to meet the most interesting people, who have been tremendously affected by their relationship with money and finances. Universally, we have a deep, emotional connection to money. From the small villages of Guatemala to the bustling commerce of the United States, much of our relationships and happiness is closely tied to the word “success” and the idea of wealth.

  The women demonstrate the importance of each and every part of our interconnected web. What happens when someone drops their piece?

The women demonstrate the importance of each and every part of our interconnected web. What happens when someone drops their piece?

As a financial advisor and private banker, motivation throughout my career came from serving my clients.  The greatest reward is helping people achieve their financial goals and dreams.  I have always felt that quality, financial service goes way beyond the money.  While my nearly 30 years have been spent serving the wealthiest of families, through my work with microfinance and these women in Guatemala, I now see the impact of the web more clearly. We are all connected.  If my contribution is bringing women together, telling their stories, and realizing how we can really and truly make a difference, then my career goals are met. One woman, one family, one community at a time.  It is impossible to make such deep personal connections, touch their lives, and walk away.  As I left for the airport in the historic village of Antigua, embracing our guides, unable to hold back tears, they asked that we do not forget them and their people.

Status in a Bottle: A Fine Blend of Financial Therapy, Bourbon and Millennials

As cocktail culture takes the United States by storm, bourbon, a highly specialized version of whiskey, has become something of a millennial sweetheart. According to the Distilled Spirits Council, sales of American whiskey grew a staggering 8.1% in 2017.

 So what’s behind this atmospheric growth? Can financial status explain why specialty bourbon Pappy Van Winkle has gained a cult following among bourbon aficionados?  The new business elite — bankers, entrepreneurs, traders and second-generation wealthy – think nothing of dropping the almost $3000 a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 23-year retails for. If one believes self-worth equals net worth, what could be better than having a bottle of Pappy on the table to make your bourbon-worshiping pals supremely jealous?

 Financial therapists study financial behavior. They gain understanding of how people think, feel, and behave around money.  For instance, many buying decisions are based upon underlying beliefs about money. Those beliefs can include the notion that more money, and more things – houses, cars, clothes, even bourbon – will improve one’s social status, and subsequently create more happiness. As such, it is not uncommon for a person’s self-image to drive purchasing decisions. Extravagant displays of wealth are a prime source of self-worth, social rank, and personal well-being, and the bourbon boom is surely a reflection of this buying behavior.

For a glimpse into today’s pop culture icons of wealth, Wall Street and greed, one only needs to watch Showtime’s mega hit, Billions. Whether celebrating a big hedge fund return, destroying an enemy, or seething over a run-away wife, the character titans of Wall Street are often shown cracking the seal of prestigious bourbon. Kavalan Whiskey, Michters Bourbon—clearly the spirit of choice for these psychologically complex and often wildly decadent characters.   But are they any different from previous generations of whisky lovers?  Mark Twain’s thoughts on whiskey: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.”

The impact bourbon has and continues to have on our culture has been demonstrated throughout the ages. Understanding generational differences has major implications for consumer marketing, and the spirits industry is no different.  Where hard-charging Baby Boomers (1946-1964) are driven by money and brand loyalty, Generation X (1965-1980) and Millennials (1979-2006) have different motivators. Marketers know that Millennials account for nearly a quarter of adults over 21 years of age, but they account for 32 percent of spirits consumption (Nielsen, 2015).  They crave authenticity over brand loyalty, and constantly seek out new tastes. Millennials, and younger Gen Xers are often willing to pay a premium for experience, rather than just a product alone. They can be indulgent and will readily spend their money on new discoveries and luxury items. They want these experiences to be fun and rare – a little slice of they can share with their friends. There is a reason the term “extra” – code for extravagant or excessive behavior – has become a favorite term with this generation.

According to Nielsen’s 2015 Beverage Alcohol Media Report, millennials do seek deals, but they “won’t give up quality or taste when it comes to their alcoholic beverage purchases. And as a result, a large percentage say they will not spend their money on mass-market alcoholic beverages. That’s one factor that has led to the growing popularity of craft beverage alcohol products.” In addition, 41 percent say they associate a higher price with higher quality most or all of the time.  Jeff Hopmayer, global industry expert from Brindiamo Group has witnessed the exponential growth. Jeff’s insights include “authenticity and discovery are really important to this millennial consumer. There is a strong desire to be educated and knowledgeable about what they are drinking and why.”

 Though high-end legacy distilleries like High West Distillery in Park City Utah, or George Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill, Mount Vernon, Virginia still provide the craft and esteem these new bourbon buyers crave, newer businesses like Mythology in Denver, Colorado, and Willett Distilling Company in Bardstown, Kentucky bring new and exciting options that pair well with the rise of craft cocktail culture. Walk into any modern speakeasy in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, even Denver, and you’ll find a variety of enticing options.

 Millennial and co-founder of Mythology Distillery, Scott Yeates, knows what his generation craves. According to Scott “Millennials flock to adventure and unique spaces to explore a new world of spirits” driving the opening of his eclectic new space in one of Denver’s hippest neighborhoods.  “The craft cocktail resurgence is further increasing consumer demand for craft spirits and we see an opportunity for distilleries to push creative boundaries in an approachable way.”  

 Mythology Distillery founder Scott Yeates and distiller Scott Coburn

Mythology Distillery founder Scott Yeates and distiller Scott Coburn

Very similar to how breweries innovated in the early 2000s, Mythology is a distillery with the goals of innovation, education and quality. This is in large part driven by the millennial generations interests in locally sourced and manufactured products, quality and creating a community experience.

 A financial therapist may challenge a Millennial spending thousands of dollars on a bottle of bourbon. But to a young executive, the ability to spend that money, and in doing so offer his or her colleagues, clients and friends the unique experience that comes with it, is about much more. It’s a reflection on power, success, on the image he reflects to the world. To him, opening that bottle of bourbon is more than just pouring a drink, it’s crafting an experience, creating meaning where it might have otherwise have been missing.

With a generic bottle of beer, a drink is just a drink. With Kentucky Owl bourbon however, that drink becomes an experience to remember.  

Female Breadwinners: The Emotional Impact of Changing Gender Roles

As gender inequality continues to improve in the workforce, more women than ever now find themselves in the position of family breadwinner. No longer is their focus specifically on how to manage finances or making educated investment decisions. When it comes to financial therapy, women are having a now moment, asking for advice on how to best handle greater earnings and career success while maintaining a healthy marriage. Often surprised by a combination of negative emotions and dissatisfaction at home, attempting to find balance in their powerful new role of wealth is a lonely journey for many.

 Women with problems that arise from financial success don’t always find the empathy and support they may need. Take Melissa, a 43-year-old breadwinner, who is private by nature, especially when it comes to money. She is conflicted by the issues that financial success have brought upon her marriage and feels guilty about unpleasant feelings toward her husband. When entering her marriage, she assumed she would have a balanced partnership, but has lost respect for her husband and become resentful, questioning whether her career is preventing him from being ambitious. 

 Seeking support, she opened up to her 63-year-old friend and mentor about the pressure and strain that out earning her husband had put on her marriage - to a highly-charged, emotional response.  Unable to recognize or understand Melissa’s pain, she was told to, “Just deal with it and stop whining.”  After all—opportunity, equal pay and breaking the glass ceiling are what women fought for over many years.  

 The strong wave of contemporary feminism will continue to impact our culture and our workforce for years to come. Women have absorbed the changes of the last 50 years and have redefined what it means to be female in America. To be a girl today is to gain from decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its forms and expressions. Women have been outpacing men in earned Bachelor and Master Degrees since 1982, and Doctorates since the mid-2000s. A secondary reshaping is underway with more 25-32 year-old women attending college than men. The gender-income gap is closer than ever with young women today earn 93% of the average hourly wage of men and approximately 29% of women are earning more than their husbands.   

 Why then, if women are having career and financial success are they so dissatisfied at home? A 2013 study by Marilyn Bertrand at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business of 4,000 married American couples found that regardless of amount, once a woman earns more in a marriage, the divorce rates increased. The conflict typically arises from the discussion around money, which are often more intense and take longer to recover from thn other arguments.  Studies also reveal that gaps in housework actually widen when a woman is the primary breadwinner, leading men to do less childcare and work around the house. Some suggest this results from a perceived threat to male masculinity, so women overcompensate by doing more.

 Some couples are able to navigate this new financial model successfully, but it takes work and mutual understanding. One couple expressed a willingness to adapt by co-creating a family model that employs flexibility in child care above earned income, without casting one spouse or the other into traditional gender roles. The husband remarked, “my identity is not tied to a job - it’s everything outside of that” and, “her opportunities were just too good for me to intervene.” The couple have naturally created a working agreement on financial matters based on shared values of family, financial security, work flexibility, support and mutual respect.

 Millennials, a generation heavily impacted by the increase of womenin the workforce,   are taking notice of the trend A self-described serial dater, 32-year-old Jenn is now ready for a serious relationship. Having earned an MBA, she has a very successful career in finance. But since she’s become involved with a man whose vocation is carpentry, she has begun to face the reality is that they are and will continue to be fiscally unequal. This imbalance has caused a lot of deep reflection and candid dialogue. Jenn describes her uncertainty as to whether this is a deal-breaker in a long-term relationship. Knowing she would be the major earner, she is realistic about the implications of a financial future together. “This is going to require a great deal of soul searching for me. “

 Jay Hughes, retired estate attorney and subject matter expert on fiscal unequals posits that “the critical question is whether couples in such relationships can courageously accept their new situation and balance the powerful role of women and their wealth with the issues of male self-esteem. Just as new roles are being forged for women, so must new roles be forged for men.” 

 Couples need to work together to evaluate who and where they are. Disagreements about money are normal, but they can be difficult to navigate when couples have different expectations for their futures together. The role of the financial therapist is to help couples work through money-related issues, so that in the end the couple may find a way to modernize and honor their shared set of values.

 

 

*A version of this article was published on WealthManagement.com