There's nothing wrong with looking to your spouse to be the provider if you stay home with your kids, or with moving back in with your parents after you graduate while you save for your own place.But it is possible to be too financially dependent, experts say, and dependence that continues indefinitely can be a sign of a serious money disorder.
Called financial dependence, it's afinancial disorder that affects a wide range of people, from trust fund babies tostay-at-home moms, generational welfare recipients to adult children who live off of their parents.
"Even though these are very different people at different income levels, what financial dependents have in common is that everything is given to them, and someone else is managing the money, so they end up with no self-esteem or sense of self-worth," says Yvonne Kaye, a Willow Grove, Pa., therapist and author of "Credit, Cash and Co-Dependency: The Money Connection." "A lot of them get into trouble with alcohol or drugs, or end up in relationships that are abusive."
Signs of financial dependency
Here are some signs that you may have a financial dependency problem:
*You feel resentment or anger because the money you receive seems to come with strings attached, but you're too scared of being cut off to say anything.
*You have never supported yourself on your own.
*You lack even the most basic financial know-how, such as how to balance a checkbook or read a bank statement.
*You're in a physically or verbally abusive relationship, or you're simply unhappy with your living situation, but you worry you won't be able to support yourself if you leave.
*You lack self-confidence and ambition and have little sense of purpose in your life.
*You have no idea what your family income level, net worth or cash flow is.
When the financial dependent is a grown child, it can stifle their creativity, motivation and drive to succeed, experts say. "When children know they don't have to do anything to earn money, that's very destructive to their sense of self," says Kathleen Gurney, a psychologist in Sarasota, Fla., who specializes in money issues. "They never learn how to take care of themselves, they feel helpless, and that often leads to low-grade depression."
Outdated gender roles fuel dependency
The majority of financial dependents,though, are still women whose husbands make the money and manage the family finances, experts say. Some were brought up to believe that money is a man's territory, that money equals love, or that someone else will always take care of them financially. Even women who work can be financially dependent if they don't know where the money is kept or what the cash flow looks like.
The dependency damages a woman's self-esteem and can be destructive to the relationship. "Over time, the earner starts to act more like a parent, and the dependent begins to feel and act more childlike," says Mary Gresham, a psychologist who specializes in money issues in Atlanta. "Because money is so essential in our society, if you don't earn it or manage it, it's easy to feel inadequate and like you have no control in your life."
Women who are financially dependent in abusive relationships often feel it's impossible to leave. One study found that 46% of domestic violence victims return to live with their abusers due to a lack of money.
Dependency can lead to a crisis
Even if there's no abuse, most women will be on their own at some point in their adult lives -- and that can create a crisis for a financial dependent, says Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist and author of "Mind Over Money: Overcoming The Money Disorders that Threaten Our Financial Health." About half of all marriages end in divorce, and even in long-lasting marriages, women outlive their husbands by an average of five years.
Amy Sprague Champeau of Racine, Wis.,had no college education or skills when she and her husband divorced 23 years ago, and she ended up homeless and living in her car. "I had been completely dependent on him," Champeau says. "I didn't even have enough money to get good legal counsel in the divorce. Because of that, I lost everything. I was destitute for a long time."
Champeau said it took her 17 years to rebuild her life, eventually getting her degree and becoming a financial therapist herself. She now offers other women the advice she wished someone had shared with her back then. "I suggest they figure out how much it would cost them to live if they needed to support themselves. I even have them check into the cost of renting an apartment, figuring out what their expenses would be. Sometimes when women do that, they realize they need to have some kind of employment in the event something unforeseen happens."
Develop an action plan
Therapists such as Champeau also help dependents work through the deeper fears that keep them from striking out on their own. They often recommend the following small steps:
1. If you don't earn the money, manage it. There are two kinds of financial power in a relationship, therapists say: earning power and management power. "If you're not earning, become the manager so the power in the relationship is equalized," Gresham says. "You should be the main person taking that paycheck and deciding how it's distributed every month."
2. Put aside money in your own name. Open an account you can tap for unexpected expenses, whether it's an emergency repair or a splurge on a new outfit. That will keep you from constantly having to go back to your source and asking permission.
3. Educate yourself. Enroll in a budget or investment class at your local community college. Go with your spouse to the financial planner. Open those bank statements. And ask lots of questions.
4. Get a job or volunteer. Even if you're short on time because you're home with the kids, find something you can do a few hours a week. Do it even if you don't need the money. "A lot of trust fund babies use the excuse, 'I don't want to take work away from someone else,'" says Kaye. "I tell them, 'If you don't need the money, give it away.Or volunteer your time.' The goal is to help build your self-worth and give your life some meaning."
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