The Great Co-Pretending

This article was originally published for RC Peck’s Fearless Wealth Newsletter in March 2008.

Are You Co-Pretending About Your Money?

Follow me on this visual exercise to find out if you and your spouse or partner are afflicted by one of the most common mistakes couples make when it comes to money and finance.

When you do this exercise, notice the emotions that come up.

Picture your home (where you live, even if you are renting). Notice what the outside of your home looks like and how it makes you feel. Notice what the neighborhood is like (is there noise or garbage on the street?).

Proceed to the inside of your home and notice how it looks and how it is laid out. What is the lighting like? What is the first thing you notice when you walk in?

Observe the part of your home that gets the least attention (there may be several parts, and it’s likely that you and your partner will see different things). It might be the guest bedroom, maybe a closet, or the garage, or even one of the drawers in your kitchen. These are areas that are being neglected.

For some of you the neglect might manifest as being dirty, or cluttered, or even unfurnished. This may be the part of your home where stuff gets thrown when you don’t know what to do with it.

You might even have old paint, or peeling wall paper, in this area of your home. And as you observe this part, silently acknowledge that you already “know” about this neglect.

When I work with couples and their money we all three work as a team to build agreement, alignment and partnership so the couple can have what they want.

I call the process I use “Clean Your Financial House™,” a name I chose because your home is a metaphor for your wealth. There are areas of your wealth that are currently being neglected, just like in your home.

Notice that you and your partner engage in a pattern around this part of your home. The pattern goes something like:

  1. You ask your partner to attend to the neglected part of the home, and then you both pretend that she or he will attend to it.
  2. Or maybe you both simply ignore the neglected part of the home and hope something will change on its own.
  3. Or (my favorite) you think you will get to it one day.

What’s actually happening is that you are “co-pretending” that either: 1) This part of your home is not really a problem (maybe because you can compare your home to someone else’s in worse condition); or 2) You will actually get to it when the time is “right.”

Some couples spend their entire lives “just about getting to it” without ever getting to it and this is where it gets really interesting. Couples use the same routine to co-pretend with their wealth.

And because not being wealthy is scarier than not being clean or organized, the reflex to co-pretend that everything is okay is even more powerful.
Take a moment to silently acknowledge the routine that you and your partner have gotten into, and what may be the cost of co-pretending. Ask what it is that you are co-pretending about in your home, and notice that co-pretending perpetuates the neglect.

Now think about all the ways you and your spouse use the same routine with your wealth. When working with couples I find that it is very common for an entire section of their wealth to be neglected. One of the most common areas of neglect is stock market money, or more specifically 401(k) and IRA money.

Close behind 401(k) and IRA neglect is neglect in the monitoring of spending and saving. I’ve found this to be true for couples who earn $50,000 or $850,000 a year.

Co-pretending does not change with the size of the home or the amount the couple earns. In fact, I have found that the working rich (people who earn over $300,000 a year but cannot stop working because they do not have an effective plan) co-pretend more than others because they have the belief that they earn enough that they don’t have to pay attention.

Money neglect carries a much larger negative charge then a neglected basement, so for many couples, both individuals are completely blind to the neglect. And sometimes the worst and most damaging neglect can’t be seen, like termites.

The termites might be there, but the couple may think if the paint on the walls looks good there must not be a problem. And neglected money spreads to other areas of their partnership faster than a leaky faucet dripping on wood causes fungus or dry rot.

I suggest that couples work with an objective financial professional (someone who does not sell insurance, annuities or mutual funds) for help with both the visible and invisible neglected parts of their wealth.

The professional will not only identify neglected areas, but will help implement a plan to fix them.

Cleaning up your money is one area that I recommend not putting off. You’ll find, when looking back, that giving attention to the maintenance of your wealth is one of the best things you can do for your marriage and your family.

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