The income trap…when yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities

Not surprisingly, my financial therapy clients with low to moderate income and few assets often experience symptoms of financial stress such as anxiety and depression. Even though they juggle their funds by alternating which bills they pay each month, they still come up short. Interestingly, even clients with triple digit incomes and substantial assets report symptoms of financial stress such as panic attacks, mood swings, and a loss of interest in regular activities.

Paradoxically, the attainment of more income does little to alleviate financial hardship. Increases in salaries are expended on larger houses, finer wines and more frequent and extravagant vacations. Soon yesterday’s luxuries are today’s necessities. Too often, when a couple’s spending is disproportionate to their income, they contend with more than harassing calls from bill collectors. Financial pressures lead to arguments, especially as the pile of unopened and unpaid invoices fill the mailbox. Numerous research studies reveal that arguments about money are more likely to predict divorce than arguments about other topics. Utah State University researcher, Jeffrey Dew found that those couples who are burdened by higher debt argued more frequently about their finances and spent less time together. One reason couples may argue about money is they do not share a unified view of their family income, assets and liabilities. One study found that half of the couples surveyed reported significant differences in knowledge of family assets and liabilities.

Poet E. E. Cummings summed up the financial condition of these clients when he acknowledged,

I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart.”

Are you and your income “living apart”? Would you like to get your spending more in line with your income? Are your financial problems exacerbated by relationship tensions?

If so, you may benefit from reevaluating your spending priorities.  For many couples, spending creeps up each year until there is not enough money to pay for all those luxurious necessities. That is, until there is a financial crisis. A Pew Research found that many Americans changed their minds about which everyday goods and services they could live without when unemployment, foreclosures and personal bankruptcies were on the rise from 2006 to 2009. Over this period, a declining proportion of all the adults surveyed viewed the following items as necessities: microwave (-21%), clothes dryer (-17%), home air conditioning (-16%) and dishwasher (-14%). Looking more closely at the survey answers reveals that higher-income adults are more likely than lower-income adults to rate more of the items as necessities regardless of the prevailing economic conditions. It seems that as higher incomes are spent instead of saved, people become trapped into a more luxurious lifestyle.

Implementing spending cuts is never easy. Financial therapy may help you sort out what is really necessary for your financial wellness and relationship satisfaction.


Dr. Jean Theurer is a Certified Financial Planner® and a Registered Marriage and Family Intern.

Finding Balance Amidst the Chaos

As a working mother, finding balance is my constant daily struggle. Some days, I am more successful than others. I have certainly had moments as a counselor when I am looking at a client who fights this same battle of “never enough” and it feels very familiar; even ironic. I have come to expect this as a counselor. Those themes that are present in my own life are likely to be prevalent in my counseling relationships as well. Call it awareness. Call it chance. Call it divine intervention. All I know is that it keeps me in a continuous state of self-reflection and humility.
I associate the journey to find balance with the path to enlightenment. Both are more about growth than they are about reaching the end goal. Although the journey is never finished, there are some tools I use to cope with this perpetual state of imbalance that provide both comfort and confidence for me when I am tempted to beat myself up over my inability to maintain balance.

First, I accept that my life will never be balanced.

This could be relieving or discouraging, and it is often both. The word “balance” is quite subjective. What does balance actually look like and how will we know we have reached it? There are too many variables that exist in the universe, and the search for balance becomes just that- an endless and excruciating quest that shifts the focus from wanting to honor and value the various aspects in our lives to valuing balance itself over the important things that led us to seek balance in the first place. If you accepted that your life would never be balanced, how would that change your attitude, perceptions and expectations?

Second, I accept that I don’t want my life to be balanced.

It’s funny how we can idealize something because it sounds great, but when we get it, it isn’t really as wonderful as we thought it would be. Imagine a completely balanced life. For all its advantages, living a balanced life has disadvantages also. It takes away the Human Factor. Sometimes I like working on a project at the last minute or for hours at a time because it invigorates me and it fosters more creativity and ingenuity. Often times, I make a plan for the day that feels balanced, but then a relational need arises, and I choose to pursue the need over the balance. If I lived a completely balanced life, I would probably never write. Because let’s face it- there is always something more productive to do than writing. I would also have to say “No” to relational opportunities if they hindered my plans and shifted the balance in my day too significantly. And I would miss opportunities with my son because I want to be imbalanced in my time and energy when it comes to him. I want him to have A LOT of it. But it comes at a cost. And it’s worth it to me. What are the areas of your life where you want to be imbalanced?

Lastly, I have decided that being intentional is better than being balanced.

According to Webster’s dictionary, the word balanced means arranged in good proportions.

Sounds romantic.
Webster’s dictionary defines the word intentional means done on purpose; deliberate.
That sounds more like a person who is making positive decisions about her time, energy, relationships, goals and life vision.
I don’t think I will ever be arranged in good proportions. I am too passionate and indulgent for that. But I can be more deliberate. Living intentionally is not easy. It involves pain, hard choices and a lot of discomfort. But I have found that when I am aware of my actions and behaviors and how they impact myself, others and the world, I feel more connected and fulfilled. Eventually, I feel more peace.

How would your day-to-day life change if you shifted your lens to being intentional instead of being balanced?

Give it a try.


Karin Fields, LMHC



Photograph courtesy of Pink Sherbert Photography, Flickr.