Learning to dance: How couples can have constructive conversations about money

Today, the Get Rich Slowly summer of books concludes with an excerpt from Cashing Out: Win the Wealth Game by Walking Away from Julien and Kiersten Saunders. Julien and Kiersten are the power couple behind the rich & Regular blog and YouTube channel.

The following excerpt from Cashing Out (published by Portfolio/Penguin) is used with permission. Copyright © 2022 by Rich & Regular LLC. This passage has been edited to be more readable on the web.

Dr. Sue Johnson is a clinical psychologist who specializes in emotionally focused therapy. She says that when couples fight (regardless of the topic), they're doing a dance. One partner makes a move, and the other one responds accordingly. She insists the dance is always the problem — not you, not me, not us — and not the topic.

By focusing on the dance, we can shift our focus and look at our interaction patterns whenever there's an issue. The rhythm of one person responding to the other person's moves is what ultimately. defines the dance, and our ability to instinctively know when to reach and and grab the other's hand for a spin requires what Dr. Johnson calls emotional attunement.

If the conflict is the dance itself, think of your emotions as the music. Being emotionally attuned means you can both hear the same song, or at the very least can acknowledge that yours isn't the only song playing. In other words, it's not enough to just go through the moves together if one of you is grooving to Barry White and the other is swinging to Barry Manilow.

When you've been in a pattern of avoiding conversations with your partner about money, it's as if you've both been attending a silent disco. Everyone's dancing, but you can't hear any music. If you want to get attuned, it's important to understand what unresolved money arguments sound like, emotionally speaking.

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Growing up poor (and how it messed with my mind)

Hey, folks. We have/had a good discussion going here, but something happened to nearly all of the comments. I'm not sure what the issue is. They're still in the database, but they don't appear on the site. We'll work to solve the problem.

Update: Holy cats! It's not only the comments on this article. It's the comments on every article on the site. They're all gone. I can see them in the database, but they're no longer tied to their posts. They're just here hanging in the ether. I have zero clue what happened. May be time for a database restore.

A couple of weekends ago, Kim and I enjoyed a short vacation on the Oregon Coast. She's been taking foraging classes, and she had an early morning workshop on harvesting sea vegetables one Sunday. Rather than wake in the middle of the night to drive out, we rented a small place in Tillamook and took the dog for an adventure. (The dog loves the coast.)

We let Tally lead us on a walk through town one rainy afternoon. Coming home, we cut through a trailer park. "We're in the poor part of town," Kim said.

"Yep," I said. "But look at that trailer house right there. That is almost exactly like the one I grew up in." Here's the trailer I grew up in:

the actual trailer house I grew up in

We stopped to look at the trailer. I pointed out the tiny windows and the sagging roof. "It's small," Kim said, frowning.

"Yes," I said. "Yes it is." The trailer was a beat-up 1970-era single-wide. Nothing about it looked appealing. I could imagine the inside: shag carpet, thin wood paneling on the walls, faded linoleum, colors like Avocado and Harvest Gold on every surface.

If you've been watching Stranger Things season four, as we have, the trailer houses in that show remind me of ours too. Look at this mobile home from Stranger Things; it's very, very similar to the one my parents owned:

Trailer house from Stranger Things season four

Everything about that image feels like my childhood to me. (Well, except for the demonic tentacles wrapped around the house and car...)

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As good as it gets

It's December 1972. I am three years old. My parents have to be away for the night. They drive me to stay with Dad's brother and his family. It's cold and it's raining. We stand on a covered porch and knock. A big lady with a big smile opens the door to greet us.

"This is your Aunt Janice," Mom tells me. "And this is your cousin Nicky."

You are standing behind your mother. You are eight years old. This is the first time we meet. You're not interested in a little kid like me, and I'm too timid to pay much attention to you.

Mom and Dad leave. Your mother reads to me: The Little Engine that Could, Curious George, Doctor Seuss. You sit nearby and listen. Before bed, I learn that you wear plastic pants like I do. You're a big boy but you still wet the bed.

It's a Sunday in autumn 1978. You are fourteen; I am nine. My family is visiting yours after church. You are curled up in a chair watching football on a black-and-white television. You have a magazine in your lap. I am watching you watching football. We don't have a TV, and I don't know anything about football.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

"I'm watching the Pittsburgh Steelers," you say. "They're my favorite team." You show me the magazine — an entire magazine only about football. It lists the teams and the players and the schedules for the entire season. You show me how you take notes in the magazine, writing down the scores of each game, writing notes about your favorite players.

I tell you that I like comic books. When the game is over, you take me upstairs to show me your comics. You don't have many, and none of them are about superheroes, but when you offer me a Richie Rich, I take it home with me.

This is our first real interaction not as cousins, but as friends.

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Both at the same time

Howdy, folks. I don't have any personal-finance news for you today because my life continues to be in one of two states.

  • I spend three or four nights at Duane's house, helping to care for him. I buy him food. I prepare him food. I help him walk from room to room (because he cannot reliably do this himself anymore). I administer his drugs. I feed his fish. I take him on "field trips". We watch the Aquarium Co-Op channel on YouTube. Or...
  • I spend three or four nights at my house, mostly sleeping but also rushing to get as many household chores and errands done as possible. I buy groceries. I (slowly) work to build a fence. I water plants. I walk the dog.

This has been my life for the past six weeks, and will continue to be my life until the inevitable conclusion of this adventure. While I'm not looking forward to The End, I will say that I've learned a ton from this process. I've grown even closer to Duane (at least when he's not in a narcotics-induced fog) and I've surprised myself with my ability to provide hospice care. Who knew?

So, that's the life update.

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Quality time

Monday, I drove north to help my cousin, Duane. We moved him out of his apartment last weekend and into a smaller place close to family. As a result, everything is in chaos. He's living out of boxes. At this late stage, his cancer affects every aspect of his life, and that includes his ability to sustain prolonged physical activity — such as setting up a new home.

I spent Monday afternoon unpacking his kitchen, buying groceries, installing his internet and television, and so on. In the evening, Bob and Audrey came over (Duane's brother and his sister-in-law). The four of us sat in the kitchen and sorted the boxes of food into three piles: Duane's pantry, going home with Bob/Audrey, going home with J.D.

When we were done, Duane insisted that we enjoy some birthday cake. He turned 58 on Sunday, and some friends had brought him a fancy carrot cake from a 100-year-old Portland bakery. Duane couldn't eat any cake himself (he can't eat or drink much of anything anymore), but he wanted us to taste it.

After his brother left, Duane and I began preparing for bed. "Tomorrow," I said, "we'll replace the water in your fish tanks and get the last of the stuff from your apartment. Plus, anything else you want to do."

Duane was sitting on the edge of his bed, half undressed. I could see that he was still in pain.

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Drama in real life: Moving Mom to memory care

Today, I did the second-hardest thing I've ever had to do: I took away Mom's cat.

Mom's assisted living facility called last Thursday. "We strongly encourage you to consider moving your mother to memory care," the director told me. "I know we talked about this a year ago, and at that time you and your family decided she wasn't ready. We think she's ready now. She's refusing her meds. She's refusing to eat. She's wandering. She's more confused than ever."

I phoned my brother, Jeff, who has handled the bulk of Mom's care since she moved to Happy Acres a decade ago. "What do you think?" I asked.

"I think they're right," he said. "Mom has been to the emergency room three times since the middle of November. She seems relatively lucid after each hospital visit, but that fades fast. Within a day of returning home, she's out of it again. And her confusion does seem to be getting worse."

"Yeah," I said. "You're right. Even when she's lucid, she's confused. Remember when she called me from the hospital two weeks ago? She was speaking in complete sentences for once, but the sentences made no sense. She was asking to see the sherriff. She was talking about her dog, but she hasn't owned a dog since the 1980s."

Then I added, "The tough part is that she can't keep her cat if she moves to memory care. And she loves that cat."

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Drama in real life: Making planned gifts before death

My mother's health has been declining over the past few months, and it's produced a wee bit of year-end financial drama in our family. (The word "drama" is a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe it's produced some year-end financial consternation?)

As long-time readers will recall, my mother has been in assisted living for more than a decade now. She lives a mellow life filled with television, her pet cat, and a regular routine. Because she has cognitive problems, it's difficult for her to communicate. The doctors call her "non-verbal", and they can't explain the cause. She cannot form complete sentences (sometimes two words is tough!), and it seems as if she cannot formulate complex thoughts. It's a mystery to everyone.

Today — at this very moment — my brother is driving my mom to the emergency room. It's her third visit in six weeks, and it's always the same issue: vomiting, dehydration, confusion. During the previous two episodes, a few days of hospital rest helped her, and she returned to the assisted living facility feeling better (and actually able to carry on a basic conversation, like you might have with a two-year-old).

So, Mom's health is declining. That's important point number one.

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Finding a millionaire money mentor

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

You've probably heard that saying before. It's from motivational speaker Jim Rohn. He used it as a way to encourage people to learn and grow from others' experiences, habits, attitudes, and so forth. He wanted folks to seek out and spend time with people of high quality.

Unfortunately for most people, this advice can be difficult (if not impossible) to implement.

That's because we tend to group with like-minded people, which includes hanging out with friends with similar levels of success. Those who are unmotivated often spend time with others who are unmotivated. And those who are motivated by achievement tend to associate with others at a similar level.

When you resolve to improve yourself — to become smarter or fitter or wealthier — it can be tough to find new friends with a similar desire. It can be difficult to change the five people you spend the most time with.

Today, I want to talk about finding a money mentor.

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How to talk with your parents about their finances

Talking to your parents about their finances probably seems like one of the most awkward you conversations you could ever have. I'll bet it ranks right up there with the sex talk your parents gave you when you were a kid — or that you’ve had with your own children.

I grew up in the South, where we don’t talk about money or sex. So when I asked my mom where babies came from, she told me a man and woman "make love". That’s it. That was the extent of the conversation.

I have three kids, so clearly I figured out where babies come from. When my oldest was 10, she asked me where babies came from. I didn’t say something vague like, “A man and woman make love.” I simply told her the basics. She then looked at me – and remember, I have three kids – and said, “Ooh, you did that three times.”

I decided to be upfront with my kids because I wanted them to know they could feel comfortable talking to me about a topic that many people consider taboo. Like the money talk with parents, it’s only as awkward as you make it.

However, unlike the birds and the bees talk, you cannot figure out your parents’ finances unless you actually get the details.

I learned this the hard way.

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GRS Insider #92: Racism is not a political issue. Racism is a MORAL issue.

Yesterday, as I do most Fridays, I sent the GRS Insider to folks who subscribe to the Get Rich Slowly email list.

The email was unusual. It was more like a blog post than a simple summary of recent articles. I've had several people request a version they can share with other people, so -- this one time only -- I've created a stand-alone web version.

Parts of this have been edited slightly to account for the transition from email to web.

If you've been reading me for any length of time — or if you know me in person — you know that I hate conflict. I hate hate hate it. Some people seem to thrive on it. Not me. I shirk from it.

This is one reason I've steadfastly kept my financial writing politically neutral. I don't want conflict.

It helps that I'm neither liberal nor conservative. I'm some strange mix of the two. But mostly it's because I think financial advice is important for everyone regardless of political persuasion. It's rare that I take a stand on something political.

Because of who I am and what I believe, Get Rich Slowly will never become a political platform. (It'll touch on politics occasionally, but politics will never be a driving force at the site.)

That said, I'm mad as hell about not only the recent bout of racism in the U.S., but also the long history of racism that underpins our society. Something's gotta give. The current protests are 100% justified and they're not acts of terrorism. They're a call for action. What sort of action? I have no idea. I don't have solutions. But the problem is plain as day and it must be addressed. We, as a nation, must — at long last — deal with our history instead of sweeping it under the rug.

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