Supporting a spouse/partner with a mental illness
Reprinted from "Couples" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 10 (4), p.17
Money and relationships can be challenging even under the best of circumstances. We bring our own money views into a relationship, as well as our money skills and goals. It’s no surprise that one of the biggest predictors of divorce is how often a couple fights about money.1 It’s complicated and about more than just dollars and cents, income and expenses—it’s about our personal history, our values and feelings around money, and our financial goals.
Managing money gets even harder when one of the spouses/partners is living with a mental illness. We commonly see consumers who are struggling with their finances and living with a mental illness. It seems that, as the stigma of mental illness lessens, more individuals are willing to ask for help and support to ensure they create a life of mental well-being.
Some common behaviours we see at the Credit Counselling Society with individuals living with a mental illness and/or an addiction can include excessive spending, secret spending, debt (secret or known), anxiety around spending and/or using credit, depression around money, and/or hoarding. Behaviours can include, for example: furnishing a room or whole home on credit, excessively buying items on eBay or any other online store or the home shopping channel, gambling (online or at a casino), or excessive spending on alcohol, tobacco or drugs.
But even if a particular mental illness isn’t directly related to unhealthy spending habits, just having a mental illness can affect the state of a couple’s finances. The cost of medication, specialist appointments and missed work can all add up and take a bite out of your bank account. Furthermore, if one partner is on disability benefits, the family can face reduced income as well as reduced income-earning potential, which can negatively affect household finances if not properly managed.
Tips for managing financial issues
There are no easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions on how to safeguard shared finances and manage through financial challenges when a spouse/partner experiences a mental illness. Different things work for different couples. But following are some tips and suggestions that can help protect your finances and ease financial pressures.
Create a realistic budget
Work with your spouse/partner to develop a household budget so they feel a part of the household finances and not like a child. Having an agreed-upon budget can also make it easier to talk about overspending when it happens. However, protect yourself and your family by being responsible for paying all expenses and debts and for putting money into savings.
If feasible, have each spouse/partner have an “allowance” for spending on whatever they wish. Having an allowance empowers us to have things we want without feeling beholden to the other person.
Set limits on all credit products
If overspending is a symptom of a mental illness, it’s best to have one credit card only, with a reduced limit that can be easily managed. If this isn’t possible, sticking to a cash-only policy can help keep finances and spending in check. Not only will this protect your spouse/partner’s finances, but it will protect their credit rating too.
Encourage your spouse/partner to put a statement on their credit reports to limit the approval of additional credit for personal reasons. This can be done through Equifax and TransUnion, the two Canadian credit reporting agencies. More information can be found at www.equifax.ca and www.transunion.ca.
Be very careful about paying your spouse/partner’s debts
If your spouse/partner has credit available to them and they have a pattern of spending when they are unwell, paying off the debt just creates more available credit for them to spend. The pattern of running up debt, fighting about it and then paying it off can create tremendous tension and frustration in a relationship. This pattern can also keep your spouse/partner’s credit rating intact, enabling them to apply for and receive a higher credit limit or additional credit cards.
If you choose to pay off your spouse/partner’s debt, be sure that the credit product(s) is closed and a letter signed by your spouse/partner is sent to the creditor(s) instructing them not to re-open the account(s).
Protect yourself—don’t co-sign for potential debt
Protect your finances by not having any joint credit or debt. Do not co-sign or apply for joint credit with your spouse/partner. This may not be possible if you are applying for a mortgage. If one individual on a co-signed debt misses a payment or loses the ability to pay altogether, the creditor will simply look for payment from the other person. By not having any joint credit/debt, you are protecting yourself and your family from possible financial disaster, because the creditors cannot take action on debts that aren’t in your name.
In some circumstances, couples where one partner has a mental illness may choose to stop having a joint account. Joint accounts can be challenging to manage in the best of circumstances as both parties are using the account without knowledge of how or when the other person is. This can result in an account depleting to the point of insufficient funds to cover a purchase or needing to use an overdraft to cover the cost of an item. It may make more sense, especially if the spouse/partner with a mental illness is having difficulty with finances (e.g. overspending, gambling, using savings to purchase goods and services, etc.), to have individual accounts. As a couple you could agree on how much and how often money is transferred into this account. This way, the individual can only spend money in their personal account, leaving the household assets untouched and unblemished.
Work as a team
As with most challenges, working as a team can bring about the best results. If an individual communicates their needs and circumstances to their spouse/partner, they will be in a better position to navigate through their finances when they are not at their best. With permission, a spouse/partner can monitor an individual’s bank account or credit card for unusual spending patterns. These checks and balances can work towards reducing the impact of excessive spending if it occurs, which will ease the financial pressures.
Plan ahead for triggers
Alan Lakein, a well-known author on personal time management, said that “failing to plan is planning to fail.” Mental illness tends to be episodic in nature. Understanding the problems, as well as anticipating the problems before they occur, and creating a plan, can help alleviate some challenges.
Create an action plan in advance, when your spouse/partner is well. It’s important to have an open, honest and gentle conversation of what financial triggers your spouse/partner experiences and what the resulting behaviours are. You can spell out what you can say and do to support your spouse/partner. An agreed-upon plan can help you avoid a full-blown crisis, because you can abide by the “if this/then that” plan. An agreement might be, for example: if my spouse/partner is unwell and tends to spend excessively with their credit card, then we agree to put the credit cards away and live on a cash-only basis.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
If you’re having difficulty setting a budget or encouraging your spouse/partner to take steps to safeguard your family finances, or if you feel as though you’re running out of hope, get help. Speak to a credit counsellor at a reputable non-profit agency. They can provide guidance for handling your money, credit and debt issues. Having a knowledgeable third party review your situation and goals can help couples to find middle ground and to better manage their financial affairs going forward.
Remember that, when it comes to money and love and well-being, there’s always another method to try, another conversation to have, another solution to work toward. Get help, because financial problems have financial solutions.
About the author
Scott is the President and CEO of the Credit Counselling Society and has led the non-profit charitable organization since its inception in 1996. A graduate of BCIT and a Registered Insolvency Counsellor, Scott is a recognized expert in the credit counselling landscape and is regularly sought out by the media
Dew, J., Britt, S. & Huston, S. (2012). Examining the relationship between financial issues and divorce. Family Relations, 61(4): 615-628.