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Trade Paperback
208 pages
Aug 2005

Dollars & Sense: A Mom's Guide to Money Matters

by Cynthia Sumner

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


money 101

Most of us have something that keeps us from addressing our finances. Often there is a fear we must face, one that may have originated in childhood or evolved over time. “It will be too hard.” “It will take up too much time.” “I will try and fail.” “Finding out where I stand will be too depressing.” “If I spend time examining my financial situation, then I’ll have to do something about it.” How much easier it is to live in the land of make-believe, where as long as you have checks in your checkbook, you still have money in your checking account! There, ignorance can truly be bliss—for a while.

Author Peg Bracken wrote, “I believe that one’s basic financial attitudes are—like a tendency toward fat knees—probably formed in utero, or, at the very latest, in cribbo.”1 My own distaste for facing financial realities really did begin in childhood. My father worked hard to provide a comfortable life for us, and both of my parents, born right after the Great Depression, were very careful with money. What’s so distasteful about that? you may be wondering. Unfortunately, I was the kind of headstrong, self-absorbed youngster who took exception to being given limits. While outwardly accepting my parents’ statements of, “We don’t have enough money for that,” inwardly I thought, When I start making my own money, there will always be enough. After my husband and I had children and I stopped working, I got used to spending without thinking about it, so that I wouldn’t have to tell myself, We don’t have enough money for that. Thank goodness the sound money management principles my parents modeled for me finally kicked in before I accumulated more debt than we could ever pay off!

Attitudes about finances, good and bad, are easily transferred from one generation to the next. The problem is that children filter their perceptions through a limited set of experiences and sometimes come up with inaccurate assumptions of their own. I recently realized that I had unintentionally conveyed my new, money-saver mind-set to my daughter, and not in a positive manner. Last summer she attended her first “stay away” camp. Each day I repeatedly checked the answering machine and waited on pins and needles for a phone call saying she was lonely, or she wanted me to come pick her up, or just that she was having a great time! My daughter didn’t call once during the four nights (and five days, but who’s counting) that she was gone. When I picked her up, I told her that I kept thinking I might get a phone call, to which she replied, “I was afraid to call collect in case you didn’t want me to spend the money.” Oops. Obviously she had been listening to my occasional statements of, “We can’t afford that right now.” I had to stop and assure her that any collect phone call from a family member would be welcomed and immediately accepted.

It’s worth the time to give some thought to your own attitudes about money and how they came to you. Was the parent who spoiled you a big spender, so you make yourself feel better by buying things? Can you trace an obsession with saving every penny to arguments about money from your childhood? Did you grow up surrounded by friends who felt that money was not all that important? The following money attitudes quiz will help bring your current feelings about money matters into focus—even if you can’t pinpoint factors from your own financial history that contributed to those feelings. There are no right or wrong answers, so be truthful with yourself. Keep a record of your responses, because you’ll want to refer to them when we talk about money management personality profiles next.

Money Attitudes Quiz

        1.      When every paycheck comes in, I:

            a.      put it into savings and take out just the minimum I think we’ll need until the next pay period.

            b.      pay any new bills that have come in; place a set amount into separate accounts for things like a new car, a college-education fund, or retirement; and still have some left over for normal weekly expenses.

            c.      pay bills that are usually a week or two old.

            d.      rush out and buy groceries because I ran out of money midweek.

        2.      When paying bills, I:

            a.      pay them off each month as soon as they come in.

            b.      use automatic payment whenever possible.

            c.      pay only the minimum each time.

            d.      make payments late because I forget or don’t have the money.

        3.      If asked the balance in our bank accounts, I would:

            a.      know how much is in each, to the penny.

            b.      be able to give a close estimate.

            c.      know how much is in my checking account, but not the other family accounts.

            d.      say, “I have absolutely no idea.”

        4.      Do you know if your family spends more than it earns, and why?

            a.      We never spend more than we earn.

            b.      We are temporarily spending more than we earn because of a job layoff, medical bills, or whatever, but we are covering the shortfall with savings.

            c.      We are spending more than we earn, but we don’t know why.

            d.      I have no idea.

        5.      What portion of your income do you save?

            a.      15 percent.

            b.      5 to 10 percent.

            c.      I’m not sure, because we always end up spending our savings for some emergency.

            d.      Nothing.

        6.      My family has a plan for how to spend our money:

            a.      that we stick to like it’s carved in stone.

            b.      that we use as a guideline to follow as closely as possible.

            c.      that we never can seem to follow.

            d.      Plan? What plan?

        7.      Scrutinizing my own spending and saving habits makes me feel:

            a.      in control.

            b.      like I am doing the right thing.

            c.      like I am wasting my time.

            d.      embarrassed and depressed.

        8.      When a financial question or money emergency pops up, I:

            a.      consult a friend who is a professional in order to make an informed decision.

            b.      discuss the situation with my spouse (if I have one) and then go talk to my local banker if necessary.

            c.      ask parents or other family members for advice or a loan.

            d.      use the preapproved checks that came in with my credit card statement.

        9.      When making a large purchase, I:

            a.      make sure it’s a necessity that I replace the item, then pay for the purchase from my savings.

            b.      take the money out of a savings account set up to pay for these kinds of items.

            c.      pay for the purchase with my credit card or by borrowing the money from my bank.

            d.      am filled with buyer’s remorse the next day because I know I can’t really afford the item.

        10.     My ideal money situation is:

            a.      being in complete control of my finances.

            b.      being able to buy some things I want, not just what I need.

            c.      feeling like I have enough money to go shopping whenever the urge hits.

            d.      winning the megalotto.

Now add up the number of As, Bs, Cs, and Ds you chose. This helps determine which of the four following profiles most closely describes your money management personality. If you picked more As than anything else, you tend to be in the category of a Frugal Family Financier. A larger number of Bs indicates that you are a Capable Currency Manager, Cs an Ambitious Breakeven Caretaker, and Ds an Extravagant Home Economist. If your responses are concentrated in a couple of letters, or spread across the board, don’t panic. It’s entirely possible to have different types of money personalities with respect to the various areas of your finances. Think you know which profile you fall under? Read the following descriptions and see if they hold true.


Frugal Family Financier (FFF). There are two distinctly different reasons why people belong to the FFF club. First, they may be naturally frugal—also affectionately known as thrifty, or even stingy. However, families may also be forced into this category, even if it’s not their natural tendency, simply in order to make ends meet. Frugal Family Financiers do everything as cheaply as possible, including clipping coupons and shopping at discount stores. They may or may not own their own home. FFFs usually have only one bank checking and one savings account. Due to their desire to control everything in and out of these accounts, FFFs may not utilize direct payroll deposit or have a debit card. With respect to credit, they may have no credit cards or only one on which they pay the entire balance off each month. Any vacations are taken on a shoestring budget. FFFs hold on to “big ticket” items like cars and major appliances until they can no longer be fixed.

Capable Currency Manager (CCM). CCMs tend to spend everything in their checking accounts, but they won’t touch their savings. Friends call them responsible and dependable. They have the discipline to cut back on spending when money is tight, as well as to save in advance for a big purchase. Capable Currency Managers work to save money for their children’s college education, for retirement, for big vacations, and for unexpected emergencies. They drive nice, but not new, cars and probably have just one car payment instead of two. CCMs build equity in their homes by paying for home improvements with savings or special bonuses. They have two or three credit cards but really use only one. Credit card balances are kept to a minimum or paid off each month. When they borrow money, Capable Currency Managers shop around to get the best deal possible.

Ambitious Breakeven Caretaker (ABC). The majority of people fall into this category—so much so that you could be considered financially “normal” or “average” if you are an ABC. Ambitious Breakeven Caretakers are hardworking but frustrated because they can’t ever seem to get ahead. They aspire to be good money managers, yet they may be plagued with self-doubt about their money management ability. A lack of skills, or sometimes a lack of discipline, keeps them from feeling financially secure. ABCs are able to pay their bills every month and don’t have much credit card debt. They know how much money is available, and they spend it! As a result, Ambitious Breakeven Caretakers have trouble saving for the future, or even for big ticket items. Every time ABCs start to save, something comes up.

Extravagant Home Economist (EHE). Is your money already spent before it comes in? EHEs live for today and often live beyond their means. They may be considered indulgent or spendthrifts. As a result, Extravagant Home Economists usually have more credit than they need and use it to excess. They have a hard time passing up all those credit card offers in the mail and over the phone. EHE husbands and wives usually have separate checking accounts. They drive relatively new cars (with a hefty car payment on each) and live in a nicer house than they can truly afford. Vacations are taken on credit or with a loan from a bank or finance company. All this can lead them to request a home equity loan to pay off credit card debt. EHEs often have no retirement savings, except from their employer, and even that may have been borrowed against. Their loans are at higher rates of interest than necessary because they don’t shop around.


Recognize anyone in these personality profiles? Understanding your own money management style is the first step toward gaining control over your finances, but you may represent only half of your family’s financial equation. For those who are married, combining two separate sets of finances can seem more complicated than a corporate merger. Couples often assume their finances will easily “blend” together, and they ignore the need to reconcile radically different money personalities. Have you ever disagreed with your spouse over whether a purchase was a necessity or an “extra”? Read how some moms responded to this survey question: What part of dealing with your finances gives you the most difficulty?

    •       “Trying to define needs and wants, and staying on the same page as my husband.”

    •       “Approaching finances proactively with my spouse, instead of it always being a crisis response.”

    •       “Agreeing on what’s ‘worth’ spending money on.”

    •       “Sitting down and working with my husband. Having him be a part of our finances.”

    •       “My spouse has a different view of money than I do. I want to save, and he wants to buy things. He never learned how to deal with money because his family was poor.”

    •       “Communication between my husband and me gives us the most difficulty. We have a budget and, for the most part, stick to it. The problem comes in when our discretionary income gets spent twice. It really comes down to the two of us taking the time to really see the plan as our plan, not as his or my plan.”


Addressing your and your spouse’s unique approaches to money management, first individually and then together, helps bridge the money personality gap (or chasm, for some) and allows you to work together as a team. Unfortunately, discussing finances with your spouse often ranks high on the anxiety scale—second only to the “birds and bees” talk you have with your kids! When my husband and I have “the talk” at our house, it’s hard for one, or both, of us not to start off feeling territorial and defensive. However, there are things you can do to encourage financial equity and cooperation in your household, and they are not dependent upon who brings home the bacon.

Setting Up Checking Accounts

One of the first challenges couples face when setting up housekeeping is learning to handle their day-to-day finances jointly. And even if you’ve managed your money together amicably before becoming parents, the arrival of children presents new financial concerns that may require a change. In our case, my husband and I began married life with just one joint checking account, following the pattern of my parents. Being an independent career woman who eventually transitioned to stay-at-home motherhood, I didn’t like the feeling of being given an “allowance” in a separate account for my weekly purchases. Somehow it seemed more equitable if all the money were in one big communal pot. This system actually worked well for us until two things happened: my husband took a new job with a serious pay cut, and debit cards became available.

Finances were tight, and with two preschoolers (and then three), we really didn’t have time to update our respective checkbooks with each other’s transactions every day. My husband and I never really knew how much we had to spend, but that didn’t keep us from buying what we needed. Our lack of cooperation, combined with those pesky debit cards, resulted in overspending—and eventually overdrafts. Individually we were responsible money managers; together we spelled financial disaster.

The solution to this problem came from—who else—my girlfriends. One day we took a shopping trip together, and on the drive home, someone brought up the subject of household finances. (Not me; I was way too embarrassed about the state of my checkbook.) I listened quietly as my friends compared their money management systems. By the end of the trip I had decided it was time to “restructure” our bank accounts.

Today my husband and I each have our own checking account. Although both of our names are on each account, we manage them separately. Now I don’t overdraw my account when my spouse forgets to write down several days’ worth of debit transactions in the checkbook. My hubby doesn’t have to worry that we’re spending more than we earn, because having the accountability of my own checkbook balance keeps me from buying what I can’t afford. By mutual agreement, we never refer to the amount deposited into my account as an allowance. I prefer to think of it as my salary for the important role I play in maintaining the “business” of our family.

Wondering if it’s time to “restructure” the way you handle your bank accounts? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of three possibilities for family checking accounts.


One account. A couple has the most control over finances with one checking account. All of your money is in one place, so it’s easier for you both to see how much is being spent and on what. You may also save on fees with fewer accounts. On the negative side, as my husband and I found, busy couples with kids may not have enough time to consistently keep checkbooks up-to-date. Some families may choose to use just one checkbook, which is fine as long as the person without the checkbook doesn’t resort to using a credit card on a regular basis! A final “con” to this method: the partner who contributes less to the family’s income may feel like he or she has no money of his or her own to spend, especially if that partner doesn’t work outside the home.

Two accounts. When each partner has a separate checking account, both can be responsible for their own money and how to spend it. Of course, two accounts make it more challenging to keep track of how much is spent, as a family, in various expense categories. You will also have to negotiate, and renegotiate, how to divide the family’s monthly income between the accounts and who will pay for what. A stay-at-home mom can be placed in the uncomfortable position of feeling like a child who receives an allowance—especially if she has to ask for more money to cover unexpected expenses.

Having experienced this unsettling sort of time travel, the only long-term solution my husband and I have found is communication of our financial needs and an honest sharing of our feelings about family money matters. Ever since I explained my distress at having to sheepishly ask for extra cash to cover an occasional unexpected bill, my hubby makes every effort not to point the finger or make me feel guilty. This positive reinforcement contributes to family harmony by removing the tendency to engage in a financial “turf war.”

Three accounts. If you are a two-income family and want to preserve some financial autonomy, both partners can contribute a portion of their paychecks to a joint “household account” to be used for paying all the joint monthly bills (like mortgage or rent payments, insurance, utilities, car payments, and groceries). To determine how much each partner should put in, first estimate your joint monthly expenses. Then calculate the percentage of total income you and your spouse each bring home in a pay period, and apply that percentage to the amount of money you’ll need in your joint household account. Here’s an example: You work part-time and receive a paycheck of $110 per week. Your husband brings home $660 per week. Your total weekly family income is $770, of which you contribute 14 percent ($110 divided by $770, then multiplied by 100 to get the percentage) and your spouse contributes 86 percent ($660 divided by $770 multiplied by 100). You estimate that total weekly bills come to $500. If you deposit $70 ($500 times 14 percent) of every paycheck into the joint household account, and your hubby deposits $430 ($500 times 86 percent), you each will be contributing to your family’s expenses in the same proportion as the income you earn. Obviously this is not an equal sharing of resources, but many couples feel it is an equitable one.

Paying Bills

Another financial task couples wrestle with is bill paying. Who actually pays the bills is irrelevant as long as they are paid on time and both parties know approximately how much is being spent on monthly expenses and on “extras.” Often the person who does not write the checks uses that fact as an excuse to be uninformed about the family’s finances, perhaps because he or she doesn’t feel comfortable with money issues. Unequal responsibility in managing money can cause an unfair amount of stress for the bill payer, as this mom relates:

    I am a stay-at-home mom, and I’m responsible for the finances. My husband literally leaves it all up to me. I hate the responsibility (especially when there is NEVER enough money), but I realize if I don’t do it, it won’t get done. My husband is wonderful in most other areas, but this one is really hard for me to handle. I feel like I’m always “telling” him what he can or can’t do. I hate that he comes to me and asks if he can buy something. I usually have to say it’s not something we need, so he probably shouldn’t. Or he gets something we don’t really need, and I have to decide whether to just let it go and try to figure out how to make everything work out, or to tell him he’s GOT to stop doing that!


It’s not unusual for one spouse to play the primary role in managing finances, and this job typically falls on the woman. Still, it is critical that both partners are involved and aware. Money-related tasks should be divided up just like household chores. To ensure that you both are knowledgeable about your family’s income and expenses, take turns paying the bills, or sit down and pay them together. In our household we have a flexible agreement about who pays what, so my hubby and I both write checks. Although he pays the mortgage and utilities, I usually open the bills when they come in so I stay on top of these expenses. We keep unpaid bills and paid receipts in a central location so either of us can look through them at any time. There is no one right way to share bill-paying responsibilities; just make sure that you both understand who handles what so that payments aren’t missed.

Couples should also have a periodic money “summit.” Get together to talk objectively about your finances at least every six months; once a month or quarter would be even better. Schedule these meetings when you can give the subject, and each other, your full attention—in other words, not while driving or with kids chasing each other around the room. Try to keep these money summits emotion free—avoid playing the blame game, or you’ll end up feeling like money adversaries instead of financial partners. Keep money the main topic. Don’t allow disagreements about other things, like your in-laws, to derail your conversation. Good communication is key in order for you to share financial responsibility and avoid stressful money squabbles.

Mom’s Money Makeovers

All money personalities should take the money attitudes quiz and encourage their partners to do the same. Consider your quiz responses when answering the following questions:

    •       Does your financial lifestyle reflect your attitudes about money? If not, where do they differ?

    •       If you and your spouse have conflicting money management personalities, what are the major areas of disagreement?


Begin reconciling financial differences by being respectful of your partner instead of judgmental. As with many other aspects of relationships, opposites often attract. It may be that the free-spending attitude you loved during courtship is the same behavior that’s putting you in debt now. Your money personalities haven’t changed, but your circumstances have.

Frugal Family Financiers and Capable Currency Managers. If you fall under one of these personality profiles, congratulations! You have made a commitment to financial responsibility. However, you may be having trouble pursuing that commitment for two reasons: you are an FFF or CCM while your partner is an Extravagant Home Economist (this is otherwise known as a spender-saver conflict), or you both are FFFs or CCMs but your partner’s need to control the finances results in information about, responsibility for, and ownership of the family’s money being unfairly concentrated under his power.

If you have conflicting money personalities, look for recurring patterns and issues, and discuss together what attitudes and feelings about money are driving those behaviors. Brainstorm about ways to avoid falling into the same patterns in the future. Talking openly about money matters is the only way to keep these differences from growing and festering. Couples with control issues need to understand that they both are responsible for managing the family’s money. Sharing information and decision making increases your chances of financial success and puts your relationship on solid ground.

Ambitious Breakeven Caretakers. ABCs can feel very anxious when it’s a struggle each week to make ends meet. It may help to realize that most families do not start off feeling financially secure. Particularly with young children in the mix, parents must spend the majority of their disposable income just to meet everyday needs. It’s tough not to be able to afford all the things you want, but financial security is a goal families can work toward over time. The notion that money buys happiness is a myth. Studies show that couples with a lot of money argue about finances almost as regularly as those with a little. Don’t let the challenges of day-to-day money management derail your attempts to get ahead. If you are “stuck” on what you’ve done wrong, look again at each mistake as a learning experience. You’ve eliminated an approach that doesn’t work and moved a step closer toward -figuring out what does.

Extravagant Home Economists. To gain control over your money, consider consolidating your family’s finances into one checking account, one savings account, and one credit card. In this situation it’s best not to use a debit card unless you keep the card with your checkbook so that charges can be written down right away, before they’re forgotten. If you have not been involved with paying the bills, this is a good time to take your turn. Tell your spouse you’d like to write the checks for at least the next three months to see how much your lifestyle is costing you. He’ll probably be more than happy to give you the opportunity.