Q: After college my fiancé and I lived abroad and worked as much as possible. We started sinking into debt, and it took a while to get reestablished Stateside. Finally, we found a house, and though it wasn't expensive, my husband wasn't earning much. His salary has steadily increased to $120,000, but we are nearly $100,000 in debt in addition to our mortgage. The cost of living in our neighborhood is high, and my own contributions have been sporadic because I care for our two children and two ill relatives. We have a 401(k) and life insurance but no savings, and we often bounce checks at the end of the month. We have already borrowed against our house as much as we can. My husband gets frantic and doesn't want to spend at all, even for the kids. I feel bitter and shop anyway because it seems as if we'll always be broke no matter what. I'm afraid to open our bills. The panic is starting to affect our marriage. Is there any way to achieve financial equilibrium?
A: There's no reason you can't get by on your husband's salary. The problem is that you're sabotaging your family. I know that sounds harsh, but you need a serious financial wake-up call, and I'm sounding the alarm. Part of the reason you're doing this is that you're overwhelmed from taking care of everybody else. Subconsciously or not, you believe nobody is taking care of you. So you fill that hole by spending money, and then you feel terribly guilty. You deserve to treat yourself better than that.
Use your fear of opening those monthly statements as motivation to change. Whenever you're about to whip out your credit card for another unnecessary purchase, ask yourself: "Is this worth the horrible feeling I'm going to have when the bill arrives?" Keep a photo of your family next to the credit cards in your wallet; as you reach for one, think about whether the item is worth the possibility of losing their respect or, in the case of your husband, losing your spouse completely. That's where this is headed if you don't change. I know you have it in you to make the right choice.
From the April 2007 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine