MONEY MADNESS

The financial hypocrisy of shaming women for debt while paying them less

I was raised with a skewed sense of the way money worked. My father seemed to always have it in abundance–largely through illicit means that I wasn’t supposed to talk about. Meanwhile, my mother struggled to get by on food stamps and a job selling makeup at a Macy’s Clinique counter. When I left for college, my brand-new checking account filled by my grandparents, I had no idea how to make my own money or keep track of it–let alone use it to plan for the future.

So it’s no big surprise that by the time I married my husband at age 24, I had racked up more than $14,000 in credit card debt. My minimum payments only covered the interest I owed. Some of my purchases had been for legitimate things like food and gas. But plenty of non-essentials. like Tori Amos CDs, concert tickets, and cute outfits had been put on those cards, too.

Revealing my secret debt to my husband was one of the most terrible moments of my adult life. I felt a terrible kinship with the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, in which the titular character digs herself deep into debt out of boredom and yearning for a bigger life. My shame was nearly debilitating.  In American culture, women in debt are viewed as caricatures of profligate spending.  My husband, raised by a father who kept a calculated ledger of every expenditure, was meticulous and never spent beyond his means. Worse, he was unfailingly generous with his money. By contrast, as the shoebox in which I hid my credit card statements reflected, shame and debt were synonymous in my world.

It turns out that I’m not alone. In American culture, women in debt are often viewed as caricatures of profligate spending. They might be pigeonholed as a shallow shopaholic with a shoe fetish, or relegated to the role of wife and mother who overspends to compensate for her stunted ambitions. On top of the very real stresses of credit card debt, women in this position face a complicated minefield of financial stereotypes and expectations.

While both men and women wind up in debt, the financial burden appears to take a bigger psychological toll on women. A 2014 study by the Financial Fitness Group surveyed over 75,000 employees in 400 organizations and found that women were 7% more stressed about money than men. Meanwhile, a 2008 study in Social Indicators Research found that, for women, “the prevalence of anxiety and depression was about three times higher in the group exposed to greater financial stress.” “Psychiatric problems are more common among persons who are exposed to economic stress.” 

This phenomenon is unsurprising, given that the same study notes that “psychiatric problems are more common among persons who are exposed to economic stress, for example having difficulties paying bills on time and not having cash reserves.” In a world that still only pays women around 79 cents on the male dollar, it makes sense that women often encounter these kinds of financial pitfalls.

Sarah Sommers, a New York-based creative director the video-driven conversation platform VProud.tv, got her first credit card in college. “I quickly got my second, third and fourth,” she says. “My mom was either scolding me for running up a bill, or asking me to put some of our outstanding phone bill balance on the card. It was a messy situation and I paid for it, literally, for years after they were expired.”

Like many people with credit cards, she made the mistake of only making the minimum payment. She watched as her debt only grew. “The debt drawer of doom got fuller and fuller and the weight of it was unbearable,” says. “There were several years where 95% of my calls were from creditors. It was awful.”

With the help of her husband, Sommers was able to get her debt under control. But her feelings of embarrassment haven’t totally gone away. I, too, credit my husband with teaching me about money management–which only compounds my feelings of failure. As a newlywed, I went into a debt consolidation program and paid off my credit cards in two years. And yet, 17 years later, the shame still rears its head like a bad flashback. “I think the sense of shame is a feminist thing. We feel like we should be able to move out into the world and not be dependent.” 

Perhaps I’m judging myself too harshly. “I think the sense of shame is a feminist thing,” says JoAnneh Negler, a financial therapist in California and author of The Debt-Free Spending Plan. “We feel like we should be able to move out into the world and not be dependent.”

The truth is that achieving financial independence has never been easy for women. As little as forty years ago, a woman applying for credit cards could be subject to questions about whether she was married or planned to have children. Many companies required a man to co-sign women’s accounts. It wasn’t until 1974 that the Senate passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which made it illegal to ask women about their spending habits and birth plans before getting a credit card. The law also forbid companies to discriminate “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex or marital status, or age.”

While women no longer have to worry about obtaining their own credit cards, they appear to be more cautious than men about racking up debt. According to Sally Brandon, vice president of client Services for Rebalance IRA, men are willing to carry more debt now for a greater payoff later.  As little as forty years ago, many companies required a man to co-sign women’s accounts. Indeed, a 2015 study done by the Harris Poll, commissioned by NerdWallet, found that when couples come together, 42% of men interviewed were the ones to bring their debt with them into relationships, versus just 29% of women.

But for men, debt simply carries less psychological baggage. “Men are more comfortable carrying higher amounts of debt with less shame,” says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist in New York. Interestingly, the reason that men are more likely to take financial risks may have more to do with income inequality than biology. Julie Nelson, the chair of the economics department at the University of Massachusetts, told the Atlantic that men simply have more money to play with.

Of course, like women, some men feel ashamed of their debt. And men are not actually better with money, on average, than women. Yet women seem to feel a disproportionate amount of embarrassment about their financial shortcomings. The reason has a lot to do with an entrenched money mythology. As Hannah Seligson wrote in The Washington Post in 2010:

“Even if women don’t really need extra help with money, more of them think they do. The authors of women-focused financial books capitalize on and reinforce these insecurities and perpetuate stereotypes about women and money with their “girl, get a clue” tone; their covers and titles that imply we are all out-of-control spenders on shoes and clothes; and their tendency to put financial concepts in the language of dieting and weight.”

Culturally, we need to stop assuming all women are like Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City. Given that women often earn less money than men, it’s unsurprising that they sometimes turn to credit cards to bridge the gap. Achieving pay equality would presumably go a long way towards fixing many of these outside pressures. But on an individual level, uncovering and confronting the psychology of our approach to personal finance is key to breaking bad money habits.

This is the approach advocated by Bari Tessler, a financial therapist and author of the forthcoming book The Art of Money. “We all have a layer of shame we need to understand, which I call your money story,” she says.  Given that women often earn less money than men, it’s unsurprising that they sometimes turn to credit cards to bridge the gap. “I ask people: ‘What is your current relationship to earning money?’ Then we look at your family of origin. What did you learn positively and negatively? What was passed down and what are you still reacting to, or rebelling against?”

Women make up 80% of Tessler’s clientele. She says that part of the problem is that women often haven’t received the right tools to become financially savvy due to gendered biases about being “good” with money. “I was a creative person who would throw away my bank statements,” she says. “It wasn’t until my school loans came due that I started learning Quicken, Excel, and so on and fell in love with these tools. I didn’t think I was good at math and had equated money with math.”

There are many practical steps that can help both men and women get out of debt and learn to maximize their cash flow. However, Tessler also believes that all the money tools in the world can’t help someone who stubbornly clings to the feeling that “that I am not okay.”

Today, I’m lucky to be debt-free and a successful owner of my own small freelance business. But I still vividly remember the feeling of shame that surrounded my personal finances. I grew up believing that money was a dark and secretive subject, meant to be kept hidden from the outside world. It wasn’t until I acknowledged how this background had shaped my approach to spending—and achieve some economic breathing room—that I was finally able to start repairing my own financial affairs. Now I know that to drive out the monster of shame, you must first expose it to the light. That means never being afraid to ask for help.

Follow Jordan on Twitter at @jordanrosenfeld. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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