In working to build and sustain healthy relationships, Stronger Families knows that money plays a crucial role. Therefore, the organization includes a module on money and communication – using Money Habitudes cards – in its hallmark relationship program, which largely serves the military and marriage mentors in churches. Stronger Families is a non-profit that provides education, resources, advocacy and training that supports marriages and families in its home state of Washington as well as in Oregon and Idaho. The organization (formerly known as Families Northwest) also works in a pre-marital context – including people who are single, dating and engaged – as well as with married couples who are parents.
Recognizing that a key determinant of healthy marriages is the way money is managed, Stronger Families includes a financial module in its standard marriage seminars.
The organization’s hallmark program is used with the military as well as with marriage mentors in churches. As such, it spans service members and their spouses in their twenties to older couples who have been married for years and who will, in turn, work with other couples.
Called Oxygen For Your Relationships, it is a four-hour seminar meant to give couples an action plan for their relationship, to design a support system to build on their successes, and to learn to help others with their relationships. The seminar integrates three different but complementary tools. The first is the Couple Checkup from Life Innovations (formerly PREPARE/ENRICH), which highlights strengths, as well as areas for growth in a relationship. The second is Jim Fay and Foster W. Cline’s Love & Logic, which is employed to hone parenting skills. And the third tool is Money Habitudes, which is used to provide financial insights for couples as well as open meaningful discussions about how people relate to money and each other. Money Habitudes also sets the stage for budgeting and money management.
Noel Meador, director of communications, says that money plays an important role in sustaining a healthy marriage. “We know that divorce is, often times, precipitated by money fights,” he says.
It was Meador who brought Money Habitudes to the attention of Stronger Families after using it successfully in a prior position with Northwest Family Services, a non-profit Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) grantee in Portland, Oregon. There, the organization was looking for a tool that would help people address their finances. They considered many financial-relationship products, but found that most began with dry, un-engaging exercises like tallying income and expenses to create a budget. Instead, they wanted something that would engage participants, get them to open up and enjoy the process.
“All of them [the financial tools the team considered] were really involved, very detailed; you’re focusing on the budget and all these dependencies and unless you’re a complete Excel junkie, you’re going to go, ‘No thanks,'” says Meador.
To start a discussion about finances and engage participants, the organization found what it was looking for in Money Habitudes because of the cards’ non-threatening approach, coupled with the personal and interpersonal insights that came from using the cards. Rather than jumping right into hard-and-fast numbers, Money Habitudes gave people a way to understand their relationship with money in a different, more holistic light.
“If you don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re just going to keep replicating your mistakes. You can have the greatest, most sophisticated budget plan available, but it won’t address what Money Habitudes does – and that is: What’s the psychology behind why you’re wanting to spend or wanting to save?” says Meador.
In conjunction with Money Habitudes, the organization used content adapted from Dave Ramsey’s financial education courses. This second, complementary component built on the conversations started by Money Habitudes and focused on more concrete financial steps, especially budgeting.
As a lead-in to more structured money decisions, Money Habitudes earned top marks from participants, whose feedback was sought rigorously to comply with a tracking mandate from the HMI grant.
“They said Money Habitudes was really the thing that cracked the nut for them. When they could finally understand why their husband or wife did what they did, then they could come to the table and talk about the budget; before that it, they’d just get in a fight about the budget … That was a really huge breakthrough,”says Meador.
Stronger Families is now relying upon this strength in the half-day curriculum it uses with marriage mentors in area churches. The program keys on relationship health, financial health and parenting health. Although it is not technically a train-the-trainer offering, mentors are trained by Stronger Families on a number of tools and techniques so they can, in turn, teach and instruct other couples who want to improve or save their marriage. Of course, it’s not easy to talk about serious relationship issues, even with a trusted friend and mentor, and that is doubly true if there are big issues to work through.
And even if money isn’t at the heart of a difficult marriage, peer marriage counselors still find that using Money Habitudes is an effective way to start a constructive dialogue between a couple and that conversation may then open up other doors. As such, Money Habitudes sets the stage for other relationship issues; after all, if a couple can have a good talk about the usually charged topic of money, it establishes a pattern of respectful dialogue where partners come to appreciate each other’s motivations and attitudes.
“Money Habitudes is great because they [mentors] can talk to their friends and say, ‘Hey, you should do this card game! It’s like Solitaire,'” says Meador who notes that couples found it easier to sit down and, ostensibly, just play a game. “It was a door-opener for a lot of them, especially for people who were like, ‘I don’t really want to meet about my marriage, but we’ll meet about our finances.'”
When Stronger Families works with the military—mostly based at nearby Fort Lewis—it is directly with groups of soldiers. Here, they are confronted by a situation that is considerably different from that found with their marriage mentor initiative. The military population faces some obvious and significant challenges, not least of which is deployment.
“Money is a huge qualifier for how they weather the storm during the deployment process,” says Meador.
Yet, even outside the times when one person may be sent to the other side of the world and his or her spouse must manage the home and finances, military marriages face other challenges. First, many couples are young, newly married and just getting acclimated to the unique stresses of military life. Secondly, many have also just begun to earn a significant paycheck. And, third, many service members and their spouses have not had much financial education.
“Yes, we want them to be able to manage their budget and be able to understand, financially, where they’re at and be good stewards of their money. But our ultimate goal is they’ll be able to see how their finances are affecting how they’re treating their spouse, or maybe why they’re not communicating well or why there’s conflict. And that’s the value of Money Habitudes.”