How to deal with money shaming

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It's one of those things that happens to everyone, except maybe hermits: being criticized about how you spend your money.

G.G. Benitez gets it all the time.

"I am constantly criticized about how I spend my money," she says. "I remember when I had my first great job, and my CPA told me I should be 'ashamed of how much' I spend versus save. My mother – and I am 42 years old – constantly shames me about how much I spend. My husband has finally given up on persuading me to spend less."

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Benitez probably doesn't deserve the criticism. If you're working with a CPA when you're young and tackling your first job, you're doing something right, and she isn't exactly some deadbeat. She has a successful public relations firm in San Diego. Still, she is quick to admit that she overspends and hasn't disowned any of her critics.

"As much as I get lectured by those around me, I will never be a cautious spender," she says. "I would prefer to find another client and work harder in order to continue to live life to the fullest."

But if you're lectured and not liking it, and you feel like your reaction to money criticism leaves something to be desired, remember the following:

It's best to confront the criticism. Sure, if your neighbor or the cousin you rarely see makes a snarky comment about your new car – or your junk heap on wheels – saying nothing may be the best course of action. But if the criticism is coming from someone inside your family circle, and especially if it's someone you see frequently, such as your spouse or kids or parents, then you really should speak up and try to engage the other person and discuss whatever money topics you're getting grief about.

Because "a lot of money conversations tend to feel judgmental and accusatory ... people learn not to talk about money with others," says Lee Gimpel, the Wilmington, North Carolina-based director of development for LifeWise Strategies, which produces financial education materials for community non-profits and financial planners, for example.

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The result of ignoring people when they criticize your money habits can backfire on everyone, he adds: "This can really be dysfunctional, whether it's spouses who discuss their budget, parents who don't talk to their kids about spending, kids who don't talk with their aging parents or people who are gun shy to engage with a financial planner or other professional."

Separate the emotion from the facts. That is, try not to get angry – assuming you want to get out of this discussion unscathed.

That won't always work, obviously. There are all types of critiques, from the subtle dig to the incessant nagging to the downright cruel and irate diatribes, and when the rhetoric gets heated, it can be impossible not to get angry. But you'll make your case better if you can keep your cool.

"First and foremost, remain cool, calm and collected," says District of Columbia-based K. Alexander Ashe, CEO and founder of Spendology.net, which makes financial and budgeting apps. "Next, address the root of the criticism honestly and directly. Explain that you understand the person's concerns with your spending habits."

He adds that you can let the person know you respect and appreciate their input without suggesting you've done anything wrong.

And you may have done nothing wrong. Ashe points out that you might want to consider whether the person delivering the criticism has an ulterior motive. Ashe asks: "Do they want you to spend less so they can get more?"

Study the criticism critically. Just because someone offers advice with a lot of snark or derisive judgment doesn't mean he or she is wrong. Especially if you're hearing the same advice from a lot of different corners of your life.

"If so ... it means that it's something worth looking into," Gimpel says.

After all, while your well-meaning family member or friend may offer analysis of your money management skills in a less than evenhanded way, you don't want to get revenge by continuing to do what you're doing – and then end up where your family member or friend predicted.

So take a good look at whether there's any merit to what you're hearing. As Amy Crandall Kaser, a certified financial planner in Boston, says, "It's essential for clients to understand their economic reality."

And Kaser says she has learned that she can't point out to her clients that they're spending too much.

"To criticize spending makes clients feel defensive and demoralized – it just doesn't work," Kaser says.

Instead she asks her clients what their goals are. Generally, if she and the client really dissect how they're going to achieve what they want to accomplish, the client will realize on his own that he's spending too much. So think about you want out of life. If you do seem like you're on a path to never getting what you want, maybe whatever barbs are coming your way are accurate.

But if you are achieving what you want, then you can feel better about (nicely) telling your advice-givers where they can put their advice.

Understand what buttons are being pushed. Whether the criticism is right or wrong, odds are, you're feeling defensive or cornered. It may help to remember that.

There are a lot of reasons for feeling defensive, Gimpel says. "When people criticize others about how they spend or save, often the issue isn't so much about money, but what it represents," he says. "That might be that money is serving as a proxy for love, respect, independence, confidence, accomplishment, power, generosity, devotion ..."

In other words, if your spouse tells you that he or she doesn't like how you spend money, you might see the criticism as a way to suggest you're a failure in life instead of having some perspective. Maybe your husband or wife simply wishes you would stop buying so many pay-per-view movies.

Or maybe you're angry because someone sees what you thought was a positive trait as a negative.

"You might be very good at saving money," Gimpel says. "You see yourself as responsible, restrained and frugal. However, your spouse or friends might see you as cheap. When you hear people call you 'cheap,' you discount what they say because there's no recognition of the good side of your habits."

And maybe everyone is right. You are a cautious spender. And you are cheap.

Benitez came to the conclusion that maybe her family and CPA were right, and that she is also right.

"When I was in my 20s, I overspent on clothing," she says. "When I was in my 30s, I overspent on everything." Her kids. Handbags. Shoes. Clothes. Food.

"As I'm now in my 40s, I overspend on experiences – travel, outings with family and friends," Benitez says.

With retirement getting closer, Benitez realizes she needs to find a better balance and reign in some of her spending. But she isn't taking all of the criticism to heart, which is probably the secret to managing money criticism – separating the off-base comments from the good advice.

"As I look back, I regret overspending on things," she admits. "But there isn't one trip I would take back. Not one memory I wish I didn't have."

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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