Yale Sociology Professor Fred Wherry explains how money can complicate love.
What makes life worth living also makes it harder to navigate: Love.
We love our families, our neighbors, and our houses of worship. Where our love lies, our treasure lies also. When a baby is born, we buy gifts. When a parent falls ill, we pay medical bills; a child is the first to go to college, tuition bills; a family dreams to own its own home, a big down payment.
Love’s Fine Print
Love comes at a cost. These costs have been described positively as “lifting as we climb” and negatively as “crabs in a barrel pulling one another down.” In its positive version, when one family member does well, she can share information, serve as a role model, and sometimes provide material assistance to other family members or people in her community who are striving for a better life. In its negative version, love creates obligations to help those in need, and those in need know that you can be persuaded to give up hard fought gains to help them.
In a widely cited study of how people use their kin and friendship networks to navigate their needs in a low-income neighborhood, Carol Stack tells the story of a family receiving an unexpected lump sum that they intended to use for a down payment on a house. The good news traveled fast through their kinship networks, and requests began arriving for monetary help. The down payment disappeared; the aspiring family was pulled back into the metaphorical barrel.
How love affects money depends on what kinds of external supports are available to families trying to make ends meet.
Poor and middle-income families of color are more likely to have parents lacking adequate retirement savings. When their parents fall into financial trouble because the house needs a new roof, an infected tooth requires a root canal, insurance won’t pay 15 percent of cancer treatment costs, or a car’s engine has expired, it is up to the children to assist them. A thousand dollars here or there can devastate a budget where the coupon clippings and the overtime worked still mean that these families are a few paychecks short of eviction.
This view of love and money runs counter to the popular narrative of the impulsive consumer spending freely on frivolities. In April, sociologist Joseph Cohen published his analysis of household income and spending patterns from the 2011 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Survey of Consumer Expenditures (CEX). He found that incomes have not risen as fast as the prices of basic goods and services. Families with stagnant or falling incomes were spending more on the basics: education, childcare, healthcare, transportation costs, and mortgage payments. Spending on television, computers, and many other non-essentials fell. In other words, when securing their children’s educational future, looking after the health of their loved ones, or securing a dwelling place to own, households experienced the fragility of their finances.
A Love that Lasts
Families that dream of home ownership learn firsthand the value of love; the siblings or parents helping them, its costs. A couple may able to make the monthly payments on a mortgage but their credit files are too thin or their savings too low to qualify for it. They may need a sibling to co-sign on the loan, someone who cares for them and is willing to invest in their family’s security. If there are no other ways to increase the applicants’ credit scores or to shore up savings, compelling a family member to incur more risk seems to be the only answer.
But there are other ways. Rather than decry the negative effects of love, why not mobilize caring relationships to promote economic security? It has been (and can be). Love.
 Joseph N. Cohen, “The Myth of America’s ‘Culture of Consumption’: Policy May Help Drive American Household’s Fraying Finances,” Journal of Consumer Culture DOI: DOI: 10.1177/1469540514528196
Frederick F. Wherry is a Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Cultural Sociology (CCS) at Yale University. He is currently studying the effects of culture, institutions, and social relationships on the banking and budgeting experiences of immigrant and minority households.