Tough times mean time together for some families

NEW YORK — After almost 16 years of marriage, Unita Walburn and her husband had drifted apart. The stress of raising two special needs children had taken its toll and the couple was saddled with medical debt.

But rising food, gas and medical costs forced them to adopt a more frugal life — they cut cable, grew their own produce and spent more nights at home. As a result, the Walburns are slowly finding each other again.

“You’re not sitting in a room staring at a screen with 150 channels to watch,” said Walburn, 40, a stay-at-home mother of three in Spotsylvania, Va. Instead the family plays Scrabble and bakes. “When you simplify, it gives you an opportunity to do more things together.”

There’s no question that tough economic times are stressful: layoffs, foreclosures, declining portfolios. Even having to give up luxuries like gym memberships or dining out can be upsetting, and financial stress can put a strain on any relationship.

But for some families, cutting back means spending more time at home, giving them an opportunity to reconnect.

Stephanie Smith, a psychologist in Erie, Colo., said a lot of her patients who cut their entertainment budgets have been pleasantly surprised by the joys of staying at home. Something as simple as meal planning, grocery shopping and cooking and eating together can bring families closer, she said.

“If you go to a movie with your family, that’s family time and that can be very fun, but you’re not interacting with each other,” she said. “If you are at home, playing Monopoly or Checkers, you are face to face, talking, interacting.”

Spending time together is one of the benefits of not having the money to go out.

It’s something therapists recommend even when there isn’t financial stress, said Katherine Muller, clinical psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. She suggests things like cooking, going to the park or taking walks.

For families in conflict over money, Muller suggests starting by finding an activity that’s inherently pleasant where the focus is on that activity rather than direct interaction.