My husband and I left the room after two hours, spent, hungry and light-headed. Had we been arguing, engaging in “afternoon delight,” or working out? Nope. Just talking about money. We joked that we were “divorce-proofing” our marriage.
I wasn’t always money-smart. My family didn’t buy lottery tickets, but we somehow believed money would magically appear. Budgeting was for the bourgeoisie. My father spent as he wished, while my mother fretted, saved and arranged deck chairs as their ship slowly sank. Though they recovered financially, I was imprinted by their mixed messages.
I was a math-phobic child. Multiplication tables caused me to blank out with fear. I failed math every year of high school, then barely passed it in the summer make-up. My math illiteracy led to an avoidance of anything financial.
In my first marriage I was frugal, but like my parents, mostly ignorant about the state of our finances. My then-husband would tell me cash was low and not to spend until a check cleared. Instead, I would hear “The apocalypse is coming. Buy cereal, toiletries and paper towels,” and overdraw our account.
I regularly engaged in financial infidelity – hiding purchases and misrepresenting my income. Yet, we rarely argued. Discussions about money were off-limits. Clearly, I had baggage I wasn’t ready to unpack.
Money avoidance was only one of our issues, but a clear metaphor for lack of intimacy and transparency in other areas. For 25 years we arranged deck chairs on our own sinking barge. In 2006, I jumped ship to a new life.
My first act of financial transformation was preparing a budget for the divorce lawyers. I was terrified to find out my true fiscal state, and wrangled a girlfriend to walk me through this basic skill. Money-wise, I felt like that kid who kept failing math.
As the numbers tallied up, I was stunned to find that a modest apartment, saving for both retirement and a down payment for a house were actually affordable. Expenses that didn’t matter anymore were gleefully slashed, like cable TV or a new car – making room for such luxuries as hair foiling, eating out and vacations. This math was fun!
After the divorce I started dating and developed a checklist of desired attributes. He didn’t need to be rich, but his finances couldn’t be a hot mess – that was my old life.
My new boyfriend Dave and I had many wonderful things in common, but some not so lovely. We shared a fear of money and a checkered financial history. Aside from a small car loan, I had wrangled the debt goose, but Dave still had money troubles – a good deal of debt and an upside-down mortgage. Though most of the debt was due to his late wife’s illness, his balance sheet was a yellow flag to me.
It wasn’t romantic, but some of our early discussions were about finances. Turns out, my new love was naturally frugal, but didn’t like to say no to his significant other – a recipe for money problems. I was a spender, and splurged when fearing scarcity – often on useless items or impulse buys.
Instead of pre-marital counseling, we took a budgeting class together. We unearthed our inner money nerds and worked on changing bad habits – excruciating at first. The angriest we ever got with each other was in structuring our debt repayment. Outmatched, we hired a financial coach with Solomon-like wisdom to referee. Secure we were on the same page financially, we became one in the eyes of God, the law, and our bank account.
By tightening our belts, living in a cheap apartment and driving beater cars, we were debt-free in three years. Five years later, we are now on our way to paying off our simple home and securing a bright financial future. We still make mistakes, “forget” to mention purchases and impulse-buy on occasion, but quickly right the vessel.
Dave and I trust each other and don’t have secrets; it’s the basis of intimacy. Full-disclosure financially has also required us both to put our oars in the water and pull in the same direction – good for any couple. And that’s a ship neither of us are likely to jump.