The main reason I started this blog was to remove the taboo from discussing money. I want to stop hiding in my financial life, but, truthfully, I’m not brave enough to do it alone. That’s why I asked a woman I adore to share her story. She was gracious enough to do just that. Much longer than my usual length, this post is a commitment to read. But it’s worth it. Especially if you’re considering a much bigger commitment of your own.
It was a beautiful sunny day, driving home from Thanksgiving dinner, when it hit me. I had entered my marriage without knowing anything about our (shared) financial situation. We’d been married a little over two months when my realization came, rather by accident. Just back from our honeymoon in September, we were out for a nice dinner and chatting about plans to one day buy a house. While I was getting caught up in what colour we’d paint our walls it occurred to me … I didn’t know how far off it was. I pulled a notebook from my purse and drew some circles to get the ink flowing in my pen.
“I heard once that a good rule-of-thumb is to take what you earn, multiply it by three and minus your debt—the result is a mortgage you can afford,” I scrawled Dave’s name at the top of the page, “let’s add up what we owe.”
As we started to jot down the obvious pieces like student loans and car payments, I asked what he owed his family. Gazing at the ceiling and back at the list, he started naming items that dated more than fifteen years back. I did my best to remain composed.
Much of what I was hearing was new information. We had been together for five years, shared bills and expenses, even opened a joint bank account… and even though we’d discussed financial matters at (what seemed like) great length, we’d never done what we were doing now. The list grew to include back-taxes; credit cards and personal debt that I hadn’t realized existed. Once the list was complete, I added it up and stared at the notes.
“You’re nearly $100,000 in debt, and I didn’t know. I—how…” I trailed off and the tears came.
“I thought I told you?” he said, concern washing over him.
Everything I said next was jumbled and emotional. I was so confused, and felt out-of-body.
“Why on earth do you still owe your parents money for a loan from the eleventh grade? Why wouldn’t you have shared with me that we couldn’t afford our honeymoon? Why wouldn’t you tell me about the back-taxes? Why would you continue to borrow money from your family, my parents, my grandparents—knowing we were in such bad shape?”
It sounded so ridiculous—we’d had these conversations right? I would have asked … I’m conscientious. Aware. How did I miss this?
Six months prior, Dave had lost his job, and he’d been on EI since. The plan had been to get back on the job hunt after the wedding and honeymoon. The money we’d borrowed seemed reasonable—we were getting by and things would improve once the freelance design business I started picked up and Dave found work. Before we were married, we laughed off the idea of a pre-nup. Dave found it unromantic. After considering it, I thought there wasn’t much point; we knew each other so well, trusted each other fully and really had no assets. I hadn’t even thought of debt at that time.
Once I calmed down we gathered our things and were handed our bill. The numbers seemed bigger than they ever had—in less than and hour, every dollar suddenly mattered… the total felt like it had an exclamation point.
“I’ll get it.” I scowled.
I grew up with practically nothing. My parents were young and struggling when I was born. Most of my adolescence consisted of shopping trips to women-in-need and the bi-weekly peeling of my mom off the ceiling when she paid the bills. We made jokes about people with money, I think to pretend we’d chosen to be poor (and actually preferred it). My younger brother and I endured malicious teasing and some days I know I felt like the kids in “the Sandlot”, no matter how much I scrubbed my hair.
But we were fortunate to have each other. Most days, it seemed like all we had. My dad—a working musician at the time—used to play the blues after dinner, and we’d each take a turn singing out our frustrations from the day. We’d always end up laughing our guts out. We had a lot of love, and that’s what got us through it. Naturally, after growing up watching friends collect expensive shiny toys and dress in the best brand-name clothing, money seemed like a mysterious, elusive thing. The kids who had it had everything—they lived in giant houses, they went on vacations and their parents drove nice cars that delivered them to school while I had to ride the loud, stinky bus. They were naturally popular and seemed so confident. I found even the plainest of them beautiful. I was never great with math, but this equation was pretty simple. Money meant power, beauty and annual trips to Disneyland. How could I get a piece of that?
I hadn’t realized it at the time, but I had carried that equation with me throughout my remaining grade-school years. I found a way to fit, more like a good lawyer who found a loophole than a girl who was self-aware and living in acceptance. It was a tricky, painful journey. Ironically, there is no amount of money anyone could offer me today to go back and re-live it.
When I moved out at 18, I’d been gainfully employed on-and-off for six years. I knew how it felt to earn money, and how hard you had to work for minimum wage. I would soon learn how truly terrible I was with finances. Being on my own meant self-sufficiency. I never had enough, always over-spent, hated bills and taxes and generally just wished I didn’t even have to deal with it at all.
The desire to have someone else take charge was overwhemingly strong.
Sometimes I would just ignore the collections calls. I wouldn’t open my mail. I would go shopping or party instead. Inevitably things would catch up to me and I called my parents in tears, begging for help and forgiveness. I felt guilty and angry a lot. It didn’t matter how many budget-drafts I did, I just hated money and everything it had done to ruin my life and the lives of anyone who didn’t have any. I wished the whole issue would just evaporate. I wished this until my head hurt.
At 23, I met a tall-ish dark and handsome engineer who was incredible at math. I fell in love. Not only was he kind and funny, he was brilliant. Genius-brilliant. It wasn’t long before I decided that if I dated Dave, I wouldn’t have to worry about money. He was educated, his family appeared to have done well and he had incredible work ethic. I had visions of sitting poolside in a floppy hat reading Vogue magazine. Someday, I wouldn’t have to work on anything but my tan.
Of course, the poolside fantasy was a little far-fetched. But I did gladly hand over my bank statements, web-banking passwords and large chunks of any money I earned to Dave, who took care of everything financial. He paid all the bills, kept the spreadsheet and signed the cheques. I still had my own money to spend and never felt like I went without. I liked our system. Mostly I liked that I was barely a part of it. When I wanted to go back to school, between Dave and my parents, he worked it out. When I needed a computer, I applied for a credit card. Dave would manage the payments. We mostly discussed money if something big or scary came up, usually resulting in me requesting he sell off assets and him refusing. Otherwise, I’d mostly stayed out of it as long as we seemed to be able to live the way we wished.
That post-honeymoon night at the restaurant changed everything for us. It was funny how that conversation—that small list of financial truths—revealed so much about our relationship, and each of us individually. Dave had lied to me, for many years, about how he was spending our money – sometimes out of shame, sometimes out of fear and even occasionally out of love. It revealed that I was terrified to deal with our finances, had become spoiled and apathetic, and had been living in complete denial.
The year after the bombshell was the hardest. Our attempts to resolve the past fell flat, and the character defects revealed in the process were too much burden for our broken trust to bear. We tried budgeting, planning … we went to counseling. In the end, that debt-list was the catalyst.
Once we took a closer look at our finances and tried to repair our relationship, it was simply too late. The love we shared couldn’t fill the void left by broken trust and loss of respect. We eventually called this what it was—and although amicable—we separated nearly a year ago and are currently in the middle of filing for divorce.
Since leaving the relationship, I’ve had to take responsibility for my own finances again, and they were in bad shape. As painful as it’s been, I’ve slowly been working to change my attitude towards money and re-wire the way I think about it. The only way I’ll avoid a similar outcome in the future is to dig deep and change my thinking and behaviour. I’m fortunate that I didn’t need to tackle this alone—I had help with a budget, a spreadsheet and strategies. I’ve made great progress and am living more simply today.
My horoscope for 2012 says it’s going to be a great year for me financially. For the first time in a long time, I think it could be true—and not because of a lotto-win or fabulously wealthy boyfriend—but because I’m getting to the bottom of it.
Maybe by this time next year, I’ll love money.
~ Michelle C.
* quote attributed to the famous American writer Henry David Thoreau