I have the blessed privilege of being a financial mentor with a local organization where I live. It is an honor I was led to undertake some time ago and has given me a great opportunity to serve others while being a great learning experience that offers me a tremendous sense of fulfillment.
Almost exclusively the individuals and couples who are reaching out for guidance with their finances feel they have come to the end of their economic rope. They have tried to fix it themselves, talked with friends or family and all to no avail, and now that proverbial fat lady is starting to warm up. I work predominately with couples as we spend structured one-on-one time together trying, the three of us, to make sense of their financial lives and to develop a strategy towards getting them back on the proper financial path. No two stories are ever the same, many times I’m sitting in front of them after they decided their current lives were far too mundane and it would be much more spicy if they lived like the ‘Joneses’. Now they have more month than money, bills are delinquent, and frequently their cars and house are on the verge of repossession. In some cases financial infidelity seeped in as one spouse hid bills, purchases, or accounts from the other and the house of deceit that was built one lie at a time finally comes crashing down around them. In every case their marriage is hanging on by the frailest of threads where disrespect, distrust, and animosity take center stage. Not only am I financial mentor I often play marriage counselor.
My task is simple and quite difficult. It is simple in that I provide guidance, support, and encouragement as they re-learn how to handle money and develop a new outlook on finances. Yet it can be taxing because most of them are in this predicament for reasons other than spending too much and old habits are so hard to break. And one of the hardest is getting two people to communicate about something they have never talked about before.
Ever wonder why is it that an outsider can see the consequences of our mistakes while we remain totally oblivious? Invariably I sit there listening to these tales of regret and disappointment, shaking my head and thinking “What did they expect was going to happen?”, while conveniently failing to remember that I was once in a not so different situation.
I can never recall one instance where the topic of money was discussed while I was dating my ex-wife. I can’t remember even one time where we talked about our individual philosophies on money, whether we were savers or spenders, how our parents and families dealt with finances, or what we might do in certain financial situations. She could have been the financial equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill the day I walked her down the isle and I would have never known.
One of the things I do remember however was being adamant about not sharing with her how much money I earned. At the time she was still in college and I was already out in the working world. I was certain that the moment I coughed up my W2 I’d never get rid of her. My idea was if I could keep her in the dark then I’d never have to worry if she was with me for the money should we get married.
Have I mentioned recently that I’m an idiot and occasionally an arrogant ass?
As I sit here typing these words some 15 years later I have the urge to go slam my head in a car door. If there is anything more shortsighted I can’t think of what it might be. Deciding not to talk about finances with a future spouse is the equivalent of never asking their middle name. Looking back it was without doubt one of the gravest mistakes we made while we were dating and the consequences of which would come back to haunt us years later.
Soon after our marriage the financial situation, like many, began dramatically improving. I started falling into promotions that meant larger paychecks and bigger egos. The weekends of pizza and beer at home were traded in for fancy dinners, exotic martinis, and valet parking. I moved from Japan to Germany and our 2nd floor apartment became a 5/4 with three-car garage on a 1.5-acre lot. From the street we were a scene cut out of the left butt cheek of Norman Rockwell but behind the manicured lawn and custom blinds we were Financial Dysfunction 101.
And I pulled the strings on all of it. I was the rainmaker, banker, and accountant. I handled the books and she handled dinner. When it came to our finances, she was Venus and I was somewhere in the Orion system. That little communication problem we had while dating never got any better after we were married. I’m not sure to this day if she ever knew how much money I earned each year. If there was a financial decision that needed making, I made it. If there was an investment to choose I called the advisor. As long as she had gas in the SUV, money for groceries, and a few bucks left over for a new pair of shoes, a new bathing suit for the neighborhood pool, and a bottle of wine for bunko she could care less about the rest of it.
And therein lies the whole rub. Because I made, managed, and controlled the money, I thought it was mine – not ours and certainly not hers. It got to the point that, and I’m not making this up, I would advance her money so she could go buy something for herself and then take it out of her next biweekly allowance – like a loan shark just without the interest. One doesn’t need a PhD in Psychology to understand how that might affect a relationship.
And because we didn’t have a basis of understanding to fall back on we never knew where the other stood and we could never know just how far apart we were on the topic of money. And I was way too blind to see that my relentless control of the finances eventually caused me to resent her for her lack of interest in something I wouldn’t let her take part in to begin with. I’m convinced this was the initial marital crack that ultimately led to a lack of respect, which finally prompted an affair that ended the marriage.
Time does have a way of teaching us things. The Queen and I are the exact opposite, when it comes to money, of how the ex and I were. The Queen and I know what each other earns, what we spend, and what we save. We talk in detail about money issues and how each other views certain financial topics, plus we share similar beliefs on spending, saving, and retirement. Additionally we’ve made the agreement that, when married, we manage all of our finances and make all the decisions – together.
Because I was not a very good loan shark.