To say I’m a ‘money man’ is a tragic understatement. Not because I have a great deal of the stuff, you understand, but because I’m quite good at doing with what little I possess. This wasn’t always so. I received a trifling of financial advice from my parents and during high school I chose a dead language over learning to balance a checkbook.
What skills I’ve developed come from a two decade profession and the benefit of a row seat to some of the ugliest financial mistakes people can make, and embarrassingly, doing many of those same blunders myself. It must surely reinforce that theological concept of, ‘the fallenness of man’, that we can watch another suffer the consequences of bad behaviors – and insist upon doing the same damn things ourselves.
I can tell you exactly what I spent and where July 19, 2009, and every other day for the last seven years. Fundamental as breathing, it long ago went from being a personal finance best practice to an obsession. If I don’t ‘log’ what I spend on a given day, I typically have a hard time sleeping that night. It would be here that I side bar on the merits of tracking one’s expenses, but I stopped expounding that necessity years ago because no one cared to listen. Maybe that’s because such meticulousness is looked upon as a burden and mental disorder. But over time this budgetary straight jacket grew comfortable due in part to the only money I had to do with was my own.
A marriage would change all of that.
If children are the greatest danger to a second marriage, cash is the one I’ve worried about the longest. I laid awake many nights before our marriage wondering how the Queen and I would blend our finances, handle that powder keg called child support, and what might the outcome be if we disagreed on any of it.
Our engagement brought the financial issue to a head. Now that our ship had set sail for the Isle of Matrimony, we had two years to rearrange the deck furniture before reaching port. While we didn’t know the best way of going about this, what became certain was we couldn’t ignore it altogether and follow the path of so many others we’d observed in similar situations; first blend families, then blend money, have problems, disagree, fight, rinse, and repeat. We’d both seen first hand how money – too much or too little – could infect a relationship and didn’t want to go there again. So shortly after our engagement, we started talking more openly about our views on finances, and almost immediately problems started to arise.
First and foremost, and I cannot emphasis this enough, we needed to see if what we said about money footed with what we did with money. Was I as much of a saver as I claimed to be? How much did she spend on clothes each month? Getting there would require total transparency in our finances. The last time she or I were in a similar situation – getting married – we were both young with little by way of ‘stuff’. At 28, I had a paycheck, car note, and a retirement account with just enough to buy living room furniture. She had been a recent college graduate. This time was different; the Queen and I both had mortgages, assets, 401k’s, pensions, and well-oiled and different views on saving and spending. There was more to gain – and to lose – this time around.
Most couples find it easier to talk about their number of past sexual encounters than finances. For some reason admitting to a threesome with an ex is more palatable than telling a fiancé your annual salary or IRA balance. But old drunken flings usually don’t end marriages and we agreed that if were really going to be ‘all in’ for this marriage that would mean being all in all the way. We couldn’t open certain parts of our life while keeping other parts secret.
So somewhat reluctantly, we laid it all on the table and gave each other a behind the scenes tour of our financial houses. Though unsettling at times, no corner was spared the light. But the assurance that exercise provided was invaluable because it removed any surprises, such as getting married then realizing your dream of owning a home just crashed and burned because your new husband’s credit score is so wrecked he couldn’t borrow a postage stamp, never mind the money to buy a house.
Second, and this proved extraordinarily advantageous, we let the other see how and where we each spent our money. Using one of many free online services – we chose Mint – we could, at any moment, see precisely where and on what the other was doing with their money. We became financial voyeurs; but in my opinion this was a complete game-changer in our relationship because our trust in each other deepened. Something strange also happened; knowing that someone else was looking added a level of accountability that had been missing with both of us for nearly a decade. The Queen admitted she began spending less money because she knew I would know what she bought.
But perhaps the best thing about starting the financial discussion well before we ever blended families was it helped she and I get comfortable with what life would be like as husband and wife. We were practicing marriage before we were married. It also provided the opportunity, while we were still basking in the hue of an engagement, to talk through so polarizing a topic without bringing our emotions to full boil. It gave us an early taste of that most potent of marital elixirs – compromise.
There are so many elements for single parents to consider when deciding to marry again. Some are so incredibly basic to the relationship’s success they can be easily overlooked. The nuances of child support alone can implode many otherwise good marriages. Because of this, single parents must be extra cautious in how they prepare to blend families and finances. They must talk about even the remotest issues early and often. It means getting level on something so mundane as who will pay the bills, will child support be part of the family pot or will it remain separate? How will a teenage daughter’s school supplies and tampons be handled, does that come out of child support or the family kitty? Even who writes that child support check should be vetted out?
None of this sounds sexy or romantic and won’t get many Facebook likes. It’s occasionally frustrating and routinely difficult. But if two single parents are serious about having a marriage that thrives, how they will manage the money in that marriage cannot be ignored. Nothing less than future happiness rests in the balance. The couple that doesn’t take this horseman with the gravity it surely deserves is the couple who one day discovers their marriage has been trampled by the very thing they chose to avoid.
Click here to read the other essays in this five part series.