Til Debt do us Part Discussing Money Problems with your Partner

It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon when I sat beside my husband to have the dreaded debt talk. We had finished our ritual of a lavish and lazy breakfast and because of moving to a new city, decided to not go to church. The decision to linger over the breakfast table and sip another latte (me) and orange juice (him) lead us to a discussion about how much homes cost in our new city. This then opened the flood gates and we decided to “see where we are.” I wasn’t expecting the calculator to blast out numbers that made my stomach churn.

My husband and I have different money backgrounds. I was raised to live within my means and was given a monthly allowance by my father. He would hand me a couple hundred dollars at the beginning of the month and I was expected to budget for lunches, transportation, recreation, and clothing. My dad had six children and a well-paying job so once we reached 7th grade, he expected us to put the lessons of dollars and cents to good use. If we ended up with more month than money, we could plead for a job, often something unappealing like cleaning the basement or pulling weeds. The lesson was quickly learned to budget for everything. I took this life lesson into my college and adult years. It saved me when I divorced my first husband and was a single mother of three sons.

My husband in contrast was not raised with an allowance and had to earn his own money. He grew up poor and once he graduated from college with more income than imaginable, he spent himself into debt. When the bills were haunting his sleep, he made a decision to get rid of everything. His wardrobe was already extensive, he had a car, and a nice rented house so he cut out unnecessary travel, meals, and cable. His diligence allowed him to save $10,000 in a year.

When we got married, the only debt I had was my student loan and a couple small department store cards. I never sought credit cards because as a single mother without child support, I learned to exist on what I made in my profession. I was never materialistic and taught my children the joy of imaginative play and simple toys versus the latest marketing gadget. I would plan my meals and pay all my bills at one time. I disciplined myself to live on what was left and if that meant no outside recreation, we invented our own fun. My husband, in contrast, had things like gold and platinum cards and his wallet bulged with the weight. He had small balances and large balances that never bothered him because it was just him. He had whittled down the balance of several of them and the rest were “manageable.”

Marriage brought the gift of companionship and commitment and the burden of credit. His and hers became ours. We held the same philosophy of money (not to love it but to use it for making life livable) and bills (pay them on time and in full if possible) so I thought we could smoothly make this transition. We were married right after graduate school (Ph.D. for him and MBA for me) so we were catapulted into a joint income of high six figures. Our income allowed us to purchase a 3000 sq ft. 5 bedroom home in a growing suburb. We only had the three sons at the time and since they were school age, we were not buried under high child care costs. We tithed, gave generous gifts to people, paid all our bills in full, saved, and always had money left over for fun. We were still thoughtful about big purchases such as furniture and even took nine months before deciding to purchase the solid maple king bed we call our retreat. I though such discipline would insulate us from any money issues.

Fast forward a few years, two jobs lost within two months of each other, a baby, a pregnancy, and an income nose dive. We stopped breathing for a few seconds and then said it would be ok. We had savings and investments for the rainy day. His solution was to consult that brought in enough money to stay above water and I settled into being a pregnant, at-home suburban mom. This season was also the time that he started handling the finances and I handled the home.

We survived four years of money madness. The marketing field in my city was drier than the desert so I threw myself into being a mom. I learned the art of resale stores and making a chicken breast stretch to feed my big family. He juggled the payments from his professorships with his consulting gigs and somehow kept us afloat. We survived the foreclosure signs that sprung up in our neighborhood like flowers in the spring. I thought we were ok.

Then that sunny Sunday I decided to ask him about the finances. He would tell me where we were every month and how much I had for my household budget, but I just shrugged and let him handle it. I trusted his work and knew he could handle it. I frankly, silently didn’t want to know that big number lurking in the shadows.

My mouth flew open and threatened to spill my latte all over the breakfast table when I saw the figure at the bottom of the page. We added up everything from the mortgage on the house we still own in our former city to the student loans we still hold. I silently cried and wondered if I we would survive. “We’re ok, it will just take time.” He had shielded me from all the debt because of the stress of our sick daughter. “You are just seeing this number in total, I know it is a shock, but we really will be ok.” He touched my hand and reassured me. I just wanted to run.

I stepped outside and looked at the hundred-year-old trees and let out a scream! My husband made enough money for me to keep staying home since we really couldn’t afford the exorbitant child-care fees for the two girls. I felt helpless and hopeless for a moment. I never wanted to carry debt that was the price of a new home. “How did this happen?!” I screamed. He came out, put his arm around me and comforted me. “Honey, we are ok. I have a great job, we are caught up on everything, we will sell that old house and that will give us a breather. You are great at managing the house, we are ok.” He squeezed my shoulder and silently left me to my thoughts.

We have since talked more about the finances and I have stopped scolding myself for taking the easy way out. As a wife, a woman, it is often easier to just let him handle it especially since he makes so much money. I just didn’t want to be bothered with the checks and balances. “Is everything paid?” That phrase was all I wanted to know. I’ve now changed my attitude and sit with him to plot out how we can reduce our debt.

Tools that we have found helpful include John Cummata’s book “Are You Seduced by Debt?” He taught me the Accelerator Margin and how even our other mortgage could be paid off in about 7 years. He gave me hope that the big mountain of red will one day be in the black. I highly suggest couples remove the emotion from the money and look at it as a business transaction. If the expense side of the column is bigger than the income, then something has to be done to bring it back in balance. I’ve sold unneeded items in garage sales to help pay off a credit card, I stopped going to the coffee shop and apply what was my daily $4 gig into an extra $100 in the budget. I plan our menus each month down to all the details and shop accordingly. We don’t give in to the side trips during the week or even the quick run to McDonald’s that are all budget-draining. We have learned to be collaborators.

Money can be a divider. but for us, it brought us to the same page. We were forced to examine our values. We still tithe and save a little. We put extra money toward paying off bills and think two or three times before we buy blue jeans or jelly beans. My husband is my partner, we each bring qualities to the table. I’m organized and plan, he is tech savvy and put us on Quicken and automatic bill pay. We give each other an allowance and talk about big-ticket upcoming events like our son’s theater activities and the girls’ playgroup events.

The Sunday I saw the total debt was eye opening to me. It made me uncomfortable. After I finished screaming and staring at the old tree, I came inside, made myself another latte, sat down with my husband, and strategized. We really will be ok. He smiled, I smiled, he touched my hand, I touched his hand, we wrote the checks, we are ok. This debt will not make us part.