Thursday, February 26, 2015
Retirement Remedy: Friend or Foe?
Looking back over my adult life I can see milestone moments in my life with money. I am not just referring to financial landmarks. I mean my life with money.
I grew up in a home where two subjects were avoided like the plague: sex and money. Everything else was up for discussion but the moment either of those words came up, mouths shut tight and glares ensued. "We.do.not.discuss.money." I recall that statement being said just like that in my tender years. And we didn't discuss it at all.
We didn't discuss it when Mama and Daddy went bankrupt and lost the house and car and Daddy lost his job. We didn't discuss it through months of unemployment. We didn't discuss it when we moved into a house that had cracks wide enough to put our hand through in the single layer of board walls and no indoor plumbing, not even running water. We didn't discuss it when Daddy worked three jobs. We didn't discuss it when electricity or gas were lacking. We didn't discuss it when the house went up for sale for non-payment of taxes. We didn't discuss it when creditors called repeatedly. We didn't discuss it when I asked my parents to fill out financial paperwork to see if I qualified for college scholarships. I'll never know. They refused with "No. We don't tell others what we make." We didn't discuss money when the car insurance had been cancelled...and three months later the new car was totaled. Completely taboo. Swept under the rug and ignored, just like Daddy's alcoholism.
Any wonder I married a man without ever disclosing what I made or asking what he had as income?
Or that our lives were 13 years of financial ruins to heap on top of the 13 years of troubled marriage?
When I was done with the hospital after being hit by a drunk driver, my marriage was the second casualty. The divorce was final long before the insurance companies paid up medical bills and personal injury settlement. I pocketed a sum of money that seemed to me to be riches. Within a year, mostly on the advice of an interested party, I had either loaned or spent my way through the entire sum, despite working full time and earning a decent salary. When I found myself going back to work three weeks early after giving birth it had nothing to do with an eagerness to return to my job and everything to do with needing to feed and house my family. The savings were gone. There was nothing between us and the wolves except me.
When John came into my life he did his best to explain how he paid bills and how to keep a cash flow but the truth is never in all the years I'd been dealing with bills and households had I ever handled cash. There was a check, a credit card and later a debit card in my purse. Cash? Never touched it. I thought keeping the bills paid was quite good enough. I had succeeded, in my opinion, and therefore he needn't tell me anything.
Fast forward to my next big financial moment: John and I went to the bank and he discovered the difference between what he thought we had in our account and what I'd actually not yet spent from our account. HUGE difference. A defining moment in our relationship, too, as we dealt with my financial infidelity. Honestly? I knew I was being dishonest but because money wasn't real to me, I had no idea how deeply I'd broken the trust in our relationship. To me, money was an abstract figure on a page which meant I either panicked or rejoiced. As long as there was more in the bank and I'd been careful what did it matter if I 'borrowed' a bit each pay period to make my squiggly ends meet? I had no clue of the value of money, it's relationship to work, the amount of power I allotted it (far far too much) or how to control it.
I'll give John kudos. I wanted, at that time, to simply walk away and let him handle funds and give me money as it was needed. When I told him as much he refused point blank. I remember feeling a bit hurt and really angry when he told me "If I don't teach you how to take care of yourself now, who will?" Who was he to tell me I didn't know how to take care of myself?! Hadn't I paid all my own bills on my own in the past? I'm humbler now. I see how very much I had to learn...
When you want to get to know someone you spend time with them. Same deal with money. Instead of dealing with money in an abstract way, I had to handle it. At my own insistence, I stopped using checks or a credit card and for a good long time avoided the debit card as well. I took out a set amount of cash from the bank each pay period. If I didn't have enough to cover groceries back then I had two choices: Give up a portion of my personal cash or put something back. It meant translating what I was holding in my hand to the number of hours John worked to earn it. It meant I had to acknowledge that if I spent over that amount it affected us adversely. We couldn't make an extra payment on debt or had to forgo savings. It meant realizing that money in itself is not evil nor is it powerful unless we choose to use to it in wrong ways. It is nothing more than a tool, as useful as say a hammer or a kitchen paring knife. And like any good tool, it needs to be taken care of...in other words, I have to be a good steward of it.
So getting to know money was one of my financial milestones, just as was later learning that small amounts can add up to bigger totals if you're saving. Pennies add up to dollars. Dollars pay off debts and build up savings accounts or buy things you'd go without otherwise because there wasn't wiggle room in the budget. That was a big moment in my life, realizing that little savings do add up...Incidentally, anyone seen the investment group commercial that asks everyone to write down what they have in their wallet at the moment and those amounts are attached to dominoes that gradually increase in size? When the narrator touches the smallest domino it knocks over the next and the next and then next and that whole formation collapses. It starts small.
Finally, after we were debt free, I made the connection between spending randomly and actually considering what I really wanted money to accomplish. Did I want a lot of small things that eventually ended up in the trash or donation pile or did I want to re-do a room or purchase a new piece of furniture or improve my wardrobe with good quality pieces? Suddenly spending $8 on a magazine seemed very silly when I might set that $8 aside and be 1/4 of the way to one of the new and better blinds I wanted for my windows. Consider this: using money properly is no different than determining the best use for the previously mentioned hammer or kitchen paring knife. I can beat nails all day long with the kitchen knife but I'm unlikely to ever get the nail to go into the wall and I'm probably going to end up cutting myself trying. On the other hand, that hammer is pretty useless for kitchen tasks unless I'm cracking nuts! I sure can't peel an apple with it or dice potatoes.
It was a process, this change of mind about money. Really it isn't enough to just be frugal. Truth told, I've always been frugal because frugality really has only a tiny bit to do with money. It took getting to know money and seeing it for what it was, neither friend nor foe but a utility item to accomplish something bigger, to begin to understand how it might best be used. And that's a lesson we all must learn at some time in our lives, as I did.
I'm still learning but just this past week I heard my husband say, with pride, "Terri had no idea how to take care of herself when we met, but she can now." I knew he was referring to my changed attitude and greater knowledge of money. Friends.