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.

11 comments:

Tracy Lee said...

Since I've been decluttering like mad I find I do not want to spend money on just anything because I know it's going to get tossed into the donation pile. It has to be something needed and I have to absolutely love it!

Glenda said...

Great post as always.

Every hour of life spent earning money is an hour off of a given time we have on earth. It is a precious and valuable exchange we give to meet necessities for living and some luxuries we might enjoy. It is worth giving great thought as to the value of an item in exchange for our life hours.

Your blog adds so much to people's lives and is a true blessing.

Janell in Georgia said...

Wow. What and honest and well written post. I'm still learning this lesson, Terri. You brought tears to my eyes as I read it. From the accident and marriage casualty (ours survived somehow) to the borrowing from here and there to make ends meet. I know I will continue to learn from your posts.

Julie Baker said...

Your honesty and openess is a great tool, thank you for sharing.

Ronnie said...

A sensitive and well written post. It's by reading your blog that I have learnt so much. Thank you.

Sparkiedoll said...

All of the above say what I'd like to say. I'm 56 and finally, finally 'getting it'. Thank you for helping me on my journey.

Lana said...

My beloved late Mother-in-law never learned how to handle money. Their house was crammed with stuff that she had bought on a whim. My sister-in-law finally had to help her get rid of things by doing things like gathering all of the lamps, 29 of them, and saying, 'Okay you need 7 lamps, so pick out the ones you want to keep and the rest will go.' They did not save for retirement because there was nothing to save and my FIL worked until 6 months before he died at 87. Just sad.

Kathy said...

Thank you for sharing your experience with us! I'm sorry that you had to go through such financial hardship as a child...I have to remind myself that...all things work together for good to them that love God.
I was the frugal one when we got married, and I think that I have rubbed off on my husband. :D We are hoping to have our mortgage paid off this year, and then we will be completely debt free! God is good!

JoAnn Baker said...

Wow! Great post... I have learned so much from you over the years and I thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sure hit the nail on the head! I think that there are a lot of people who want to save and not be in debt but they have never had anyone show them how to do it. It is too bad that there aren't classes through the community agencies or churches, or even commuity colleges that teach basic money management. Gramma D.

Sew Blessed Maw [Judy] said...

Such a good post. It took me a while to learn that lesson of--- a little bit adds up to a bigger amount.. Now.. instead of buying small things [that I don't need], I save to buy something like new furniture or work on our house , such as new doors, flooring,etc.
Those pennies make a dollar and those dollars will add up.. It is amazing to start a savings and watch those few dollars add.. thank you for sharing.