Oh horrors! Those have to be the most awful words ever spoken in any relationship. (John) and I promised we'd never use them during a fight and to this day we've both honored that vow. But I have used them during this marriage. I used those awful words one day when working on my budget during my ever increasing battle with personal finances.
You see, I'd never really learned to handle money. Money was the source of a great deal of worry, pain and fear. Would there be enough to cover bills? If bills were paid would it stretch to cover groceries? Clothing needs? Would unexpected expenses arise? Would I make a fatal error in the totting up of the checkbook? Would I be forever robbing Peter to pay Paul?
I want to share with you how I came to the point of screaming "I want a divorce!" at money. One of my first memories in life: men coming into our home to carry out our belongings, my bedroom furniture included. My parents went through a bankruptcy in the early years of their marriage. I was four. My parents had a nice home, a new car, a house full of new furniture, three children and two jobs. And they lost all but the three children and one of the jobs when the bankruptcy occurred. In the early 1960's, a bankruptcy was taken very seriously. It was a reflection of your character. An employer put a lot of stock in character back then and bankruptcy was grounds for dismissal especially in certain fields. My dad happened to work in one of those financial fields.
I watched my parents struggle with money throughout my childhood. Though we lived an affluent life on the surface (nice clothing, new car every two to four years, a big house, new furniture) underneath we pretty much stewed in a huge financial mess. Bills went unpaid. Collection agencies called the house daily, sometimes multiple times a day. I was trained at a young age how to properly field those calls. I learned quickly to never mention a need. Not wants but NEEDS. I wore tattered underthings and often had holes in my shoes. What Mama couldn't manage on her own salary she put on credit cards. It was not uncommon to discover our home up for sale for unpaid taxes. That's how I grew up. I always felt sick to my stomach over money!
My first husband and I never discussed money prior to our marriage. I had no clue how much money he owed, what he made or where he spent it. It was quite a shock to learn that despite two jobs we had barely enough money to buy groceries. I got very familiar with the taste of the least expensive peanut butter. That was my lunch day in and day out with the occasional splurge meal of tuna fish salad. When I lost my job, I seriously wondered if we'd ever be able to afford tuna fish again.
Money was such a taboo subject in my family's life that I seldom mentioned the word at all except in a whisper. I learned a great deal over the thirteen years I was married to my first husband. I learned how to squeeze a penny and get half a cents more value from it. I learned how to do without, make do and get by. Unfortunately some of the things I learned to live without were phone, gas for hot water and heat, and electricity for days at a time. We didn't even manage very basic home repairs. I learned how to stretch a pound of hamburger to make four meals for a family of four. How to stuff a broken window with plastic bag first then a towel to help keep rain and wind from pouring in the broken panes.
Unlike my childhood home, I didn't have even the surface trappings of an affluent life. I owned two pairs of pants, two shirts, one bra and two pairs of panties for more years than I care to remember. I wore only the cheapest shoes. Flip flops all summer long and a pair of dollar store Chukka boots all winter.
My first husband had the ability to earn a good salary and he often did work jobs where the good salary was paid. He was master of 'losing' part of his pay on his way home. I was foolish with money myself. I'm not laying all the blame on him. There was always more money owed than money in our account however, though we had nothing to show for what was owed.
When my first marriage ended I made a vow to myself and my children. We would never again live without the basic necessities. And we didn't. I managed very well in keeping a roof over our heads, the utilities running and food on the table, in part due to the incredible penny pinching efforts learned during my first marriage. But I never had enough to manage any extra. One unpaid day of sick leave was enough to put me in financial straits.
Two weeks of unpaid sick leave caused me to lose my car. Yes, I lost my car. I felt as though I were living a repeat of my parents' life. I relied on a neighbor and coworker for a ride to work until someone took pity on me and gave me an old car. I was a slave to money and it's power.
When John and I decided to blend our lives into one life, one of the first things we discussed was finances and budgeting. We sat down and worked out a budget on paper. I knew just what he made and what he owed, and he knew just what I made and how much I owed. With five kids and two jobs, it took all we had to manage the basics budget but we pretty much stuck to it. It was hard. Goodness but it was hard! Together, we barely made enough to cover all the necessary expenses, but somehow between my expertise in squeezing pennies and his expertise in stretching dollars we always had enough and just a little extra. And eventually there was enough extra to allow me to be a stay at home mom. But I had a lot of learning ahead of me yet.
I've shared the story of my financial infidelity. I fudged figures so John wouldn't fuss about an overage of this amount or that. I didn't spend frivolously but I over spent. Often. One day we were at the bank and John asked the clerk to check the balance on our account. He held himself in check, though I could see he was in a state of shock. What came after that was not the horrible awful thing it might have been with another. I offered to operate on a cash only basis, to never again touch the checkbook. He refused. "You'll learn how to handle money now, while someone can show you how to do it the right way! What kind of husband would I be to let you go on as you are?" What kind of husband indeed!
One day as I sat struggling with the budget sheet and checkbook before me, I had a sudden understanding of my role in the struggle and saw just what John meant. He recognized something I never had: I didn't know a thing about how to handle money. I only knew how to live without it. I decided then and there that it was time I divorced my old attitudes and fears and misunderstandings about money. I wanted a new opportunity instead of the same old endless walk around the same old mountain.
The experts say the best way to learn anything is to do it 'hands on'. Up to this point in my life, I'd never physically handled money. I dealt with checks or credit cards which was money in an abstract form. I'd never dealt with cash. In fact, I couldn't recall a day I'd ever had cash in my purse! So I decided I'd not take the checkbook or credit cards with me any more when I left the house. I turned them over to John. On shopping day, I went to the bank with a check made out, cashed it and used that cash for my household budget and allowance.
Using cash only meant that if I went over my household budget, I had to use my allowance, or put items back. It's funny how some of those little 'extras' lost value in my eyes when I had to dip into my money to cover them.
I'll never forget the day I realized the cost of an item I was contemplating. It was priced at exactly as much as Chance earned in an hour of work. I thought of how tired he was at the end of the day. I thought of how he went without so often in order for the rest of us to have not only necessities but some of our wants as well. Putting that amount into the perspective of what it cost to earn it changed every thing. Suddenly that item didn't seem such a great bargain. It was one thing to say "Oh John makes '$X' an hour and another to stand in a store holding an hour's wage and knowing what it must cover! His time was worth far more to me than the value I'd get from the single use item in my hand. I placed it back on the shelf and from that moment I looked at price and cost in a new way.
I no longer take my household budget out in cash. After years of practice I have our budget so firmly in mind that I seldom deviate from it. Some weeks I buy all we need for less than the budgeted amount. Other weeks, I'll go over the budgeted amount for the pay period but I'm well within the budget for the month. I do continue to take my allowance out in cash. It's important to have cash in my purse. Handling 'real' money keeps me focused.
The lessons I learned are these:
Money has no power in and of itself. It is a gift and a tool, but at no point should we make the mistake of assigning any more importance to it than we do to the other tools that help us in daily life. As with all gifts and tools, we have to be good stewards with our income.
Our bills are physical evidence of our promise to pay. Bankruptcy may be more acceptable in our nation today, but it is important that we accept our responsibility, honor our word, and pay the bills in full when due.
The purchase price of an item and the cost of an item are two separate things. The price is related to how much I will pay for an item. The cost is related to how much use I will get from an item as well as how many hours of sacrifice it took to earn it. So a pair of shoes for which I pay $50 may seem to be high priced, but if I wear them daily for two years the cost becomes about $.07 a day. The cost of the item is a good value. A steak dinner priced at $50 will cost $50. It is a one time fee for a one time use.
I learned to stop feeling guilty about the occasional splurge here and there. I work hard to save money and I work hard to stretch money, but I can get just as unbalanced all over again. If I'm going to keep it in perspective I must learn to keep an equal balance.
I'm so glad I decided that it was time for a divorce!