Realistic Budgeting: The Marriage Saver
Twelve years ago, a priest who did marriage counseling told me what he saw as the personal truth to marriages that stay together and marriages that break apart. “It’s about a little thing,” he said, “a little thing called money.” No way, I thought. Wouldn’t the big things be infidelity? Children? Big catastrophes? Nope. Divorce, he informed me, starts in the checkbook.
Fast forward two marriages and a mortgage later and darn it, if Father Peter wasn’t right. Our number one issue is always money---and little things about it. So how can we keep marriage together and keep ourselves moving forward out of debt and into prosperity? How come my purchase of a $20 shampoo seems justifiable to me but his $20 purchase of cardboard baseball cards does not? Why do I hide skeins of yarn behind the easy chair and how come I get angry when I find eBay print out receipts in the printer? How do we bring it together?
Nearly every couple I know hides purchases from each other or verbally decreases the expense when the partner asks how much it cost. I am guilty of rounding down. The new dress I’m wearing right now did not cost me $29.99 when I my husband inquires whether it’s new, it costs $25. Likewise the software he just downloaded was $9 not $15. If you can be honest about sex with each other, you should be, in theory, able to be honest about expenses. At least that's what we are working on.
First things, first: We swore an oath. No more rounding down. For my part, I'm trying to stick to it. But I'm also looking at purchases differently. If I'd round it down, then maybe it's not the price it should be for me to buy it in the first place. He assures me he's doing the same.
But how hard is that? When we get to the end of the month I start looking around the house and making mad dog eyes at newish purchases that were his, not mine. He thinks about my student loan. I think about his business ventures that seem to cost more than they make. If we didn’t still think each other the cutest things on the planet, I could see us both walking out the door and sticking the mortgage to the cats.
But cats don't like to work for a living, so saving marriages and sanity have to come down to other things: the Realistic Budget. We sat down with a spreadsheet and tallied up every last thing we spent money on in a six-month period. We did it together while we opened and drank a bottle of wine (I recommend the wine if it relaxes you as a couple, but not if it makes either of you too intense). Other than the wine, it was a pretty horrible experience. We realized our groceries were $300 above what we thought and that our credit cards were out of control with old debt not new. But we also realized that what we’d thought was each of us spending hundreds for ourselves was about $60 a piece per month of mad money. It wasn't however, as bad as what happened when my sister in law did the same thing. They discovered how much they spent on going out to eat. Ouch!
Next came negotiation. Most items had to stay: mortgage and utilties, etc. But also we realized that we'd go crazy if we weren't allowed a few indulgences. That's where the lying to each other always starts. We had to agree that mad money was a necessary aspect to the budget and our lives. What is mad money? Is that toys? We decided it meant any purchases only enjoyed by one of us not both. This also included esoteric food items that only one of us liked. His ice cream, my chocolate covered ginger, lunch out with a co-worker instead of brown bagging it. In reality, $60 wasn’t really all that much for each of us, though we agreed perhaps setting that at $50 each would help.
So that’s where we are now. Trying not to snoop, trying not to pry and coming to terms with our groceries and high interest credit cards. He’s trusting that my iTunes purchases of things he doesn’t like are hovering around $15 a month and I’m trusting that his eTopps collection grows by that same amount. We are hoping that going this route will mean that the financial aspect of the marital partnership will be more trusting and smarter about things. The new vegan raw foods diet we’re doing is taking out some of the groceries. Now if we just get to the last few credit cards, we’ll be set.