This is a window into possibility. There are infinite ways to think about money and to talk about it. This is ours. Maybe our way will make you feel cheerfully smug about how much better your way is working. Maybe it will boggle your mind. Either way, please accept this invitation to have your own strategy session.
We started talking about money together at the very beginning of our friendship, long before dating each other had ever crossed our minds. It was how we bonded. We were both stressed out and feeling broke and victimized, both recovering from divorce. I was sleeping on an air mattress at the time and he had two metal folding chairs at his dining table.
Part of what we both had in common was that we didn’t trust our exes about money. Both had been secret spenders and both resented us for wanting to save money or make financial plans for the future. We both resonated with the feeling that total transparency is good. It feels easy and light and clean to us.
We like talking about money and strategizing together. It makes us feel like a team and it makes us feel smart.
Not everyone is going to feel this way, and that’s good to know. If you’d like to avoid these kinds of discussions because your partner is not as focused on financial security as you are, then you can. You can just plan your own finances and set a good example. Maybe try to find a way to make the discussion lower-stakes and less tense. Or, like we eventually did, you can come to the hard realization that the two of you simply are not compatible.
Sometimes someone just can’t give you what you need.
No matter what you say or what you do, no matter how hard you try, another person may never fit with you. They have zero ability or intention to change because they are who they are. Their values are not your values, and they never will be.
The tough thing to realize here is that in this kind of situation, I may be the villain! My desire to change another person may make ME the bad guy. This other person never claimed to be any different, never agreed to change, never endorsed my values, and never signed onto my plan. Maybe this other person will have a difficult life because of this, but that is their right. Autonomy is their right. Why waste my time and life energy on this person, out of seven billion possible partners, when they don’t want what I want anyway?
On the other hand, maybe I’m the sloppy one, maybe I’m the one with no plan. In that case, it’s my job to figure out what to do, because it’s my responsibility no matter who I’m with, whether I’m single and alone or in any kind of shared situation. Trusting someone else to figure everything out for me means trusting in the illusion that that person is immortal, omnipotent, and immune to change.
The bedrock of financial strategy is asking, “Can I handle it?” In response to a list of scenarios, what would I do if that happened? If there is a way for money to fix that type of problem, do I have that money? If not, could I get it?
This is why we keep some small, crumpled bills in our go bags. We start with the assumption that in a major crisis, the internet may be out for at least three days and we may not be able to access any of our accounts. We need food and water and we need a way to pay for transportation. A gold brick would be useless in that kind of scenario, and so would a ten million dollar house or a fat stock portfolio.
After the emergency cash comes the default strategy. What if everything is basically fine and crisis-free for the rest of our lives?
We make sure our expenses are lower than our income, that we’re on track. If we kept doing what we’re doing, and we ignored our finances for several months, what would happen? Would it be okay or would it be a disaster?
Next is the part that takes actual concentration, and that is tax season. We sit down and do a little research. As time passes, our ages change and regulations do, too. Can we put more away for retirement? Have the contribution limits changed for our IRAs or our 401(k)?
There was definitely a time in my life when I felt like this type of question did not apply to me, and never would. I felt so broke that I could not imagine a different future. As a result, I missed a lot of opportunities to apply for better jobs, build credentials, or even make a new and improved financial plan.
Assuming I would always be broke almost guaranteed that I *would* always be broke.
There are two things that my husband and I do that most couples do not do. One is that we have a weekly Status Meeting when we talk about our finances. The other is that we took a financial workshop together a few years ago, and as a result we are living on about half our income.
We’re able to talk about our shared accounts cheerfully and with enthusiasm, because we have a working plan. Since our expenses are so much lower than our income, we have a lot of leeway. We can handle surprises (which, financially, are almost always the bad kind of surprise) and we can also “afford” vacations and treats. We live radically, in a tiny home, with no vehicle, and because of that we have almost no financial worries or stress.
Talking financial strategy raises a few extremely salient questions. Can I have that kind of discussion with my partner? Am I at least as focused and prepared as I expect anyone else to be? Am I ready to make changes to my core lifestyle? Do I have reason to feel optimistic about my situation and the future, or is this more of a time for brutal truths?
Financial strategy means caring for Future You, both yourself as an individual and “you” as future partners. It can be a loving gift that leads to long-term contentment. Eventually. And maybe with someone else?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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