The third installment of my Brown Bag It & Learn series is on the topic of money and how best women can take control of their castles! It’s a conversation that needs to be part of our everyday discussions as we walk around the park together or meet for lunch, right along with how are the kids? and what’s up at work?
And I’m not the only one who thinks so!
In The Power of Raw, Honest Stories About Money. Ron Lieber’s article in the New York Times on Saturday 2/16/19, we meet three women who bring their own stories and experiences to a conversation on finances. Gaby Dunn, Chanel Reynolds, and Vicki Robin have all written books on their personal experiences with money. Ms. Dunn, the youngest of the three, podcasts on the subject. Together their work addresses the issues of emotional spending, the nightmare of losing a spouse, and offers a unique approach on how we live, deal with and discuss our finances.
Here’s my Story:
I hated talking about money. Money wielded through my parents’ vitriolic divorce like a sword to cut and hurt. When the divorce first loomed as a final solution to their fighting, my mother went on a shopping spree in the face of what felt like impending poverty. She purchased everything from household appliances to industrial quantities of cleaning and laundry supplies. Conversely, my father used my need for a new winter coat the year I started college as a bargaining chip with my mother. I never learned what was at stake. Instead, I tried to make myself invisible standing at the pay phone booth in Somerset Mall as my mother negotiated.
It’s no wonder that I was terrible at money management. Money was mired in emotional toxicity. Questions about how much was spent, or why I used a credit card became an accusation of wrongdoing and a confirmation that I was unworthy of love.
Early in our marriage, my husband and I figured out how much money to allocate to house expenses every week. It was generous. I wanted for nothing. But let’s be real, this is no way for a grown woman, let alone one with a law degree, to live or be a role model for financial independence to her daughter. At times, I felt like a child still drawing on parental purse strings. To compensate, I double-downed on my role as a stay-at-home mother (part-time writer) and reminded myself that I had given up the purse strings, they weren’t taken from me.
I was reminded of this recently when I saw Julia Sweeney’s one-act play called Older and Wider. She tells the story of leaving Hollywood for ten years to raise her daughter Mulan. She was balancing a career, raising Mulan, a long-distance relationship with her husband and payroll for all the people she needed to make this work: a housekeeper, a nanny, and an assistant. It was a lot. When her husband offered to be the sole bread maker, she gleefully told him, she loves bread! From there, she moved to the suburbs of Chicago to throw herself (with all her creative energy) into mothering as a full-time job.
That was my life. I ate all the bread my husband could bring home!
Two things happened in 2016: My nest emptied and my husband’s bookkeeper retired. With time on my hands and a job that needed to be done, I was hired as his new bookkeeper.
I was just getting my mind around all the accounts I was now responsible for when my husband included me on an email for insurance renewals. Let me explain. My husband’s business is a professional law corporation that is a partner in a bigger firm. The firm has its own bookkeeper, but I was now in charge of my husband’s professional corporation as well as our personal accounts. Payroll taxes? What the hell was that?
I had been handed a million fat files, notations made in delicate but lovely handwriting, all in pencil. Most of the accounts had never been set up, yet, for online banking
Google sheets saved my ass as a bookkeeper. I set up a file with numerous sheets for all the different accounts. Tools online taught me how to navigate through all the different ways to best use this application. I watched tons of YouTube videos! Most importantly, I created a sheet for when, to whom, and from what account each bill got paid.
So there I was google sheeting my way through all of this information when I was asked to renew our insurances. It wasn’t that the idea of insurance was new or so overwhelming on its own. But I was humiliated at how little I knew about how things worked and what things actually cost. Truthfully, I felt defeated (almost) by my ignorance. The kind of woman I wanted to be was not one that left everything to her husband.
But there I was.
Who held our homeowner’s insurance? No idea. Earthquake coverage is a separate policy? Really? This was all new to me! The extent of my knowledge went only so far as my glove compartment. Once a year my husband handed me an insurance card and told me to put it in my car. I mean, I would have known to do that on my own, but still.
I dug into the insurance files I had been given. Sat up late one night to make more google sheets. I wanted to know what insurance we had, how much it cost, what was the coverage limits when it renewed. I made a schematic to compare what we had held the year previous and what was being offered for the new covered year. In hindsight, I may have been overcompensating.
I was astounded by what it took to run our life (and my husband’s professional corporation). The bubble I had been living in no longer looked inviting. I saw it for what it was: a shirking of responsibility. To my marriage and to myself. My husband and I have always prided ourselves on being partners. We never missed a moment to talk about our kids, their schooling, their emotional wellbeing. Our travels. Taking care of our parents. As far as money was concerned, we had always joked about our arrangement: he made the money. I spent it. I wondered, for the first time in our marriage, how my husband, my working warrior, didn’t resent me for not being his partner in our financial life as well.
It took some time to gain both my husband’s confidence and my own.
The beginning of my ascent into our finances was far from smooth. My husband and I meet weekly. There were tears.
He questioned many of my systems and I got defensive. When I sat back and reminded myself that there was so much I didn’t know and that he just wanted me to succeed I could consider his suggestions. Many of them were right on and once incorporated into my own systems made my bookkeeper life easier. We found some stability when I informed my husband that he needed to end each and every one of these “meetings’ with the words: You are doing a great job. Thanks! Eventually, there were no more tears and we could hug it out if there were differences of opinion.
Slowly, we stopped meeting. In its place, we just talked. From there, something totally unexpected happened, he stopped leaning in and left much of it to me. Confirmation emails sent and acknowledged, questions answered over dinner. Our text messages returned to being both informative and flirty. He didn’t even want to see my google sheets!
And then things got creative. I was no longer doing the job of his former bookkeeper. My role now involved critical thought, analysis, and decision making. This wasn’t bookkeeping. It never should have been because I was always an invested party to the conversation.
It’s the funniest thing to say but our relationship deepened in ways my thirty-year-old self couldn’t have even imagined. Becoming a true partner in our marriage was an incredible aphrodisiac. They say money is power and power is sexy. Let’s rethink that for the modern marriage: knowledge and partnership will bring you the best marital sex of thirty years! Trust me on that one!
There is another reason to know your castle. In Chanel Reynolds book, What Matters Most, she describes the “logistical and financial madness” that followed the unexpected death of her husband. It’s what fuels me to bring this conversation to the women of Fiftiness.
As I was digging into the monies that made our castle function a friend of ours passed away. There were trusts and wills in place to take care of his wife and their family in the long term. It was the short term that was scary. Account numbers and logins needed to be found. Questions existed about the status of bills. A credit card that collected mileage for family travel was closed down when the wife called for help and learned she wasn’t the cardholder on the account. It pained me because I watched as she had to learn everything I had learned over the last year. Luckily, I had someone to answer the questions or make the calls when an account was not in my name.
It reminded me of a case my husband handled when I first met him. He represented the wife in a wrongful death case. Her husband died during a scuba diving class. She didn’t know how to write a check. Her husband gave her cash (this was back in the days when cash, not Venmo, was king) and took care of everything. Everything. It shocked me. What modern woman would relinquish so much control to her spouse?
Two kids and three decades later that modern woman was me. Not so modern, huh?
Read Ron Lieber’s article. Buy the books: What Matters Most by Chanel Reynolds, Your Money or Your Life, by Vicki Robin, and Gaby Dunn’s book Bad With Money or listen to Gaby’s Bad With Money podcast. Take control of your castle. Know the questions to ask. Better yet, know the answers.
Start the conversation and then, keep talking!
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