How I Learned To Be Less Cent-sitive

Have you ever fantasized about cutting your partner up into tiny little pieces, and feeding him to sharks? Me neither. Except when my husband is sending me into orbit over differences in how we manage money. Then all bets are off.

Money has been a touchy subject in our relationship. Perhaps cultural differences are at play. I am first-generation Canadian. My refugee parents went from “have” to “have not” (and thankfully back to “have”) so I am under no illusion that my financial stability is a given. My husband is seventh generation. Whatever economic struggles his family experienced as new arrivals back in the 1800’s have long been erased from the family consciousness. He feels he is on solid financial ground.

You can see how our different backgrounds cause havoc in our relationship. My husband lives for the moment; I want to save for a rainy day. He wants to be overly generous with the kids; I want them to earn their rewards. He is comfortable going into our line of credit; I feel sick being $5 in debt. He buys things he likes when he wants them; I defer gratification, and keep my eyes open for sales. He doesn’t pay attention to how much money we have in the bank; I watch our savings like a hawk. He sleeps like a log; I lay awake worrying about having to eat cat food in our old age.

I sometimes feel like we are a Pushmi-pullyu. (Remember the animal from Doctor Dolittle that had heads at opposite ends of its body? When the Pushmi-pullyu tried to move, both heads went in opposite directions.) A few years ago I thought our money should be pulled towards a kitchen reno (something that appreciates the value of our biggest asset) whereas my husband was pulling towards a new car (something that depreciates as soon as you drive it off the lot). His “logic” was, “You can eat in your car, but you can’t drive a kitchen.” We were at a Pushmi-pullyu standstill–until we went into our line of credit to complete a kitchen reno and buy a new car. Don’t get me started.

Our financial partnership isn’t all bad. Our values align in many important areas. Neither of us equates wealth with status, and we consciously make financial sacrifices to pursue work that matters and support causes we believe in. We don’t covet a bigger home, a “better” neighbourhood or private clubs. We would love to travel more but agree our number one priority is supporting our sons’ university educations, and affording them the best possible opportunities. We would never retire (even if we won the lottery) because we want to be productively engaged throughout our entire lives.

Yet, on a day-to-day basis my vision of financial management is different than my husband’s. I want to work out a budget based on our monthly income; stay within that budget, making whatever sacrifices are needed; and, know what our balance sheet is at all times. My husband is not afraid of debt. He sees it as a useful tool and a small price to pay to buy happiness like our family home, rich cultural experiences (he has the vastest music and literature collection of anyone I know), and to focus his law practice in areas of social justice (forgoing much more lucrative work).

It has taken us too many years to find a middle ground. Sure, there are still days when he drives me past the point of sanity (hence those homicidal fantasies) but we are learning to compromise. For my part, I am demonstrating more confidence in my husband, reminding myself that he is not reckless with money. He is a hard worker so his “toys” (CDs, books, car) are not extravagant–he deserves some fun given the pressures of his profession. I try to bite my tongue when he excitedly shows me a new purchase. I don’t ask “Was it on sale?” (even though I think it) and show excitement. Temporary forays into our line of credit are not the end of the world.

To give my husband credit, he is taking my high need for financial security more seriously. He now commits to annual meetings with our bank to ensure we are maximizing our potential for savings. He asks good questions, and is invested in the conversation. He pays more attention to the cost of things, and will proudly tell me when he has found an irresistible bargain. He initiated a “budget” conversation with our older son, which surprised me so much I started to giggle and couldn’t stop (he was so sexy playing the bad cop). He is still strongly committed to taking on important pro bono cases but has also become strategic about running a profitable business.

Hashing out expectations for how we want to spend and save money as a couple has been no easy task. But we would never contemplate separating our bank accounts to be free to spend and save as we each see fit. That would be an easy out. Mucking through this together has stretched us in painful but necessary ways. We have been forced to challenge our own and each other’s needs for financial security, material enjoyment, and calculated risks.

Sometimes I think our success as financial partners is a barometer of the overall health of our relationship. When we can talk constructively, honestly and with civility about money, tackling other sensitive relationship topics–housework, parenting, sex–is a piece of cake. A homemade cake that is–can you believe the exorbitant price of those patisseries at that new French bakery? Never mind, I see my husband strolling down the street with a box of them right now.

Sue Nador hashes out expectations in the messy world of love. Follow her on Twitter: @Sue_Nador and her weekly blog The Relationship Deal.

Image(s): CSA-Archive