Personal Finance Challenges
August 17, 2011
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The following guest post is a personal story written by an intelligent, conscious friend, who wishes to be anonymous. I post it here, because all couples need to work on their communication regarding money issues. And all individuals and couples need to be aware of why they make the decisions they do.
I believe that individuals and couples will learn something from the experience Anonymous shares, his honest assessment and changed behavior.
Money Challenges for a Conscious Couple
Like Roger, I am a Certified Financial Planner (now retired, however) and have an MBA in Finance. For several years, I have been very involved in The Mankind Project, a men’s organization which is dedicated to improving the world by helping each man achieve his full potential. My wife is a therapist who counsels people on developing effective communication, especially with their primary partners and family members, and learning to live life to the fullest.
You might imagine, then, that we, a happily married couple, would be very effective at communicating with each other about any and all matters that arise in a marriage, including those issues with a financial aspect. Unfortunately, that is not the case; the issue of managing our finances has been far and away the major point of contention in our marriage. Embarrassing as they may be, I will relate our struggles with the hope that, by sharing this, you can learn from our mistakes.
One thing that we have never had to worry about, fortunately, is having enough money. I was an executive at several different banks; I earned a good salary, received stock options, had a 401k, and I now receive a small, but entirely adequate, pension. Just as important, I did not marry until I was in my 50’s, and my then wife-to-be had no children. Thus, as a childless mature couple, we avoided the major expenses of child rearing and college.
When we got married, my wife was an independent, intelligent businesswoman from New York City who made good money in a commission-based job. I moved into her NYC apartment afterward, and was, I admit, pretty unhappy. Having lived in that apartment for over 20 years, my wife essentially “owned” it; The apartment was filled with “her” things, top to bottom, and I missed having my own stuff around me.
Life Events Caused a Re-evaluation
I got laid off from my bank job in 2001- the fourth lay-off in ten years, as banks went through one round of layoffs after another. That was the last straw; I examined my life hard and decided that, in order for me to be happy, I had to quit the corporate game, and move back “home” to the Washington, DC area. I had enough money saved so that both of us could stop working full-time, if we so chose. My wife, understanding that I was just not happy in NYC and open to a change, agreed to give up her established career and move to the DC area.
Once settled back in the DC area, my wife attempted to re-create the success she had had in NYC by doing the same type of work—helping people find jobs (attempted being the operative word.) For whatever reason, and in spite of her incredible work ethic and outgoing, buoyant personality, she just could not replicate her NYC success. (And with all due respect to Frank Sinatra and the lyricist who wrote the words to that wonderful old song, New York, NY, “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” simply did not apply in my wife’s case.) So, she became dependent upon me and my savings to live. Of course, I didn’t mind her being financially dependent on me, but I also didn’t think it unreasonable for me to assume that I would be the one who would control our finances. In my mind, it made perfect sense; I was the financial expert, after all. I believed that she should be grateful, not just for my generosity but for enabling us both to retire at relatively young ages, and for my willingness to take control of the finances. I truly thought she would not mind relinquishing financial control to me.
Our Background and Baggage
Both my wife and I had come from homes where money was tight, thus a constant issue between our respective sets of parents. That was the baggage we each carried into the marriage; we both viewed money, not as a tool for enjoyment, but rather as security.
It’s often been said that money is power, and I recognize that implicitly. But here is what I failed to recognize: that the person in power does not have the same “sense” of a power imbalance as does the person out of power.
I enjoy working with numbers and have more experience with and knowledge of money management than my wife. So, it was only natural for me to take on the role of Chief Financial Officer for our family, and for many years, my wife had no objections to it. I paid all the bills and made all the investment decisions and we did just fine.
Having gotten married for the first time when I was 54, I was used to making decisions on my own, without consulting anybody else. Even after getting married, I didn’t really see the need to change my behavior and consult with my wife, especially in areas where I felt supremely confident, namely with respect to money management. After all, she couldn’t possibly add any value to the decision making process, given her lack of knowledge. I didn’t know it then, but my wife was very hurt at how easily I could make financial decisions on our behalf, but without consulting her.
Mauled by the Bear Market
The Great Recession of 2008-2009 presented us with a particularly challenging time. As with so many others, our nest egg suffered a major hit, and we lost over 25 % of our savings. One major bone of contention was my investment philosophy; I was (am) basically a “buy and hold” kind of investor and was more than willing to leave our asset allocation alone. My wife, on the other hand, had told me, even prior to the downturn, that we should get out of the stock market, because she “did not have a good feeling.” I was the financial expert so I dismissed her “feeling” and overruled her.
We stood pat and watched our net worth go down, and down again. Never giving up, my wife would regularly lobby for us to get out of the stock market and, as usual, I would resist. It wasn’t until near the absolute bottom of the market, that my wife’s constant lobbying (and I admit now, grudgingly, my own annoyance for not having listened to her in the first place much earlier), persuaded me to finally really listen. She wanted the mortgage on our house paid off, so I sold off enough stock from our portfolio to pay off the loan balance. In truth, to me, paying the mortgage off didn’t make sense – smart investors buy low and sell high! But the majority of people do the opposite. Much to my chagrin, we later joined the masses in buying high and selling low.
Preparing to be a Widow
A couple of years ago, the husband of one of my wife’s dear friends died after a long bout with cancer, and his wife had to learn how to handle the family’s financial affairs. Unfortunately, she was not well-prepared to take on this task, and struggled with the burden of it, in spite of her husband’s well-detailed instructions on what to do with each account. It was my wife’s observance of her friend’s struggle that was the wake-up call that she, too, should become more knowledgeable about our finances. Now.
My wife insisted that I make no financial decisions without consulting her first. I hated the idea, but acquiesced once I realized how strongly she felt about it. It took me some time to get used to the idea of it, but now we have regular meetings to discuss how our finances look and what we should do or changes we should make. My wife has assumed responsibility for monitoring our expenses, using the free on-line tool, Mint.com. She has become disciplined in reviewing each and every expenditure on that system and assuring that it is correctly categorized. I calculate our net worth on a monthly basis and evaluate our asset allocation. As a result of our most recent look at our asset allocation, we decided to change our portfolio allocation, together.
My Advice for Couples
To those couples who argue over money (and really, who doesn’t nowadays!), I suggest the following:
- Understand that both money and knowledge are power.
- Share the three major tasks of managing your money, i.e., paying bills, monitoring expenses and investing.
- Monitor your expenses on a monthly basis. The free on-line tool, mint.com, is a wonderful way to understand what you are spending money on and how much by category.
- Determine what asset allocation you are comfortable with and rebalance your portfolio so that you stick to your target. Take on only the amount of risk that you are comfortable with and that you need to achieve your goals.
- Monitor your net worth on a quarterly basis.
- Have regular financial meetings to discuss expenses and investments.
And most importantly, never assume anything with respect to your partner’s feelings about money management- have the tough discussions early on to make certain you are both on the same page.
Postscript by Roger Streit
Many people are not motivated, or do not have the time, to analyze and monitor their financial situation. A good financial advisor should be able to help you assess your goals, discuss your risk tolerance, set up a sensible portfolio, and even help you unpack your feelings about money. Do-It-Yourself is not right for many people.