Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Tuesday, December 15th


I have long known the stress that finances can put on a relationship.

I was not raised to pay too much attention to finances. My parents didn't do a totally crappy job with it; they gave me an allowance ($0.50 a week to start), let us do extra chores for money ($0.01 per weed you pull, but the joke was on them as I loved gardening and our yard was massive and overgrown), and allowed us to work as early as 14 (swimming lessons for kids all summer, camp counsellor, selling t-shirts to tourists) to earn our own money, money we could do what we wanted to with (like that $320 pair of teeny, tiny sunglasses I just had to have, then never wore because they were so teeny-tiny).

Savings? No. I was oblivious of savings - so I guess they could have done better, but at the same time, they probably did about as well as any other.

That was, until my dad died, and we came to the stark realization that he had been the one managing everything. He took care of the finances and the bulk of the earning, so after he died it was just a matter of time before we started running into trouble. It was just my mom and I at home at that time, my sister was already at school in England.

I remember a friend of the family, a dear gentleman who had been best friends with my mother and father both, visiting us and sitting in our living room to tell my mother and me the news that we had to stop spending money at the same rate we always had because it was going to run out very soon.

We hadn't thought that we were excessive, we just lived our normal lives, but the problem was that no-one had taken over the earning, and our savings were being rapidly depleted.

This is such a basic concept I don't know how it could have eluded us for so long, but there you have it. And, apparently it wasn't enough to have this kind man come and tell us in our homes, because even after that we could not put an effective budget and plan in place to make sure we were only spending within our means.

I tried very hard, but it was tough for my mother and me to agree on how the budget should work. She didn't like having to keep track of things, nor having to stop spending in the same was she was accustomed to. It's not that we were extravagant (the days of $320 shades well behind me), but we did like to spend money on the things we liked, and that was money we just didn't have.

It was very hard to express to my mother that we needed to curb our spending. She refused to acknowledge even the most basic truths, like "If we don't pay this $300 electric bill, they will turn off the power." Her response to this was "So? I don't care."

To this day I don't know what to do with that answer (except perhaps a grim "You WILL care!" accompanied by a shaking of the fist before storming out of the room. Pretty certain that's not productive, however).

I never was able to find a budgeting method that worked for us, or a way to get my mom to curb her spending. It was distressing at the time as we were literally running out of money, and my first experience with what it's like to be in a situation where the stakes are high and it would be best if both parties could agree, yet both parties could never agree. I always felt I failed her in that manner.

So that was my first lesson with finances (not much of one). Fast-forward to marriage. There are those that think couples should keep their finances separate (my sister and her husband practice this, quite happily). My husband and I did not do this; we blended finances early, which was perhaps an indication of the poor judgement skills of both of us.

It's a common mistake and might have been ok if we had better sense in other ways, but alas, we did not, and soon enough I found myself in that same situation, where one person in the relationship is desperately trying to explain to the other why a budget makes sense while the other refuses to stick to one.

To this day there are some conflicts that just I don't know how to resolve. I think this is why I was never a good manager of people in the workplace. I don't shy away from conflict, but I'm not the best at finding a resolution when parties cannot agree, and at some point, I just throw up my hands.

The result for our marriage was that our finances were constantly precarious, and we were stressed and at times emotionally raw from having to deal with them. It was then that I first experienced how one can carry stress in one's body, how it creeps up the spine and into the shoulders. It was a tough time for both of us, especially as we could never agree on the most basic steps towards resolution.

I don't know if finances can single-handedly destroy relationships. Ultimately we broke up for reasons other than that, but it did teach me how damaging it can be to be in a state of constant worry over your financial situation.

Fast-forward to today.

I still carry this stress with me. I am trying to clean up over 15 years worth of bad decision-making and credit-card debt while co-parenting two children, and while I am still not immune to bad decision making (apparently my mom and former husband were not the only ones who have trouble sticking to a budget, quell surprise), I do have some things on my side, including a job with benefits and a sister who is always ready to help out in a pinch. I hate calling my big sister for help when I fall, but sometimes it's got to be done, as humbling as it is. I really don't know where I would be without her. I mean I'd survive, but it would be a lot rockier.

I try to let go of that tension and remind myself that it's ok, that I have it better than most, but when you have two kids relying on you and the penalty for your failure is very real, it is hard to let it go and relax about it. One day I will have financial security (what a phrase! Does such a thing even exist? What a statement!).

It's time to get ready for work.

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