Loving the Financially Imperfect

Loving the Financially Imperfect

This blog is about a lot of things. It’s about personal finance, travel, and entrepreneurship. Most of all, though, it’s about love. That’s a bit of a saccharine thing to say, but it’s true. My wife and I are seeking financial independence because we love each other, our friends, and our families. We even love the children we haven’t met yet. We love the feeling of getting to know new places and ways of life. Loving who you’re with, what you do, and doing everything you can to maximize the limited time you have is at the very heart of financial independence and early retirement.

If we applied the same cold, impersonal calculus to relationships that we do to crushing debt and maximizing our savings, we’d probably all die alone. We’d be forever optimizing our choice of partner, looking for the ideal co-saver. We’d demand a high-earning, debt-defying, minimally materialistic badass and accept nothing less. Since most of us are human first, and high-octane savings engines second, it generally doesn’t work out that way. Choosing a partner like we choose a new laptop– based on a list of specifications and features– is completely unrealistic. Ultimately, you love who you love, and you figure out the rest from there.

I should know– I married a financially imperfect person.

Financially Imperfect, But Perfect For Me

Actually, I married a woman who is totally debt free, who maxes out her 401(k), and who is one hundred percent onboard with our crazy plans to stop working and slow travel the world someday, hopefully soon. It’s just that it wasn’t always that way.

When my wife and I moved in together a few years ago, it was out of necessity. Rent in the San Francisco Bay Area has been increasing for years, and we were both feeling the pinch. We had been dating for a few years, and we were very committed to each other. Since I owned our condo, it made sense for my wife to move into my place.

For anyone who has lived with a romantic partner, you know that once you’re under one roof, it’s virtually impossible to hide all of your quirks, imperfections, and bad habits. Some are easy to shrug off, others are something you find endearing, and then there are those habits that take some time to come to terms with. The direction of the toilet paper roll, funky odors, arcane and unusual beauty appliances, and the many subspecies of what I would call a “shirt” are easy. Tougher to ignore are things like nasty-grams from credit card companies appearing in the mail, and the fact that your partner’s phone is always set to silent for some reason.

I’m financially imperfect myself (all personal finance bloggers and personalities probably all are, when you strip away the public personas), but my wife was a grown woman, and I was a little nervous about bringing up finances with her. I didn’t know how to make the leap from “dating” to “shared finances,” so I was content to let her manage things on her own.

A little more on our living arrangement: My wife writes me a monthly check for her portion of our living expenses, and I pay all our bills. This suits us, because one of my strengths is organization, and the mortgage and utilities were already in my name when she moved in anyway.

One day, after just a few months of living together, my wife’s monthly check bounced. When I asked her what had happened, it was as though a dam had broken. She broke down in tears, and explained that she had long ago maxed out her credit cards, and the late fees, interest charges, and overdraft fees had finally all caught up with her. She was completely broke. She had written the monthly check to me hoping that I wouldn’t cash it for a few more days, and that the delay would give her enough time to deposit another paycheck.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome

The US Marines have a saying when confronted with adversity. The motto Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome represents a belief that all obstacles can be circumvented with lateral thinking and a focus on results.

By the time my wife bounced her check to me, I had loved her for years. We had been together through good and bad, and I knew from my own struggles with my finances that she could turn her habits around if she really committed to doing it. Obviously, living in fear of the sound of your own phone ringing, and having no idea how to tell your boyfriend that you were flat broke is a terrible way to live. I wasn’t angry with my wife for bouncing the check at all– I saw it as an opportunity for me to help her achieve the same peace of mind that I felt once I started aspiring to financial independence.

This is the part that some people might make some people uncomfortable: I told my wife (at that time still my girlfriend) that I would do whatever it took to get her finances turned around. We’d skip the cost of living checks for as long as it took for her to get her finances turned around. I’d help calculate the optimal way to pay down her debt. I’d make sure she got her bills paid on time, even if it meant nagging her. There was just one catch: She had to completely open her finances up to me. She had to set all of her accounts up online and give me access to see what was going on.

I’m going to call a time out here and explain. My wife is my equal, and she always has been. I don’t look down on her, I don’t think that she’s less accomplished or capable than me because she needed my help, and she didn’t exhibit any bad judgment that I haven’t exhibited myself. I recognize the totally problematic dynamic of a man saying to a woman that he is going to “take over” her finances. I don’t mind telling you that I have written one version or another of this post many times, only to delete it because I didn’t know how to explain this touchy subject.

This situation was about honestly assessing our relative strengths, and sharing the responsibility for overcoming a problem that we chose to take on together. I love my wife, and I loved her then. I felt, and she agreed, that the best way to tackle the problem was with complete openness. That was our starting point for overcoming her debt and some bad financial habits, and that’s all it will ever be.

Before long, we had set my wife’s accounts up in Quicken, tracked down all of the upcoming bills, and figured out how long it would take to achieve debt freedom: about four years. We skipped the cost of living checks for a few months to climb out of the cycle of overdraft fees and negative balances, and then set to work paying off the debt as quickly as possible. My wife had an extremely strict weekly budget for food, gas, and entertainment… and at times, she overspent. At times, I got frustrated and we argued about it. Given that experience, and the fact that we managed to argue about money despite the incredible progress being made, it’s easy to understand why finances are responsible for so many failed relationships. The thing is, we kept moving, imperfectly, towards our shared goal, and overcoming the debt is something that made us stronger. It was proof that we could share the best and worst parts of our lives and commit to facing them together.

Why am I writing this post? Well, every time the topic of relationships comes up in the blogosphere, the answers are just a little too pat. Don’t pick a partner with bad habits or huge debt. Get a prenup. Protect your assets. That kind of advice, while sound on the surface, has always bothered me. Love and marriage are complicated enough without introducing another layer of near-impossible expectations.

Because of the experience my wife and I have had, I’m more of an optimist when it comes to tackling financial problems together. If you ask me, all it takes is complete honesty, and a willingness to shoulder the burden– to improvise, adapt, and overcome— together.

Wedded Bliss

18 days before we got married, my wife paid off the last of her debt. She had been contributing enough to her 401(k) to get her company match, and she reallocated her debt payments towards maxing out the 401(k)… with a little left over for after-tax investments.

I’m proud of her– not as my protege, or my puppet– but as my partner and my favorite person. Big problems demand tough decisions and uncomfortable vulnerability. Love is hard, and messy, and imperfect sometimes. But so is everything that’s worth a damn.

31 thoughts on “Loving the Financially Imperfect

  1. Anne

    Wow. Thank you for this… I can say (even though I’m single) that I am in the exact space your wife war when that check bounced. I have no partner, but I have been trying to pay off my debts and gain financial freedom for a few years now. Not making as much progress and I keep making plans and not FOLLOWING THROUGH!

    I realise that I can’t do this alone and really do need… Help. I thought of starting a blog or journaling my progress somehow. But I still need… Help. My brother who really is my financial advisor has helped me not ‘freak out’ too much but I think , like your wife, I need to be completely OPEN with someone about my situation and find a way to pay everything off. I believe I can do it in 2 years (or less). I just want to make a realistic plan and stick to it.

    I would love to be debt free in 2017… guess I need a financial ‘mentor’ to hold my hand through this.

    Being broke sucks. It really, REALLY does.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story… I am encouraged and even feel supported just by reading your words.

    Anne

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Hey, Anne, thanks so much for reading and for your kind words. I get where you’re coming from. Accountability is a huge help in making progress, but being accountable to someone in this case means being extremely vulnerable, too. I’m glad you at least have your brother to lean on a bit. Have you thought about posting a case study or starting a journal over at the Mr. Money Mustache forums? Even though it’s not quite the same, people seem to read and support one another really well in those journals– maybe it’ll be enough support and accountability to help you overcome inertia?

      Regardless, I wish you the best of luck and believe in your ability to overcome your debt and your former bad habits. If my wife and I can do it, you can do it.

      1. Anne

        Thank you so much! I also follow Mr. Money Mustache and I may look into starting a journal over there. The group support may be the boost I need to really gain momentum and stick to it. I made a big payment this month and even though I felt the pinch, I’m glad I honored the payment and stuck with it. That debt should be paid off in 3 more months! I think it’s also the fact that it’s numerous debts of small – large numbers that sometimes overwhelms me. Gotta start somewhere though right?

        Thank you so much for your blog and for your words of encouragement. I know I can do this… thank you and best wishes for the Holidays and New Year.

        Anne

        1. Miss Mazuma

          Hi Anne!

          I write over at MissMazuma.com and am happy to help in any way…vent, set up a budget, be your accountabilabuddy. 😉

          Shoot me an email if you’d like to talk.

          1. Anne

            Awwwwh thank you so much! I dropped you a note on your blog and look forward to sharing some of my journey with you. This is really what I NEED!

            Anne

  2. Samantha

    Loved this article. My husband and I had a very similar experience. We moved in together and while our finances were still separate, I broke down one night after getting a flat tire and realizing I would not be able to pay off my credit card that month. Luckily, we got on the same page pretty quickly thru taking the Dave Ramsey class together. So it didn’t feel like much of a power struggle between us. But definitely I was more of a spender and he a saver. But we paid off all our debt (2009), saved cash for a wedding and honeymoon (2010), and have since paid off the mortgage on our house (2014)! There is life after debt, and opposites do attract! 😉

  3. Mark Dee

    Indeed this is an interesting post!!
    About 36 years ago, my wife and I also decided to live together [& married after 29.5 years] and completely combine our finances! This included all bank accounts, investments and credit cards.
    We are also “compulsive travelers”. Two years after we started living together we departed Canada and lived on a sailboat in the Eastern Caribbean for 6+ years. We also bought a motor home in Europe 31 years ago– and still use it!
    For many years my wife has managed all of our day to day expenses [which is complicated since we travel about 6 months per year [and travel around the world at least once per year]… While I manage our investment portfolio. We have never felt a need to budget.. but share an understanding of “Value for Money”. We currently are able to live well on under US$ 25,000. So, it is possible to achieve travel and financial goals and live a very full life… over a sustained “prolonged period”!!

  4. Miss Mazuma

    I absolutely love this post. “we kept moving, imperfectly, towards our shared goal” Is huge. People get so caught up on the plan that they freak if it doesn’t go exactly as it should. But things happen. Nobody is perfect and no plan can account for that. I’m glad you guys reached the end goal and with fantastic timing!! I am curious to know what your reaction would have been if she didn’t want to open up? This is something I come across in couples now and then and I never know what to say!

    Ps – the toilet paper roll? The flap should always be on top (not hanging down) …just like hotels! 😉

  5. Jen

    Love this post. I also married a financially imperfect person. (So did he!) Before we got married, I had savings and he had debt. After we were married, they virtually canceled each other out and we started off with our wedding gifts as our new savings. It’s been an interesting roller coaster of a ride since! But he’s come a long way! I”m happy to say we’re our lives together debt free.

  6. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer

    AWESOME article!!! My husband and I have been through many ups and downs (super unhealthy childhoods) that have caused damage to our finances and other parts of our marriage. Together, we worked to get healthy, to improvise, adapt and overcome. It was extremely difficult to make the choice to do that instead of giving up, but we’re so glad we did.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Thank you, Laurie! It’s funny how even the most financially fit and savvy can find that money is a topic of contention in their marriage. I’m still just learning about how to be a husband, but I feel exceedingly lucky that we faced this before getting married. I feel like it got us started in our actual marriage on the right foot.

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  8. Paul

    Can’t tell you how awesome this post is. It is real and vulnerable and so needed for so many people. You are right in the fact that so many people just say “move on” well love doesn’t work like that, at least not real love. My wife and I have been on a 10 year journey with finances. It was never so dire that we maxed anything out, its just minimal progress was being made toward retirement. Problems were compounded when we decided that she would be a SAHM, and then further compounded when I reluctantly accepted that she was not going back to work (I phrase it this way because that is how I felt at that specific moment where I accepted this fact).

    The process was highly iterative, many, many gentle discussions about finance and goals where the morale of those stories had to marinate over time. My wife takes the confrontational approach when talking about things she doesn’t like. Really its not her fault, she is just like her mom in that regard, very stubborn and closed to suggestion unless she comes to the epiphany herself. Also, growing up in her house hold speaking about money or the lack there of was a punishable offense. She was taught nothing about managing money growing up,I had the opposite experience growing up. Although we were poor my mom I believe overcompensated by teaching us her ins and outs as it pertained to money. I’m only saying this to let you know what we together had to overcome.

    Long story short, my goals and her goals are now just our goals. In fact of the two of us I’m probably the spender now… I makes me happy though because I explained to her about my goals for freedom and being their for our kids and grand kids in our later years. Something that would not be possible if we didn’t start showing progress now. She understood that, and now when we talk about saving/spending, etc… I view her frugality as a symbol of love for me, that she would want me around and not slaving to a keyboard.

    If you truly love someone stick with them, one conversation in many cases is not enough. Sometimes it takes years. After all the first reading at every wedding I have ever been to started with “Love is Patient…” if you don’t have that you probably don’t have love.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Paul, thank you so much for sharing your own story– it really means a lot to me. I was being honest when I said that I had written and deleted many versions of this post (going all the way back to nearly the start of this blog). It’s hard because our coming to terms on finances is very personal, and because it would be easy to get the wrong idea about me or us. Overcoming those challenges made us stronger as a family, and it definitely challenged me to become more patient and thoughtful about the ways that I approached my wife on difficult matters.

      I wish you and your wife continued success in your retirement journey– couples like you inspire me!

  9. Nicholas @ Financial Fanny Pack

    This is great! I’m definitely known to groan and grumble every time my girlfriend spends money on things that I don’t *think* we need (just bought all new Christmas ornaments because last year’s colors don’t look good anymore), but overall, I know she’s pretty responsible with money.

    Even though I’m the cheap one, I’m also the one with student debt while she’s free and clear. There’s things I’d change about her money management, but I’m sure there’s also things she’d change about mine.

    “Financial imperfect, but perfect for me” is a great quote!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Thanks a lot, Nicholas! I am the cheap one for sure, too! We’re all works in progress, I suppose, and just managing to be open and honest with each other is probably more than most people could hope for. Congratulations to you and your wife on that.

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  11. Mrs. BITA

    “I wasn’t angry with my wife for bouncing the check at all– I saw it as an opportunity for me to help her achieve the same peace of mind that I felt once I started aspiring to financial independence.”

    This right here is what my husband does so well, and one of the many reasons I love him. We have not had a financial problem to overcome, but in other areas of my life when I screw up I love that I can take it to him. I can do it because he never reacts with anger. He knows that I am already feeling bad and he approaches the situation as an interesting problem that needs a solution. He can make my mountains into molehills.

    Thank you for sharing this deeply personal story. You told it beautifully, and it is an inspiration.

  12. Matt Spillar

    Man, I really enjoyed this post. Marriage is the best thing I’ve ever done, but it doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Merging finances and learning about what we each value and spend money on has been an ongoing process. The fact that we have some differences actually brings out the best in both of us. Loved reading your story about how you both worked together to conquer such a big goal, thanks for sharing your experience!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Thanks a lot, Matt! With finances being as touchy a subject as they are, if you’ve managed to be open and on the same page about it, you’re already ahead of the pack. Best of luck 🙂

  13. DrMoneyTails

    Loved the post!
    My wife and I have been together for 5.5 years and married for a little over 6 months.
    Before getting married, we lived together for 2 years and we didn’t combine finances until after we got married. I got into personal finance about 2 years ago and really started to learn anything I could about the subject. I take care of all things finance related, not because of any agreement we had, but mostly because I enjoy it and I am organized. My wife participates in all decisions and she has access to all of the accounts and I keep her well informed.
    In the beginning of our marriage, I think she was reluctant to let me change some of her finances around (increase her contribution to her 401K from 5% to 25%; apply for a credit card with no annual fee so that we could travel for free, etc). I showed her the math and the pros and cons and she understood my reasoning and she began to trust me. I have made mistakes along the way, and am absolutely sure I will make more, but the trick to what I consider to be a very successful financial relationship is exactly what you said: OPENNESS.

  14. Mp

    I appreciate this post for sure, as the finance nerd in my relationship. However, it is harder to talk about a partner that just doesn’t earn much, but also doesn’t spend much than it is to talk about a reformed big spender. Our household expenses are very low, but my partner chose a career that doesn’t pay enough to cover 1/2 our expenses. It is harder for me to save for financial independence because I am saving for both of us. It is hard to accept that my partner’s passion career is going to keep me in my non-passion job for extra years.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Hey MP, to clarify, my wife earns about half what I do. We contribute to our expenses in proportion to our income, so that in theory it will have a similar impact on each of us and cause us each to evaluate our common spending decisions in a similar way. That said, I really think that Financial Independence needs to be a common goal regardless of earning levels of respective spouses. If your partner isn’t there yet, it’s possible that by focusing on the positives over time you can get full buy-in. That’s not to say that your partner will change their career or start doing side jobs, but just having an enthusiastic partner on the path with you has huge value on those hard days when all you want to do is talk about how great it will be to give your boss the finger and walk out.

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  16. Dividend Diplomats

    Nothing more to say than amazing story here. Some people would have run for the hills here and taken the easy way out. What’s impressive is how your natural instinct was to work with you wife to solve the problem at hand. That’s some true love right there and I’m so happy to hear that you wouldn’t have done anything different and how you accepted everything with open arms. You two seem like a great match for each other and hopefully you will enjoy many years of prosperity because you two work so well together and are willing to tackle the big rocks together as a team. That’s what marriage is all about!

    Bert, One of the Dividend Diplomats

  17. Go Finance Yourself!

    Wow, what a great story. I can only imagine some of the difficult conversations/arguments this brought with it. My wife and I didn’t really talk much about finances before we got married. We were young and just out of college and hadn’t had much time to make bad decisions and rack up debt. I’m lucky she turned out to be a pretty responsible financial person. I can’t imagine coming to find that someone who I was in a relationship with and living with was in so much debt. Kudos to both of you for working through it. Money can be a killer on relationships!

  18. NZ Muse

    This is really something I needed to read around now. My partner is definitely financially imperfect. Money is what caused our separation a year ago. We’re now back on track and working toward building a future together, but it’s a journey. It’s tough being financial opposites!

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