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.
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.