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April 18, 2012

Love and Money

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I'M CEO OF MY FAMILY
What happens when you marry a skateboarding slacker with bad credit? You take charge - By Paula Szuchman

Here's what I brought into my marriage: a robust retirement fund, an excellent credit score, a life insurance policy, and a house in the country.

Here's what my husband brought: unpaid back taxes, shoddy credit, threatening letters from Sprint, and a skateboard.

Not that any of this mattered when we first met. In the limerent haze of our falling-in-love period, our issues were simpler to resolve: Sleep at his place or mine? Make pancakes at home or go out for brunch? Fire Island or Puerto Escondido?

But as anyone who's been in a relationship longer than a few months knows, reality has a way of setting in. Eventually, Nivi and I moved in together. We got engaged, we got married. And soon enough, money began to matter.

For example, the man hadn't filed his tax returns in five years. When he was single, that was his problem. Now it was mine. So one gloriously warm March afternoon, as we sat in a café reading the paper after a run in the park, I decided to ruin the moment by raising the topic. April 15 was less than a month away—had he called the accountant?

"No, but don't worry. I'll deal with it," he said, not looking up from his crossword puzzle.

"I'm not comfortable with that," I shot back.

"'Classic men's hat.' Six letters."

"Fedora. Nivi!"

"Paula!"

See, the thing that sucks about marriage is that your hopes and dreams are completely dependent on another person. If he wants to live in Walla Walla for the rest of his life, that decision is going to affect your plans to milk goats on a Tuscan farm. If he owes the IRS untold sums, you can kiss good-bye any hope of sending the kids to private school—assuming you can afford kids to begin with.

Conversely, if you're a guy like Nivi, who doesn't think about money as it relates to the future, who ignores calls from debt collectors and accumulates parking tickets, then marriage sucks because all of a sudden there's another person nagging you for doing stuff you never considered problematic. You say, "I'll get to it when I get to it," and she hears, "I don't care if I kill your dreams."

Which is how money came to poison our otherwise reasonably healthy marriage. I say healthy because we were still attracted to each other, and though it might sound strange, he was no less a man in my eyes for so utterly failing me on a financial level. On good days, we could rock it like old times. But yelling about money markets and annual percentage rates is hardly an aphrodisiac. Many a night would culminate in the same pathetic scene: Nivi and me, lying as far from each other as a queen bed allows, frozen in opposing fetal positions, cursing the other one under our breaths. Not exactly the precursor to a night of tantric sex.

Occasionally, I would feel like I was actually getting somewhere with him—only to be blindsided. Consider the case of the unpaid AmEx bill. After many months of gentle pressure-slash—incessant nagging on my part, Nivi finally applied for a credit card. I guess they'll give credit cards to anyone with a Social Security number, because within days of filling out an application with American Express, he was approved for a $2,000 credit limit. At long last! He could use it for small purchases, pay it off every month, and start rebuilding his credit score! Then maybe one day we could buy a house! Exclamation points all around!

He did just fine with the purchasing part of the equation but couldn't wrap his head around the part where you have to pay your bill on time every month. One day, I opened his statement and saw a late fee—not just for that month, but for the previous one, too. It wasn't a ton of money, but it was the principle. I couldn't even trust him to pay one measly credit-card bill. So much for good credit. So much for our dream house. Was he even thinking of me? Something seemingly trivial turned into an argument about all the ways he was insensitive and irresponsible, and all the ways I was self-righteous and condescending.

The tension came to a head one day when we passed a For Sale sign on a particularly pretty block in our neighborhood. Before we even had a chance to fantasize about buying it, the missiles were flying:

"Like we'd ever be able to afford this place," I said.

"We need to get better at saving," he said.

"Your opinions about our finances are irrelevant until you have a 401(k)."

"That might be the meanest thing you've ever said to me."

Oops.

I'd officially become a bully. I mean, the man was trying. Lately, he'd been e-mailing me real-estate listings and had created a Google spreadsheet outlining all our monthly expenses, right down to Starbucks coffees on the way to work. He's a designer by training; creating a visual representation of our finances was helping him understand the basics. Maybe I'd worn him down, or maybe he had to put up a fight for a while for his ego's sake. It probably didn't hurt that this was around the time the economy was tanking and the U.S. seemed headed toward a second Great Depression. Newspapers were screaming about banks going under, hedge-fund managers declaring the end of days, and ordinary Americans losing their homes and their savings overnight. It was enough to scare anyone straight.

Regardless, old habits die hard, and being bad with money was beginning to make Nivi feel like a failure as a person. The last thing he needed was a wife who rubbed it in. What's more, said wife earned more money than he did, and deep in his reptilian brain, he needed to be the main breadwinner.

Of course, it took him a while to articulate those insecurities, and me even longer to give him a chance. We were a mess.

That was five years ago. Today, we own a house, have two kids, a dog, and two shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Each month we put $100 into a 529 college-savings plan. We are finally adults—but that is terrifying in a totally different way.

I reformed my husband into a somewhat responsible financial citizen of the world and he's managed to make me a nicer human being. Couples therapy helped, and Nivi says that it wasn't until he was able to surrender to the reality of marriage—being beholden to another person—that he could surrender to my financial rules.

We also took on clearly defined roles, mine being the CEO of the family: I pay all the bills, file our tax returns, and manage our accounts. I set up that college-savings account, and I even got Nivi a life-insurance policy. It's a time-consuming job, but hey, Nivi keeps busy vacuuming the floors, taking out the trash, and making meatloaf every week. He gets the car washed and, more often than not, can be found at the playground, pushing our daughter on the swings. After years of trying to reform each other, we settled for playing to our individual strengths and doing the tasks we're good at.

Besides, the work itself isn't the hard part. For me, it was about letting go of expectations—that the labor has to be divided 50/50 and that my skateboarding, American Spirit-smoking husband will take an interest in our mutual-fund prospectus. For him, it was recognizing that his manhood had nothing to do with his income, and that his wife sometimes knows best.

Oh, he would like me to tell you that the $100 a week he brings in teaching yoga on the side pays for our dog walker.

 


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