It Happened To Me: I'm The Head Of Our Household

I had to figure out how to take over our finances in a way that didn't make me feel taken advantage of or make Ed feel like he was being emasculated.

Mar 21, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

The day I realized my spouse might be worse at money than either of us had previously realized was a totally normal day. We were, in fact, going to the craft store for something totally mundane, like more E6000. He was checking his bank balance, because I'd gotten a phone call about a bill that I was pretty sure he had paid.

Smart phones are awesome -- he checked his bank balance as we walked around.

And discovered that his account was over 700 dollars in the hole.

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Ed is an awesome guy. I love him a whole freaking bunch (I mean, I married him, right?) and, even more importantly than that, I actually LIKE him more than just about any other person. I knew, when we started getting serious, that he was not really very good at managing his personal finances.

I also knew that he was going to be in school for a while -- because working and going to school is not usually a quick process. Still, we had some conversations -- about how important stability is to me, about how he might be the one to stay home if we ever had kids. We figured I might be the primary earner but that he'd always be a contributing member of the partnership.

When Ed moved in with me, he found a job pretty quickly. I was making more money than him -- but we knew that was going to happen. It was one reason why he came to Florida instead of me going to New York City; I had an established career here.

We kept our accounts separate and split our bills in a way that seemed fair to us. I paid for more, but since we were (and are) a team, that was totally okay by me. None of this was a surprise.

But over time, it slowly became evident that not only was Ed not great at managing money... he was actually really kind of terrible at it in the ways I needed him to be competent. Some of this is, I think, because it's hard to break the habits you form when you are broke. It's taken me a long time to really come to the realization that I'm living a middle class life right now. I figured that, given some time and help, Ed would figure it out and we'd be just fine.

I'm not dogging on Ed here, guys. I'm absolutely terrible at other things in our relationship. For example, Ed is the guy who calls any sort of customer service person. Or, really, who makes almost any sort of other phone call because I have grown bizarrely resistant to talking on the phone to strangers (this is in contrast to my past -- where customer service reps would keep my number and then call me up randomly to chat, true story). He's the grownup when it comes to making arrangements and phoning people.

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But that afternoon, a couple years into Project: Figure Our Fiscal Shit Out, I realized that Ed might never actually be any good at managing our money.

This was a huge realization to me -- not because I ever thought he was going to graduate and make a million dollars a year and support me, but because I have always myself identified as someone who isn't very good with money. And I thought I'd have a partner who could help me out with that.

It was a hella rude awakening.

Ed urged me to completely take over our finances. I balked for a couple of reasons. One, I felt like I was already being more responsible, just by having the stable job with more income. Two, I was absolutely terrified of fucking up our money. Three, I felt like it really was important for him to learn money management skills just in case anything ever happened to me or our marriage in general.

It caused us both a lot of stress. I was unhappy with the constant financial upheaval. He was unhappy with being constantly put in a position where he failed. It was balls for both of us.

And we were both terrified. Money problems are scary. We weren't in major trouble, but part of that was down to his family being very supportive. That actually increased my stress levels -- I felt embarrassed that we weren't experts at our finances yet. I felt shamed by, like, bank advertisements for IRAs.

And I felt extra panicked because I knew things could be so much worse.

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It took six months for me to bite the bullet and completely take over our finances. It was Christmas and we were visiting family in Colorado. His card had been declined at Target and, when he called to find out why, he discovered his account was overdrawn again.

I found a public restroom and bawled my eyes out locked in a stall. There's no real privacy, of course, so a very concerned citizen of Boulder knocked on the stall door to ask if I was going to be okay.

I said yes, of course. But I wasn't sure. Because not only did I have to go back out on the street to face his (completely awesome and wonderful) family who knew what was going on, I had to figure out how to take over our finances in a way that didn't make me feel taken advantage of or make Ed feel like he was being emasculated.

We started by taking away Ed's access to the accounts. Not because I didn't trust him but because he actually functions completely opposite of me -- he's phenomenal with cash but the bank balance isn't a real thing to him. Meanwhile, I can't hang on to cash to save my life but my debit card is, like, the only money I can imagine using.

It felt horrible.

It felt like I was being forced to play mom to my husband. We made jokes about him getting an allowance, but they hit a little too close to home for the both of us, I think. I had to shift my way of thinking about things -- had to really consider that, yeah, Ed functioned with a cash-based personal economy but he still got to take part in financial decisions. I wasn't playing mom, I was just accessing our money in a different way.

Because I was the one keeping track of our funds, we also started depositing his pay checks into my account. It was kind of like having a joint account, except not at all like having a joint account. I got very iron fisted for a little while there, reacting very strongly to any sort of deviation from what I expected to spend in any given situation.

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I checked in with Ed obsessively, making sure he was okay with the situation. Mostly, he was relieved. And as time passed, we started to figure it out a little bit. We were back on an even keel with the division of labor and I stopped resenting things, stopped feeling like I was being forced to be the only grownup in the relationship. I stopped feeling excruciating guilt when I bought something for myself.

If course, that's when Ed lost his job.

It was awful, y'all. It was so awful for a whole lot of reasons. Ed was struggling with depression and anxiety (which we're still sorting out) and I felt like I was the only person holding things together. I was pretty freaking harsh in my responses, and I tightened down on our finances even more in knee-jerk reaction.

But then something really surprising happened. We were... we were mostly okay. It pinched us and I was still completely ashamed that his family helped him out, but... nothing really bad happened.

It felt really empowering and also totally ramped up my stress levels. It feels good to know that we're managing our finances, in our various capacities, well enough to deal with a period of unemployment. But it also makes me even more keenly aware of my status as the fiscal head of household, as the primary earner.

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Ed's got a new job now, and I have my fingers crossed. I'm an incurable optimist, but I feel this creeping dread that I suspect will stick around until his 90 days are out. It's all still a work in progress.

I still check in with Ed on stuff that, honestly, he doesn't really care about because I refuse to make all the decisions by myself. Ed wants a debit card with his name on it so people stop calling him Mr. Kirby (we don't have the same last name and he uses one of my debit cards). We negotiate the situation almost every single day.

Somehow, though, it's so much better than that day when he put his phone in his pocket and told me just how deep in the red his account was. And that is itself kind of a fantastic and welcome revelation. I'm the head of our financial household -- and it's going to be okay.

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