The Vine: January 29, 2014
I have a family-finances dilemma. My husband is…kind of a cheapskate (he gets it from his dad, who is a definite cheapskate, long story).
In his case, maybe "overly frugal" would be a better term. I know this can be a good quality, and I do appreciate that his saving habits have put us in the good financial shape we're currently enjoying. We own a house. We have one small car payment. We have no credit-card debt, and a sizeable savings account. We have investments and an advisor. We both work full-time, and although he makes more than me, I bring in a sizeable chunk of our income. We work hard for our money.
My daughters (his step-daughters) live with us part-time; the older is an almost-college-grad, the younger is just starting college in September. Tuition is mostly being paid through student loans and small scholarships, although I've paid for their books and small expenses throughout (their dad is not the best with money and has no savings, which I know my husband resents — another long story). Our son is 9, and we've got a 529 plan started for his college, as well as a small savings account for him. We're in good shape, which is saying something in this country's current economy.
A little background: Hubs is Mr. Work Ethic. He's proud to a fault of his work habits, and work is very important to him. He's not obsessive about it, luckily, and he does enjoy weekends and downtime, but lately he's been working a lot more and is much more stressed about his job (not to mention the long commute). He was laid off from a long-time position at the end of 2008, which really shook him. He did nothing but look for a job, 6+ hours a day, 5 days a week, for almost a year. He finally got a good job, thank goodness, but unemployment really took its toll on him emotionally. I totally get that. As an aside, he did get a sizeable severance package (a year's salary), and collected unemployment throughout his jobless period, so we weren't even near penniless during that time.
On to the issue. We've lived in our house for 11 years, and have been slowly updating, renovating, replacing appliances, windows, painting, sprucing up, and the usual home maintenance, as you do. Our last big expense was a 10th anniversary trip to London last year; before that it was a kitchen renovation and expansion 6 years ago. It's the home-improvement and other non-essential house-expenditures issues that are now coming to a head between us.
The first argument was due to a broken storm door that had become un-fixable. He tried to jimmy it, but the fix didn't work, and the broken door caused problems and aggravation for several months. I explained to him that we could definitely afford to replace a $300 storm door, and by his ignoring my wishes and the obvious fact the door was totally broken, he's pretty much telling me I'm not worth $300. After nagging (which I normally don't do at all, truthfully), and a final outburst from me, we replaced the door.
Then our microwave broke. It's probably not worth fixing, since repair would cost at least half what a new microwave would. His sister had left a cheap little microwave with us when she moved, so he lugged it up from the basement, where its paltry little waves are now taking up valuable counter space. I've diplomatically brought up replacing it more than a few times, but he just grouched about other expenses.
Our home computer is 10 years old. It's on its last legs, and I'm usually unable to add any music to my music library without deleting other things. My music is a sizeable investment, and important to me, and although I back it up, I'm frustrated that we don't have a good computer and my hands are tied, music-wise and otherwise (it shouldn't take 20 minutes to open an internet browser, should it?).
I won't even bring up replacing the carpet in our family room, which was old but serviceable when we moved in the house, and is now just scruffy and gross; or getting a dumpster to clean out our overloaded basement; or hiring someone to rip out the ugly bushes in front of the house, or any of the other maintenance things I'd like to do. You get the picture.
I guess what I'm getting at is, I realize that owning a home can be expensive, but I work hard for my money, dammit, and we can afford to spruce up the place, and replace things when they're getting old or actually broken. We don't take expensive vacations every year. I don't own expensive jewelry. I have a nice wardrobe, but I'm a smart shopper and don't shop at expensive places. To be fair, Hubs doesn't begrudge me my wardrobe purchases, although he has not willingly bought himself anything to wear in the 11 years we've been married. If we have an event to attend, I put my foot down and take him shopping. Basically, he doesn't ever spend money on himself at all. He even has a nice sports car he bought just before we met, and he drives it maybe 3 times a year (he doesn't want to put on miles and devalue it in case he sells it down the road).
His reasoning is, we have a lot of expenses coming up; we could have college expenses; we may need to replace a vehicle soon; I'll eventually paint the hallway, so no you can't hire someone to do it; what if you lose your job, blah blah breadline-cakes. In short, he'd rather do a bad temporary fix, or jury-rig something, rather than fix it right the first time.
My reasoning is, although I appreciate his cautious spending habits, I don't think we're above "splurging" on some things, and definitely not needed and wanted home repairs. The end.
I'm baffled as to how to approach him at this point. I get myself all worked up just imagining the conversation we'd have, and have even proceeded to acting out how the argument will go in my head! He tends to be grumpy about the slightest confrontation, although I know by now when to approach him and how to "handle" his moods, and we're getting better at discussing things. I've said to him, more than once, "Why do you always get the final say in this family?"!
Anyway, I'm just tired of the same old argument.
Or maybe he lived through the Great Depression in a past life?
"By his ignoring my wishes and the obvious fact the door was totally broken, he's pretty much telling me I'm not worth $300." Okay, well, you know that's not what he's telling you, "pretty much" or otherwise. That's what you're hearing, it's not the same thing, and the central issue for you guys is that, when you talk about whatever it is — an upgrade, a "treat," shopping, investments — you're 1) not talking about the same things, and 2) not talking about those things.
You know that, probably.
But for example: the sports car. To him, it's proof that he can afford to buy nice, expensive things, and it's also proof that he can take care of his stuff and is able to take a long view — that he's a grown man, organized and conscientious. To you, it's a six-cylinder example of his miserliness, how he misses the point, doesn't see the forest for the trees, amortizes the life out of life. It's all those things; it's none of those things; it's not the car and it's just a car.
You keep having the same old argument because each of you is having a different argument, one that goes back to your families of origin. Everyone always says that couples fight the most about money; this is why, because it's never exactly the money itself but all the other feelings, "what if I'm not good enough," "what if I'm all by myself," "what if I have to and then I can't."
You know all that. Good news (which you also know): this is 98 percent of couples; also, you guys have made it work in a remarriage, with children, despite what seems like a canyon between you on what money is "for."
Now you actually have to do something with what you know so you can change the discussion and get better results. You may need to go to couples counseling for a month or two so you can clear off some resentments that clutter things up and talk about the other feelings; it can feel like making the money issue into something Serious And Bad, but it's just to help you both talk to each other, and hear what the other one is saying, on the issue.
In the meantime, start with an upgrade or purchase, just one, that you'd like to make. Try your best, and I know how hard it is, not to go in anticipating what he's going to say; worrying that he's going to get "grumpy"; or resenting the fact that this is one purchase of a whole list you feel he's denied you. You want this one thing — let's go with the computer. You want him to sign off, and you want to buy it, so focus on that one thing and don't try to solve your entire world.
"Honey, the computer is fucked. I'm concerned that it's going to crash irreplaceably and I want to buy a new one before that happens. I researched it and I found three replacement possibilities that I think would work for our family. We have the money in X account." Make your basic case. He's going to resist. Let him resist fully. Take notes to make sure you hear him correctly, and also to give yourself something to think about besides what you're going to say. "I hear what you're saying, honey. But we do have the cash, and while we can't anticipate [whatever thing he thinks you need to hedge against], we can anticipate that this computer is going to break down. I feel anxious about this possibility and getting a new machine is important to me." And he's going to resist more, and get pissy, and you have to be okay with him getting pissy; you have to trust your relationship. It's not really about you, and even if it is, you can handle it. This is important to you. You need to go on the record with that, and you need to make it clear that it makes you feel hurt and invisible when he brushes you off about these purchases.
Then hit him with the old "what is this really about," and this is where the counseling might come in, because my husband and I don't split along the same fault you and yours do with this stuff, but I can absolutely tell him, "I don't like it when you [behavior involving capital purchases], because I feel [Oedipus, sort of]. Can you tell me why [behavior] is happening right now?" And he can say, "Well, I think maybe [MY CHILDHOOD!!1!]," and we can settle it, but if your husband isn't like that, he might need some help explaining that what if the eight hundred bucks we spend on a new laptop is the eight hundred bucks we would need for life-saving surgery or a kidney or something and I can't provide for you and our family and we have to live in my sports car that we can't sell because I drove it for fun once please don't hate me. I mean, men and money — there is some deep murk going on sometimes, and they can't all just feel how they feel about PROVIDING NO MATTER WHAT IS MY WORTH SO SAITH US ALL and then move through it. A professional has to lead them to "I can feel this pressure to Take Care Of It and still realize that it's not the reality."
At least go to a handful of sessions yourself, to untangle all the resentment you feel and the way the grody carpet gets collapsed with his feelings for you, because again, it's not that he doesn't think you're worth a microwave. It's that he's desperately afraid that he's only worth a microwave, and what if he can't furnish one someday.
But try not to lump everything together in one big list of aggro, and try not to see it as him refusing to spend money because he doesn't love you. Pick one thing, know it's not about the thing OR about you, and try to get at what's really on his mind every time you have that argument.
Tags: boys (and girls) budget 'n' finance