*Today I have a special guest post from fiancé! Since we have very different money habits, I thought it would be interesting for him to write about what it’s like to be the spender in the relationship. Hope you enjoy!*
One day last year I came home from the dentist with the usual swag bag of floss, toothpaste, brushes, and even a “Dental Super Star!” sticker—which I asked for because I am a manchild who needs these sorts of hollow platitudes to feel encouraged to take care of myself.
Luxe, who gets demon-crazed by even the HINT of free stuff, rushed over and grabbed it. If I came home with a bag labeled “Haz-Mat” and she thought there might be free treats in it, she’d tear into it like a pinata. She started combing through it, assessing its inventory, and pulled out the toothpaste. “Great,” she said, “this is the perfect size for our Hawaii trip.”
“Because it’s under three ounces for the plane but still big enough—”
“Yeah, yeah, I understand that part. But…we’re actually going to Hawaii?”
Good Money Skills Can Seem Like “Magic”
Fast forward to this May. We arrive in Maui, to a gorgeous little casita surrounded by lush hibiscus groves and fragrant blooms of lavender and plumeria. Papaya trees overhang the lanai where we can sit and watch the sun set over the ocean. In short, paradise.
It feels undeserved. All of this—the flights, the rental car, the AirBnB—seemingly conjured out of thin air by some arcane mix of points, miles, and whatever other secret sorcery Luxe has pulled off to get us here. Somehow it all felt “free,” in that I didn’t have to use any “real money.” Of course I understood how it worked it in the literal sense—you rack up a bunch of points and redeem them. But the savviness of it, tracking and managing everything, synthesizing it all into this one incredibly lush scene, seemed like a special talent that was beyond me, like juggling, or the cello.
“It’s like magic,” I thought to myself as I start unpacking my things: Tevas, v-necks, Gap swimsuit, and everything else I needed to stamp Maui with my own alluring brand of “Haute Dad” fashion. And that’s when I saw it. The toothpaste. The same damn tube of Colgate I had brought home A WHOLE YEAR AGO! I was awestruck. It felt like that moment a magician has not only guessed the correct card you picked, but then hands you back the wristwatch you didn’t even realize she’d stolen. Every once in awhile I get one of these special reminders, “a toothpaste moment,” where I once again newly appreciate Luxe’s talent for resourcefulness and planning.
On our very first date, Luxe (rather brazenly if you ask me!) plucked my wallet off the restaurant table and started looking through it. She was probably already sizing up my credit cards—of which there was only one, a sad little Capital One card earning exactly ZERO points per dollar. Somehow there was a second date. And even a third. Over those first several months of the relationship it became QUITE CLEAR how starkly different our money personalities were: she was a saver and I was a spender. In a larger sense, she was thoughtful with money and I…was not. Given the oppositional push of these two forces I began to realize that eventually something would had to give. I felt daunted by this, unsure how things would pan out once we got around to having serious money talks.
I Had the Money IQ of a 10-Year Old
Let’s be clear: I used to be bad at money. Disastrously bad. I never saved. I ignored bills. I once carried over $20,000 in credit card debt. I barely took advantage of generous free perks my company handed me. As far as spending went, I was basically a runaway ATM spitting out cash all over the place. I could write another 10,000 words as to why that is, but here’s the short version: somewhere along the way as a kid I developed avoidant tendencies and became semi-allergic to conflict and to proactively confronting problems head on. It also didn’t help that money was something my family never talked about. Even to this day I have zero clue how much money my Dad is sitting on. All I have is a cryptically scribbled phone number for a lawyer to call when he dies someday, and even that was a chore to extract from him. Unless there are hidden Swiss bank accounts and dubious shell companies involved I’m not sure why the NSA-level secrecy is needed. But that’s how it was.
Talking comfortably about money is one of THE most fundamental healthy habits of personal finance. Not only didn’t I possess that skill, but to compound things I was also comically disorganized and rather, um, “loose” with my spending (a euphemism I use to shield myself from lingering waves of shame and regret from bygone purchases). Luxe and I have this running argument about a kind of tomato sauce she finds offensively overpriced. We call it the “$6 tomato sauce” and basically she has forbidden me from ever buying it again. I don’t entirely agree with her (it’s delicious!), but have wisely decided that the “$6 tomato sauce” is not the hill I want to die on. I haven’t bought it since, but offer it as Exhibit A in a LONG history of spending habits that one could reasonably deem questionable.
ANYONE Can Get Better at Money (I Am Proof)
After a year or so of dating Luxe started to understand the condition of my finances and leapt into action like a first responder at a smoking catastrophe. She pulled my 401K out from underneath the rubble of my neglect and nursed it back to life, suggesting I increase my contribution and recalibrate my portfolio to be more aggressive. Both of which I did. She recommended downloading the Mint app so I could learn to track spending and create monthly budgets. A few days passed without me taking any action, and, after correctly guessing that the silent treatment I was getting was because of this I downloaded it immediately. She suggested credit cards I could sign up for to begin earning points and thus unlock the splendors of exotic “free” vacations. Believe it or not, and this is embarrassing, I used to think you could only have one credit card at a time and that you could only earn “points” when you took long airplane trips. Yikes. When I received my first Luxe-approved credit card I was told always to remember to use the shopping portal to make purchases. Do you think I knew what a shopping portal was at that point? Ha!
Little by little this grand revelation overtook me: becoming good at money wasn’t “magic,” or some freakish voodoo talent. It just meant mastering really basic skills and above all having a desire to do better for myself. I’m not saying I’m some Warren Buffett now…more like a contestant on the “The Biggest Loser” who was in a bad situation but finally learned some healthy habits and now won’t need to be forklifted out the bay window anytime soon. Nowadays I check and admire my 401K the way someone else might admire their abs in a gym mirror. I don’t cram bills in a drawer and forget about them anymore. I can sweet talk my way out of the increasingly rare late fee. I sock money into savings every month instead of letting it lazily hang out in my checking account. I feel proud to see green bars on my Mint instead of red. And you best believe I check those shopping portals.
4 Steps That Definitely Aren’t Magic
If you told me three years ago I’d be dishing out money tips I would have passed out laughing. But here we are! And because I have yet to see a SINGLE personal finance blog post without a bulleted list…here is my required bulleted list. I suspect all you hotshots reading this are ninth degree PF black belts who don’t need advice from some noob who thinks $6 is totally cool to spend on tomato sauce. But if you aren’t (or if you know someone like me who could use some suggestions), here are the four steps that helped turn things around for me:
Start with one small thing: I’ve found that good PF habits tend to beget other good PF habits. For example, back when I parted ways with my $80 per week housecleaner, not only did I not accidentally strangle myself with the vacuum cleaner cord, I also noticed more money in my checking account every month. This in turn inspired me to try packing my lunch a few days a week—yet more extra money lying around. It’s a virtuous cycle that feeds off its own momentum.
Look hard at what you spend: My first few months on Mint were the closest I’ve come to knowing what an intervention is like for a heroin addict. Ugly truths were revealed. Grim soul searching was done. Nine Uber rides in one month? ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME? Is my broke-ass 80-year old self living under a highway overpass gonna look back and think, “Man, those Uber rides were so sweet. Such smooth jazz playing on that sound system. And those free breath mints…” I DON’T THINK SO! Mint (or however you choose to track spending) is an essential mirror for reflecting back your dumb spending excesses and encouraging you to shape up so you have something better to look at next time.
You need a budget: PF pros, I can hear you chortling…duh, of course! But it wasn’t so simple for me. “Budget” was a trigger word, anxiety-inducing and punitive-sounding. Luxe helped me see it differently: a budget is a framework that will help create overall financial value, and not just a set of shackles to hold you down and make you feel all butthurt at thinking twice before grabbing the $6 sauce (though there is that benefit, too).
Get in the habit of talking about money: This is the most important and was hardest for me to find a place to start. Our first conversations about money were not pretty. Lots of long silences and me staring down at my hands as though I’d just discovered them for the first time. But we made progress and, while I’m not perfect, it’s MUCH easier for me to engage now. Start anywhere—the cable bill, your 401K, anything—and begin to get comfortable discussing it. I grew up thinking “money” was somehow taboo (locked up in the same vault as “sex”) and it was vital for me to get over that and develop the simple ability to talk.
Like I said, I’m not about to go off and start teaching $10,000 expert personal finance webinars anytime soon. But at least now I’m rocking a 700+ FICO score, a healthy 401K, and, yes, all those hundreds of thousands of “magical” points! Sure, I still mess up here and there [Luxe, please stop reading here]: last week for example I forgot to buy discount movie tickets from work despite setting up THREE reminders for myself. But at least I can laugh it off now because my overall habits are infinitely better and I’m pointing in the right direction. And hey, even a pro will make mistakes sometimes. Maybe Luxe will share one or two of hers someday!
People who weren’t always good with personal finance, what turned it around for you?
People who are naturals at it, do you know someone who could use help?
You all agree with me about the tomato sauce, right? $6 isn’t crazy!