“Don’t use that one. Use the Unlimited.”
“I thought we wanted to use the Reserve because it’s triple points.”
“Only at restaurants and for travel expenses. This is a grocery store.”
“They serve food, they have a buffet.”
“I checked the statement, it gets logged as a grocery store. We get more points with the Unlimited.”
That’s my wife telling me which point-accruing credit card to use when paying for a case of sparkling water. This case of sparkling water cost $8 ($7.99, if you’re asking my wife — who would also inform you the retail price of the sparkling water including tax is $8.70).
The card I was about to use would have netted us eight Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Because of my wife’s diligence, we instead earned 12, or a difference worth about 8.4 cents. This may seem insignificant to you. It’s why we’d get along. And yet, over the past few years, my wife’s obsessive attention to detail regarding our spending, our “points strategy” and our overall financial plan through retirement, we’ve been able to save, invest, and buy all the sparkling water we could possibly desire. My wife and I talk about money — oddly one of the most taboo of topics in our capitalist society — on an almost daily basis. The extreme financial intimacy we now share, while difficult at times, has made us closer and keeps us on the same page, down to the very last cent.
It wasn’t always this way. My wife is a financial hoarder. I am certain at this moment there are envelopes, shoeboxes, and probably a mattress she’s hidden away somewhere all stuffed with cash. And also receipts. Every receipt for everything she’s ever spent money on. It’s a lot.
But it makes a lot of sense. For her, money is an asset. A thing that has value, a thing you hold on to, and possibly clutch to your breast and stroke like Gollum. To me, money is a tool, a means to an end. A thing I use to get other things I need, which I will value, which I will hold on to. It also makes me uncomfortable — I feel like I shouldn’t have it, or want it, and as such, am often devising ways to get rid of it that are probably not in the best interest of the future version of me.
Both of our approaches are valid (hers certainly more so) and neither are necessarily in conflict with one another. Still, we argued about money. Constantly. Every discussion about our finances put me on edge, especially after we got married and combined our accounts. Because that’s when she found out just how absolutely terrible I am with money (I’m not good with tools either).
It’s not that I don’t care about money. I do. I just don’t care about it as much as she does. Things she routinely would define as “a waste of money” are to me simply things I chose to spend my money on. Is $2.99 extreme for an ATM fee? Of course it is. Do I care that I paid it? Not particularly — I needed cash and the Chase bank was all the way across the street. Is $18 plus tax and tip a lot of money to spend on lunch? Probably. But you wouldn’t have been able to convince me of that when I was chowing down like a king on that Seamless-sent chicken parm. I use money to fund my lifestyle; as an extension of my personality. Generally speaking, my personality falls on the far side of the “it’ll be alright” spectrum. What’s a drink or cab ride between friends? Why does it matter which credit card I use? Why should I be forced to cross the street to use an ATM when there’s a perfectly good one right here?
Except in the cold, calculating world that exists on an Excel spreadsheet my wife once put together, all that shit adds up. When we finally sat down and had a come to Yeezy conversation about cash (I assume Jesus would have told us to give it away), we determined that our comfortable jobs had led us (read: me) to approach spending in a way that wasn’t necessarily reckless, but was certainly lacking in a coherent strategy (read: reckless).
So we created a budget. It was painful. But through that pain we were also able to bring an end to a game we’d both been playing called “You Spent How Much On Groceries?” You know—when you look at your receipt at the end of a shopping spree, quietly hang your head in shame and then hand it to your spouse and they scream, “YOU SPENT HOW MUCH ON GROCERIES?”
There are variations on this game (“You Spent How Much On Booze/Tickets/Spin Class?”), and for the most part we’ve ended them all. But these sticker shock conversations were a big part of why both of us (read: me, myself and I) were loathe to have the money conversation in the first place. There was always a feeling of accusation, a declaration of guilt, a shaming of priorities associated with funding our future vs. living in our present. Her point of view and my own were in conflict, and both of us felt we had a right to spend “our” money in a way that made sense to us as individuals.
In order to create a system we could both agree on, we had to start by tabling any discussions about prior spending, bad habits, or pricey (and delicious) parms. This was a vital move, as talking about money is stressful enough on its own; you don’t need to add the brain bleed that often comes with arguing about who’s right and who’s sleeping on the couch.
It sounds simple, but sometimes the simplest things lead to the best results. We talked (and talked and talked) and finalized a budget. With it, we now know what we’re allowed to spend on things. We go to the grocery store with goals. We go to a restaurant with limits. We consider putting money in savings as a required payment, like a bill, as opposed to a thing we’ll consider doing if we have enough cash at the end of the month.
We also ended most disagreements over discretionary (read: subjectively wasteful) spending by designating a specific sum of our take-home pay to one another, like an allowance, and we can use that money on whatever we want, no questions asked. We call it “Fun money,” but as avid fans of Park and Recreation, we also refer to it as the “Treat Yourself” fund. Want to buy a round of drinks for the gang? Treat yourself. Want to buy tickets to a concert for a band I hate? Treat yourself. Want to pay $3 so you don’t have to walk across the street to use an ATM machine associated with your checking account? Treat. Your. Self.
This fund serves other purposes. For starters, it allows us to both feel like we’re enjoying the benefits of our jobs without having to put off enjoying those benefits until after we retire. It also allows us to treat each other to gifts in a way that otherwise would have less meaning—if I’m buying her something out of our collective fund it’s basically like she bought it herself. The money rolls over, so we can save it and spend it on something like a vacation, and it immediately ends arguments about the price of video games, fancy scotch or that dress that is still sitting in her closet with the price tags on it.
Talking about finances constantly might not sound like fun. And it isn’t. But it leads to systems that work. If you’re the more money-minded, take it from me, a witness for the other side: accusing your spouse of being wasteful or frivolous with their spending (especially when you’re correct) is the worst way to engage in a conversation about cash. Instead, working to show your spouse the ways in which strategizing about how you spend your money (or don’t spend it…) can lead to a better life for both of you. The vacations you could save for or the oversize television you could splurge on or, if you’re more into scare tactics, the retirement homes you’ll be able to afford.
Our personal system might not be right for you. In fact, it probably won’t. But you won’t know that until you have a conversation about spending with your spouse. And at its core, that’s our system: talking about this stuff.
More than anything, we both determined our financial health is less a byproduct of our jobs and more directly tied to the attention we decided to devote to it. We aren’t currently experiencing financial difficulty, but we’re not so naive that we don’t think that won’t change in the near or distant future. Our goal as a couple is to ensure we prepare for impending doom in all its forms, while doing our best to live as though doom isn’t sitting on our doorstep waiting to mug us the moment we let our guard down.
By checking in with our finances — and each other — on a regular basis, it helps us keep our guard up and our house in order. It’s also, and who knew I’d say this, fun. My wife is great with money, and watching her deal with it allows me a chance to watch a master at work. A master who is effectively earning me more cash with every moment of effort. Cash I can spend on chicken parms. What’s not to love?