13 January 2008

Building Together

13 January 2008

Every January, I spend some time reviewing the family finances.  My husband is better with numbers than I am but he is also the main breadwinner in the family, so when I left my previous job in 2002 I took over the day-to-day books.  Every month I pay the bills and balance the checkbooks.  We have multiple accounts (mostly to keep us from accidentally spending money we are saving for another purpose) so it’s a bit of a chore to get through everything.

At the end of the year, as I begin doing the prep work for the taxes, I see how much we spent on various fixed expenses and how much we saved during the year.  This year was not a saving year.  We determined at the beginning of 2007 to take out a loan to pay for two major purchases, as well as some smaller projects around the house.  It was very satisfying to get the work done but also a bit worrying to take on more debt.  We try to live as debt-free as possible– avoiding carrying balances on credit cards and trying to save up in advance for large purchases, so, other than our house, we don’t usually have a lot of outstanding debt.

When we were first married, over 15 years ago, we had very little debt thanks to our parents.  We had both been fortunate enough to have parents who were able to save up and pay for our college educations.  We both worked, as well, but the money we made mostly went to help defray basic living expenses.  My husband got a job right of college.  I did not.  We moved to Texas where his job was and started learning how to live on what we earned.  David made enough to make ends meet and I eventually got a part-time job.  We had one car and were living in a small town with no public transportation.  We saved a little money.

Then David needed a root canal.  That took most of our small savings.  We started saving again.  The car needed work and we were back to square one.  The bank account built up once more.  I had to go to the emergency room.  We had insurance through David’s work, but the ambulance ride wasn’t covered.  Back to square one.

Throughout all of this, David and I had been talking about buying a new, to us, car.  The 1972 Dodge Dart that we had was starting to cost a lot to maintain.  We saved up a few hundred bucks and went looking for a car, but everything we found that we could afford was a death-trap.  I still  clearly remember one car we went to look at that had a gas pedal that stuck at random times.  Even with this experience, I was resistant to taking out a loan.  Our daily financial life seemed so precarious to me that I couldn’t imagine a bank lending us money.

Two things occurred that changed my mind.  The first was on the drive to the airport that Christmas when the windshield wipers on the Dart failed and I had to reach in through the glove box and operate them manually (it was, of course, pouring down rain).  My knuckles were pretty beat up by the time we dropped our pet rats off with the people who had agreed to watch them and our friends gave us a ride to the airport from their house.  The second was when my in-laws offered to loan us the money and give us a longer term to pay it back than banks were at that time.  Normally I wouldn’t borrow money from a friend or relative, but David’s folks have always been very clear about what is business and what is personal.  We signed a contract with them, got the money we needed, went to the used car dealer, bought a car we liked, and wrote the largest check either of us had ever written to that point.

The business we were working for ended up being sold off to another company in another state.  David and I took the opportunity to move back to Seattle.  We moved in with his parents until we could save up for a place of our own, and even with all that upheaval, managed to never miss a payment on the car loan.

We’ve come a long way since then.  We’ve purchased and refinanced our house and seen even larger checks go out the door as various home repair and remodel projects have been completed.  The confidence to handle our finances was built in those first few years when we had very little to manage– when we were living paycheck-to-paycheck and anything unexpected could devour what little we had managed to save.  No matter how little we had, we made the decision together on how to spend or save it.  David was willing to try to get a car loan months before I was, but he held off, waiting for me to adjust to the idea and for us to find a way that would work for both of us.  I, in turn, learned to push myself to take more risks when David was ready to take action.

Being in this together gives me confidence.  So, when I review last year’s finances I see not just a record of money coming in and going out, but also a record of discussions, debates, and decisions that stretches back to before we were married.  We haven’t always been right, but we’ve always known that, not only were we in the same boat, we built it together.

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