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Coming clean about money: 5 financial pitfalls

by Meagan Francis on April 20, 2012

I originally wrote this post about a year ago, but since I’m  focusing on money management this week, it seemed like a good time to bump it back up. Would love to hear your thoughts!

My parents separated when I was five. Up until then, according to my siblings, we’d had a nice, if not flashy, middle-class lifestyle: a newer ranch house with harvest gold appliances, two used cars in the driveway, braces on the teeth and new school clothes.

I don’t really remember that phase of my life.

What I do remember is Phase 2: Extreme Frugality.

After the divorce, my mom – who had been a full-time homemaker for 15 or 16 years – decided to open an in-home day care. I don’t know exactly how much my mom earned in those days, but doing the math, I know it couldn’t have been more than $10,000 or so per year, and that was during a good year. And with four of us in the house at the time, that was not much, even in the mid-80s.

Mom refused to sign us up for any kind of social assistance. Instead, she spent nothing she didn’t absolutely have to. She pinched pennies and made do in a serious way. And though I knew from a young age that I didn’t have as many new toys as the other kids and wondered why all my clothes seemed a little out of date, I didn’t feel deprived. I had a cozy home, good food, enough toys, and a packed bookshelf.

But when I got a little older, I began to notice in more detail the differences between myself and other kids. How come I couldn’t get some new loafers with the curly leather laces? How about a pair of acid-wash jeans I could properly tight-roll, instead of those lame-o hand-me-down green cords?

I also began to notice the toll that broke-ness had really taken on my mom. I have one very clear memory of burning my inner ankle on a motorcycle exhaust pipe while taking a ride behind a family friend. My mom had kept on a brave face while inspecting the wound, but later as I sat in a tub of Epsom salts, I heard her crying and confessing to somebody on the phone that she didn’t know what to do – we had no health insurance, and she had no money to take me to the doctor.

It was at that point that something clicked in my brain: Not having money is actually not fun. Money, I realized, equals options. It buys a certain amount of security. I respected our simple, basic lifestyle, and was proud of my mom for doing so much with so little. But I wanted a pair of acid-wash jeans every now and then, too, and to be able to afford a visit to the doctor when warranted.

Later my siblings and I moved in with my dad. He still had the middle class lifestyle I barely remembered: a nice house, new clothes, modest vacations every now and then. Still not flashy by any means, just more “normal.”

But my dad never talked about money, except in a occasional macroeconomics lesson over a game of Scrabble. I had zero idea how he handled the household finances, or what it really looked like to manage a middle-class income. In my mind, the equation went like this: Dad made more money than Mom, thus, his lifestyle was better, and his worries few. (Which probably was not true at all, in hindsight, but we never talked about it, so what did I know?)

From my mom, I learned that when you have very little money, you have to live very carefully. From my dad, I inherited a strong drive to earn more. What I didn’t learn? How to do both: earn enough to live away from the edge, but to save for a rainy day, too.

I think we all have unique backgrounds that affect the way we respond to money. It’s an emotional issue, and managing our finances well requires more than common sense or head knowledge. It helps if you have been exposed to other people making good choices, and it really really helps if somebody can illustrate all the how’s and why’s.

After a lot of introspection, I finally started to identify our myriad money issues soon after my 30th birthday, when I got disgusted with myself for having an income that, while not huge, I once would have found unimaginable – and still managing to fritter most of it away.

The other day I shared a few areas where I’ve been slacking financially, but of course those details are part of a bigger picture. Here are the pitfalls I identified that have had the biggest impact on our financial messes overall:

  1. “Things will be better when…” syndrome. Katherine commented: “I read a study somewhere that most people think they will be financially comfortable when they reach that next $10K bracket of income. I am no exception- I catch myself thinking that all the time!” I identify with that like crazy. It’s a trap that can keep you from ever really learning to be satisfied and secure right where you are.
  2. Not really understanding what it means to live within a certain income. We live in a culture where lifestyles have become so inflated that most of us are conditioned to a very skewed idea of what it means to be able to “afford” something. And if you grew up in a different economic class than you occupy as an adult, or if your parents simply didn’t talk about money much, it’s difficult to really gauge what kind of lifestyle that 30K or 60K or 90K per year can really afford.
  3. Disorganization. Leah said this in a comment: “…it’s never the AMOUNT of money, it’s where it currently is and my (in)ability to track it.” I can totally relate. Over my lifetime I’ve paid late fees on countless bills that went unpaid while the money languished in my bank account, simply because I didn’t have a system for making sure they got paid. Or overdrew one account when the other had plenty of cash sitting in it. Jon and I would assume the other one had X, Y or Z bill handled, only to find out later that actually, no one did. After years of being so broke we often couldnt pay bills on time, avoiding them had become a knee-jerk reaction. Considering both my husband and I are self-employed, having a solid system for managing money is vital. But it takes time, effort, and an uncomfortable confrontation with Reality to set one up.
  4. Lack of communication. In the comments Stephanie said, “My husband and I had very different ideas of how to handle money based on our very different up-bringings. Add to that the fact that men and women already think differently and it was a formula for disaster. I had no idea how heated our “discussions” over money were going to get.” Yup, yup, yup. Money was such a sticking point with Jon and I that we avoided the topic for a long time and then were constantly in clean-up mode. Bad idea.
  5. Discipline Fatigue. It takes a long time to build up enough savings to cover you if you lose your job (or, in my case, if an important client loses your invoice two or three times in a row…) And it’s not easy to keep doggedly put money away for eventually replacing the car or repairing the roof when there are more urgent (but not necessarily more important) things jumping in front of you, begging for a slice of the pie. I’ve always been more of a sprinter than a marathoner, and keeping my eyes on the long-term prize is probably my biggest obstacle.

So there you have it–my five biggest money pitfalls. They helped me make much of my 20s an unqualified financial disaster, but slowly we have worked on taking control of this part of our lives and I’ve figured out some work-arounds that are helping us keep things more steady.

For me, the first step has been identifying my weaknesses. Without doing that I could have continued to labor forever under the delusion that because I don’t carry credit-card debt, I’m doing just fine. Or that if I could just earn a little more, we’d be all set. Tempting things to believe, yes, but irrational, false, and destructive.

I’d love to hear about your financial weak spots, or whether you can identify with any of mine. Time to come out into the light with me!

**Sharing about finances is particularly soul-baring and sensitive, and I’m going to go hardcore on comment moderation during these discussions. I always welcome disagreement about concepts and ideas, but in order to preserve a supportive and encouraging environment, I will delete any comment that is overly harsh or directly critical of anyone sharing here. Thanks.**

{ 83 comments… read them below or add one }

Carece Slaughter May 17, 2011 at 6:15 am

Great Post! I love your honesty and candor. I think we can all relate, I know I can. Thanks

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Laura May 17, 2011 at 6:18 am

Wow. This may be material for a separate post, but, I don’t think we can blow by the issue of what caused the financial stress for Mom…basically, it was the divorce and an unskilled woman having to figure out how to earn money. I know it’s personal and you might not want to say, but I can’t help wonder what was the reason for the divorce? It sounds as though Dad was a good enough guy if you were able to live with him later on. I am currently reading “The Flipside of Feminism” and have mixed feelings. I do think women should have equal rights to men, but I think the focus on “finding oneself” or that we don’t need men (as husbands and fathers and providers) and thereby jumping into divorce just because we’re not “in love” anymore has shown itself to be a bad outcome of feminism. OK, major digression, but, yeah, I am stuck on the fact that there’s almost no way a single, unskilled woman can both care for her children and make a financially stress-free home.

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Meagan Francis May 17, 2011 at 6:47 am

Laura, it was a pretty complicated situation (I guess most divorces are pretty complicated…) Suffice it to say though that my mom definitely did not want and was not prepared for a divorce.

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Meagan Francis May 17, 2011 at 6:49 am

Wanted to add–your larger point is an interesting one, and though it wasn’t the case with my mom and dad (at least not from my mom’s side of things), it would make an interesting topic for a future post. Maybe a marriage series?

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Ana May 17, 2011 at 9:19 am

Yes, please do a marriage series! I am very happily married, but of all the realms in life (kids, career, home, etc…) marriage seems like the one I kind of take for granted & want to really start addressing more mindfully.

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Senga May 18, 2011 at 1:32 am

This is a great post – thank you! I’d love a marriage series too. Like Laura, I often think about ‘unskilled’ women the consequences of divorce BUT as a heterosexual mother and feminist, for what it’s worth, I don’t think a feminist perspective means that men are considered unnecessary.

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Cara May 18, 2011 at 8:28 am

While I agree that we need to consider whether we’ve gotten too casual about the negative effects of divorce as a society, I don’t think its particularly women who are making rash decisions to leave their marriages. It appears to be more of a societal trend, and perhaps has something to do with a self-centeredness in all aspects of our life. We seem to expect an awful lot of fulfillment out of our jobs, our children and our spouses without the expectation of how much work it is. (I do, however, believe there are good reasons for ending a marriage, and you have no idea whether someone had those good reasons unless you were part of the marriage.) I also think the pendulum is swinging back on that issue… I have opinions here, can you tell?

And, not discussed (nor frankly any of our business), is why child support and alimony weren’t at least making sure things like health insurance were taken care of. I practiced family law for awhile, and that was what jumped out at me in that story. If the father could maintain relatively the same standard of living, but the kids were missing basics, something unusual happened in that divorce. Let me be specific that I’m not making judgments, but assuming there’s a piece of the private story that we can’t know. On the other hand, equity court’s aside, I take my (never-divorced but very realistic) mother’s counsel that a woman should always be able to care for herself and her children, because you never know what life will throw you. And it figures greatly in to my financial planning.

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Meagan Francis May 18, 2011 at 8:56 am

Cara, is it that unusual? I know a lot of divorced women who are living in far worse financial conditions than their ex-husbands. In our case, I know there was a child support arrangement but I have no idea how much it was or whether it was adhered to. Also, the only basic we ever went without was health insurance, and I don’t know for how long (was that considered a basic 30 years ago to the same extent it is now?) It’s also possible that my dad’s ability to keep a higher standard of living was based not on his income but on use of credit. I really don’t know–and as both my parents are deceased there’s no way to find out. (Nor would it really matter much at this point.)

Also very much agreed that women are not the only culprits when it comes to rashly ending marriages.

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Ginny May 17, 2011 at 6:25 am

As someone who does have six months (plus) safety cushion, no credit card debt, etc. I would say it is mostly a matter of keeping it simple. Honestly, anything complicated is well…too complicated. We use credit cards for convenience only. We pay them off every month. We maintain separate accounts (husband and I) and I do the bills each month from my account and he writes me a check for his share. We split our costs per our salary percentage (I make 30% he makes 70%). It’s very straightforward and it works for us. Of course, we are both by nature reasonable and non-materialistic, and there is not a shortage of cash each month to cover our needs. I think if the cash isn’t there and folks feel like they have to juggle, that’s when the trouble comes in. And frankly, when that happens there are really 2 choices: make cuts or earn more. In most American homes, there are always places to make cuts.

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Ginny May 17, 2011 at 6:32 am

I also think it would be worthwhile to say how much we need each month, to maybe get perspective on what things cost. Our family’s expenditures is around $5K and that includes retirement contributions (taken right off the top, of course) as well as 529 contributions. I think a big tip would be to not have car payments, if at all possible. Buy as good a used car as you can outright and drive it til you can’t drive it no more. Cars depreciate the second you drive off the lot!

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Jess May 17, 2011 at 6:36 am

I love that you pointed out #2. I think it is something a lot of us don’t realize…you grow up one way & think you should still be able to live like that. Well, unfortunately that isn’t always the case!

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cagey May 17, 2011 at 7:12 am

re: money – I would LOVE to see some posts about how you discuss money with your kids, how you do allowances (or do you even do them?), and how you plan to handle the teenaged years. For example, I have it in my mind that with my teenagers, I will give them X amount of money for clothes and they can learn how to cobble together a wardrobe with whatever they get. I would love your thoughts on these issues because it is something I really worry about. My husband and I make significantly more money than what we both grew up with. Despite the whole India/US thing, we had similar upbringings. No deprivation, to be sure, but we were both middle class with just not a lot of money to throw around. I worry about raising two kids in our income level and making sure they appreciate. I have already began doing price comparisons with my 5 year old when we are shopping. Is that overkill?

My biggest weak spot is Pretty, Pretty Things. I limit myself mainly now by paying for cash for fun stuff – it makes me save up for that new pair shoes or handbag, plus there is a delicious feeling to handing over a wad of cash.

I will say that I am so, SO grateful that I married someone who has a similar mindset in regard to money. I tend to be on the spendier side of things and my husband is a minimalist saver, we balance each other out.

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Kristi E May 17, 2011 at 7:56 am

We have 3 children, the oldest just recently turned 16 and we gave him a set amount for a vehicle.He found a truck in that range and is now working, we split all the costs for his vehicle (minor repairs and fuel) and then he pays for all of his “extras” and will purchase his back to school clothes this year. As for the younger 2, we give them a set limit of how much they are allowed to spend on “extras” (this amount varies per month because our income fluctuates frequently). If they want something that is more than their set amount then they know they have to save up.

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Meagan Francis May 17, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Cagey, will definitely be covering the topic of talking about money to kids! Probably not until next week, though. And for the record, I think price comparisons are a great education for a five-year-old!

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SusanP May 18, 2011 at 6:29 am

Looking forward to a money and kids discussion! Last night we had a real world scenario come up – talk about timing. On Saturday we were at a store killing time and my 5yo son saw a Play-Doh set he wanted — Play Doh is really his thing right now. It was a bunch of tools for doing pretend cake decorating with Play-Doh. Big set with a bunch of plastic parts and the doh. He asked if we could get it and I gently told him “No” since he just got another really neat set for his birthday in March. I agreed it looked neat, so we would keep it in mind for the next holiday – but we would not get it today. I got one “But I reaaaaallllllly waaaaant it” and I stuck with No. End of it. Well last night he’s out on our porch with the set he already has and he’s working away as I cook dinner. Well, in he comes with the neatest “birthday cake” he made out of the basic doh (no fancy assecories). He used his imagination and built is OWN cake instead of me having to buy the specific set. It even had a candle on top with a little piece of yellow on top that he would remove when his little sister “blew out” the candle. It really made me realize that saying “No” to every purchase isn’t such a bad thing. Sure I’m going to face many difficult “No”s in the coming years, and I just hope I can stay firm. Because honestly, a little part of me really wanted to buy him that set on Saturday since I knew he would love it. Sometimes it’s easy for us parents to fall into the consumer trap.

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Rachel May 17, 2011 at 7:23 am

I am thrilled that you are covering this topic. I had a women’s group with a couple of friends a few years ago and sometimes would try to talk about money issues – that point about “coming out” about finances and facing them head on, we’re all in the same boat type of thinking. So many people have a huge social taboo about discussing money and there are massive emotions associated with how we spend and what we value. I found that in my marriage – we had a lot of talks about our childhood: how much money there was (was NOT!) , how it was spent, how aware were we of our parents’ troubles… and how we want to proceed in our own family. It takes a great deal of mindfulness and conscious thinking to combat years of imbedded money associations. I often ask peers how they deal with things and there are so many issues when it comes to kids. Allowances, the tooth fairy, Christmas and gifts. I want to raise children who understand how to handle money well without waste and with the full knowledge of what it takes to get it and how little others have.

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Ginny May 17, 2011 at 7:30 am

When we talk about talking about money being “taboo” are we really talking about this being with our spouse and kids? I mean, in our home NOTHING is “taboo” between my spouse and I. I really don’t see how anything could be in a healthy marriage. As far as kids go, I am not sure…my kid is still little. We have more money than I did growing up. I worked in one way or another from age 10 (babysitting, scooping ice cream, pool guard, waitress….) and so I really value the idea of teens working for their “extras”…at the same time, if we have money to spend on things for my kid, I will be hard pressed to deny her just to teach her a lesson because it makes me happy to get her things, so so that’s something I’m going to need to figure out.

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Meagan Francis May 17, 2011 at 6:53 pm

I think people are more talking about the taboo of talking about it openly with other people. People assume other people are doing just fine because nobody talks about it…until there’s a recession or housing crisis, that is.

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SusanP May 17, 2011 at 7:42 am

Great article!
For us, the best decision we made was to live a lifestyle that only needs one income even though both of us have the means to bring a large income (we are both Engineers by schooling). Fresh out of college we had a large dual income. However, we made the conscious decision to not run out and get fancy new cars, and we bought a house we could afford on one income. SO when the dot com bubble burst and my husband lost his job in 2002, we were not negatively impacted. I kept working and supporting us while he decided to start his own software consulting business. Started small and 8 years later he’s doing very well. He would not have these freedom if we had a huge mortgage. He also has been the SAHD of our four kids we’ve had starting having in 2004. I get a lot of flack for maintaining a full time career outside the home as a mother of four. By working, I’m able to support the basics AND most importantly, we have excellent health insurance. This is key. My husband has been able to be home with the kids, which was important to us, but still be able to keep his career in sight and earn decent money as well — his income goes to retirement, college accounts, private schooling for the kids, travel — all things that can go “on hold” if for some reason his income dried up. If I lose my job, he has kept his skills up to date so that if I can’t find something, he could. And we have a nice cushion in the bank to cover the basics for that situation. All because we have built our life to only need one income. I know in some cities that’s not possible. We have sacrificed to live in a city that does allow it — we are across the country from my family. Sucks sometimes but we all have to choose our paths. Getting back to topic, I think having this flexibility (and the great health insurance) really keeps money issues at bay for us. And we are both frugal and know the difference between wants and needs. We always sit back and watch our friends run out and pay top dollar for the newest latest cool gadget/toy (flat screens, smart phones, blue rays, ipads, etc). Then we wait a couple of years when the prices drop, and the products are much better by then anyway. And, as an engineer, let’s just say my wardrobe/hair/makeup/jewelry/purse expenditures are minimal :-)

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Meagan Francis May 17, 2011 at 6:55 pm

“We always sit back and watch our friends run out and pay top dollar for the newest latest cool gadget/toy (flat screens, smart phones, blue rays, ipads, etc).” I was just talking about this with my SIL – when we were kids, new technology came out so much more slowly; and even when something new came out, there wasn’t this rush for everyone to go pick it up. Remember how relatively slowly the VHS player took off?

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Mia May 17, 2011 at 8:28 am

I’m so glad that Susan brought up health insurance, because that is a HUGE part of the financial equation these days. We’ve seen my husband’s health insurance grow worse & worse over the past 5 yrs., & that is really worrisome. I work part time (not by choice but because that’s what’s available to me in my workplace right now) & so I do not qualify for any benefits. It’s scary to think what could happen if a catastrophic medical event should occur to one of us & our insurance just wasn’t adequate. I do (strangely?) feel fortunate that I was raised in a moderately low income family, & that my parents were products of the Depression. Although as a child I hated not being able to get the same “stuff” that my friends had, as an adult I can truly appreciate how much my parents were able to do with so little (6 kids, all of us went to parochial schools & then private high schools) AND they didn’t bankrupt their future. (At 90, my mom is financially secure.) So what do I take from all this? Although it’s a near-constant struggle, I HAVE learned to separate wants from needs & have been trying to instill the same values in my 2 kids.

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SusanP May 17, 2011 at 8:56 am

Mia – sounds like we had a similar upbringing! My parents raised 8 kids (blended family) – Mom stayed home, Dad an architect (we truly were the Bradys!). They managed to make it, we all went to Catholic school and college (parents helped a little, scholarships covered some, and small loans made up the difference). They are now doing fine in retirement as well. We were taught from the beginning wants/needs, never spend more than what you have, don’t focus on material items – they fulfill short term happiness but that wears off, eating out is a treat, the value of family time, no cable, etc. My mom was widowed at 32 with four young children. No job, no education, etc. She was fortunate to find my dad who was also widowed with kids, and they married. She made sure her daughters were educated, finincially savvy, and able to support ourselves. I know they have had highs and lows in their marriage but stuck it out and are still together – married 36 years next month. As I kid I longed for all the “cool” stuff friends had, but like you, looking back I truly appreciate my upbringing.

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StephB May 17, 2011 at 8:39 am

Thanks for sharing- it’s an honest and thoughtful look at at difficult topic.

I have a couple of reactions. I agree with point #1 on Things will be better when…, but I have to say my husband and I make almost 10x what we did when we first got married (and he was in grad school with no income and I worked at a small non-profit). At some point, having more money just makes things a whole lot easier.

I also agree with SusanP that a key for us has been keeping our expenses lower than we could afford. It has allowed us to build up a cushion that eases a lot of stress. However, that’s only really been possible once our income increased.

I think Laura had a good point about people not really considering the impact of their choices on money. Everytime I consider if I should stay home with my kids, I come back to the fact that although we could afford to live on one income in the short term, the fact that it would essentially mean we stop saving for retirement, college, unexpected expenses, etc makes in ultimately unaffordable. Plus the studies on how hard it is for women to come back into the workforce without drastically reducing their salary scare me. It seems to me that the only flexible jobs seems to be writing/blogging/advising other women on how to have flexible jobs.

Finally, I’d like to add that a huge reason we’re where we are financially is because both my parents and my husband’s parents were able to get us through college with minimal student loans, help with our first car, etc. Making sure that we’re in the same position to help our kids out in early adulthood (mainly making sure they don’t have killer student loan payments), is one of my main financial goals. The future of our economy is pretty scary, so I want to have the biggest cushion possible.

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Meagan Francis May 17, 2011 at 6:57 pm

“At some point, having more money just makes things a whole lot easier.” Absolutely agree; but I think it’s also easy to fall into the trap of thinking this much more will be “enough”, that much more will be “plenty”.

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Mary Ann May 17, 2011 at 8:45 am

The timing on this post couldn’t have been more perfect. I’ve been handling the finances in our family for the five years we’ve been married, and it includes juggling our modest incomes from “regular” part-time jobs plus the two small businesses we own. Because we live in a vacation area, our work is seasonal, and dealing with the fluctuations often feels like a shell game.

I recently shared our financial situation with my husband, and he was floored. We had accumulated some debt and have been steadily paying it down for two years, with two more years to go until we’re debt-free. He was so out of the loop (both our faults) that our status was a big revelation for him. I feel good about our progress; all he can see is the negative side. But over the past couple of days, we moved closer to meeting in the middle.

After working for 15 years in a high-paying, real-world job, adjusting to part-time, seasonal work and small business ownership has been tough. I don’t think I’ve done the best job of financial decisionmaking, but we now have a budget, a complete financial picture and a plan. The biggest challenge, however, is trimming fat vs earning more. We’ve trimmed quite a bit and don’t have many prospects here for larger incomes. So all we can do at this point is keep our eye on the prize: two years and debt-free and the ability to do more with our money.

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Eve May 17, 2011 at 8:58 am

I’m so glad you’ve started this honest discussion Megan! Thank you! My husband and I have been married almost 12 years and for several of those, I misunderstood that he was ‘good with money’ and left him in charge. I took over paying bills after learning he had opened lines of credit without me knowing, etc. He’s a great man, but *not* good with everyday finances! After that, he racked up $10000 in credit card debt 3 times, each time promising it wouldn’t happen again. Finally, this past winter after he changed jobs, I read Dave Ramsey’s book and made some changes. Aside from our mortgage (which is probably too big but we are in a home that God blessed us with and we love), we are working on paying down $27000 cdn of debt. We don’t have car payments. We decided our first goal is to no longer buy anything on credit. That is still a work in progress. Neither of our parents taught us anything about finances!!! Now, some challenges that plague me are: how on earth do people manage to pay down massive debt so quickly? I’ve got us on a budget and have cut our spending drastically. I don’t know what else to do!! I could work more but we decided it was more important for me to be home as much as possible with our 3 awesome kids (all destined by God I might add). Next challenge: how do people manage to tithe and save so much?!! We tithe but no where near 10% which is another goal. It will take us years to save 6 months of income… is it better to save more or put every penny to debt then save once you’ve paid it off? Next challenge: I’m trying not to bow to pressure to have my kids in a billion activities but the pressure is certainly there. Hockey looms over me and I am prepared to say no, but worry about some of the long term implications…. I see people around us with big homes, new vehicles, big toys, kids in lessons, big vacations and I cant figure out how they do it. Ultimately I have faith that God will provide for us to fulfill His purposes, and I am striving to be a good steward of our blessings but I always wonder if I’m missing something.

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Mary Ann May 18, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Eve: When we finally bit the bullet and faced our debt head-on – after years of being in denial – I felt the same way. It would take us FOREVER to pay it off, since we didn’t have enough cash month-to-month to put more than just a little over the minimum toward it. We ended up signing up with a debt reconciliation agency, Take Charge America. They negotiated lower interest rates with our credit card companies, which involved the cancellation of all of our cards and an automatic payment taken our of our checking account every month. The total we’re paying is maybe a little more than I thought we could pay, but after two years, it’s just become a routine. We are watching our debt go down and have been able to live within our means with what we have left each month. We’ve got two more years to go on the plan, but we feel good that we’re digging out of this whole and learning a lot about money management as we do it. I think there are several other companies like Take Charge America, but they came highly recommended, and I’ve heard of others that are rip-offs. So buyer beware, but if you think it could work for you and you find a reputable company, it can work. It sure was a lifesaver for us.

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Maman A Droit May 17, 2011 at 9:24 am

My weakness is disorganization. Our current bill-paying system is something along the lines of putting bills somewhere the toddler can’t reach them as soon as the mail comes, then write checks & such when it’s naptime if we can find them. Lol. I keep coming up with specific places like wire letter holders and accordion files but it’s hard to get used to sticking to one system. None feels “right” yet. I’d love to hear what other people do with incoming bills.

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SusanP May 17, 2011 at 10:52 am

Maman, I use the “basket” method, which has it’s imperfections, but keeps us somewhat organized. One big basket for all incoming mail and papers from school etc. We all know to dump the stuff in the basket (which is out of reach of our toddlers). A medium/small basket that has the checkbooks, calculator, pens, letter openers, and any bills we recognize get put there right away. A small basket for reciepts. Then about once a week, sometimes more like 10days… I have to wait until all the kids are in bed and go through it. Now, this isn’t my ideal way to spend an evening but I try to make the best of it — I’ll plop myself on the family room floor with my big basket, put something on netflix streaming, and start opening all the mail. I make a pile of junk paper to recycle, a pile of “to shred” (credit card offers, etc), a pile “to file”, the bills go in the bill basket. Once that is done, I sit at my computer and balance the checkbook/pay the bills. The hard part I have is actually filing all the “to file”… so it ends up in it’s own basket which usually gathers dust until tax season rolls around.

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Cindee May 17, 2011 at 8:37 pm

SusanP – the “pile to file” is so much easier for me to manage since I switched from individual folders for each bill to monthly folders. I get a new file box annually and label a folder for each month of the year, one for tax papers (donation receipts and papers that come around tax time), important receipts (major appliance purchases, etc) and legal docs (insurance, licensing, etc). It’s easy to “file” your bills as you go when you pay them if they all go into the same folder. : ) No unmanageable piles! The legal file I just transfer to the new box from year to year.

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SusanP May 18, 2011 at 6:16 am

Thank you – what a great idea! I will have to try it. Part of my procrastination is that I never have a folder for everything… so I don’t feel like dealing with it. Then we have folders for things we don’t even have anymore (old credit cards, etc) clogging up the file drawer.

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Michele May 17, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I keep a ledger in my top desk drawer (a bound book ledger), where I stick all my bills when they come in. Bills don’t go anywhere but in that ledger in that drawer. The pages are paper clipped together to open to the current month (so the bills can just be shoved in when they arrive). Each page in the ledger is devoted to one calendar month where I list all my bills (at the start of each month) in the order they are due including the amount due (for bills that vary I leave it blank until the bill arrives), the date due, and a place to mark when I’ve paid it (if automatically deducted, I mark it paid when I’ve written it in my check register). I can easily tell if I’ve missed any bills, and have a record if I need to look back. If any medical bills, car registration, or other non-monthly bills come in, I write them in at the bottom and keep moving them forward to the next month until they are paid. When I turn the page to write the next month’s bills down, any new bills can be easily added to the list, and any paid off bills are removed.

I also keep a few loose sheets of paper in the ledger where I’ve looked ahead a few months and written out for each week: what income will come in, what bills I will pay with that week’s income (estimating bills that vary in amount), and how much “extra” money we should have leftover to meet our needs beyond the bills, pay down debt with or save. It does require a few hours here and there for the planning ahead, but to me it’s kind of fun! It also keeps me sane actually seeing how I will be paying our bills months into the future.

I usually sit down for about 1/2 hour on the weekends and reconcile everything (including balancing the checkingbook with the bank by phone) and pay the bills due. If I keep up with this system, it is relatively easy week to week, and I never miss paying a bill. Also the ledger lasts forever since you only use one page a month.

I also keep stamps, return address labels, and a calculator in the drawer with the ledger so everything is where I need it.

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Holly May 17, 2011 at 11:00 am

Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t all of those five pitfalls presume that there actually is enough money to go around and you just have to spend it properly? (Or would that fall under #2?) My husband and I are making less money now in actual dollars than we were ten years ago, only at that time I was a SAHM and now we are both working full-time. And of course the costs of everything have increased in that time, from health insurance to gas and food. Of course I can find a few small luxuries to cut out from my budget, but nothing that equals the amount of income potential we had 10 years ago and lost. Isn’t anyone else in that boat?

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Meagan Francis May 17, 2011 at 11:54 am

Hey Holly,
These particular pitfalls are pretty specific to my situation–though I will say that disorganization and lack of communication were problems of ours at many different income levels, from “totally broke” to “doing better so why the heck do we still seem so broke?”

I am hoping (and guessing) there are people here who can address the lack/loss of income thing. I know it’s a big problem for many families right now, but if you just aren’t earning enough, the solutions/issues are going to look very different than if you are earning enough but just aren’t managing it well.

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Inder May 17, 2011 at 11:19 am

My husband and I have finally recovered from failing #1, realizing that we should just count ourselves lucky to make what we do right now, and the amount is unlikely to increase (in my experience, this issue is more likely to be a problem in boom economies, when the possibilities seem limitless). So we got organized, started communicating better, etc. But now, about a year later, we are suffering from major discipline fatigue. I’m just. so. tired. of. being. broke. I know it’s for a good cause (paying off our debt), but BLAH. The novelty has long since worn off and now it’s a grind.

Great post, thank you!

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Shannnon @nwaMotherlode May 17, 2011 at 11:55 am

Love that you’re doing a series on money. For the first time in my life I have a budget and I’m tracking my expenses. I couldn’t believe how much I was spending on groceries and eating out! I’ve been working on bringing that number way down. I want to save in areas I can so I can have extra money for: emergencies, retirement, my daughter’s (pitiful) college fund. My biz partner and I are on a weekly radio show and I got some “You’re crazy” looks when I said on the air last week that I was going to start making my own laundry detergent. Ha!

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Eve May 17, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Duggar recipe?!!! Me too, it’s awesome! Started making my own wipes too, cutting my kids’ and husband’s hair and got mine done at a beauty college!

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JB May 17, 2011 at 12:01 pm

I am pretty sure I suffer from all 5 of those. I have 3 children and my husband works, but I work a full time job where I earn the majority of the money and I work a part time job to help cover bills. I pay all the bills for the household. My husband and I each have our own accounts but I balance both of them. My oldest girl doesn’t drive yet and we don’t pay allowances because they stick with the chores. I set up plans and budgets but they always get blown out of the water. Things that are important to me aren’t not such a great concern to my husband and the things he finds important to him are a waste of money to me. We waste tons of money are things because we are lazy (eating out, can’t think of what else) I try to talk about our financial status with him and we end up fighting so I say just forget it and go back to the way it has been. He grew up in a household where his step dad made the money and controled it, when his mom divorced him then she went on welfare and didn’t work. My mom worked but she didn’t have any control over her money either. She was very irresponsible with it. I don’t know how to fix our cycle. I know I spend money on things I don’t need to make me feel “better” which never happens. My children think we are made of money and everything should be handed to them because they want it.

So please post more!

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Jennifer May 17, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Definitely suffer from discipline fatigue! Sometimes we get so tired of saving, saving, saving, that we end up having a short burst of time where we indulge in purchases we could probably do without. It doesn’t help that we live in a neighbourhood where it seems that everyone has lots of toys: motorhomes, boats, ATVs, etc. We aren’t really the norm since my husband and I still get by sharing a vehicle and using public transit & carpool options.

Another weakness I have is over-thinking things. Should we use this money here or there? Save it in case of this, or use to improve that? Which is the ‘best’ option? And then I get frozen in indecision and do nothing instead of just picking one and going with it.

I’m also not good at asking for better deals or asserting myself for refunds, discounts, etc. even when I know I’m entitled to them. A great example is our current internet provider. I know a lot of people who have called a negotiated a much lower rate. And we’ve been getting really crappy service lately too. Like, really crappy! But have I taken the 10 minutes (ok, it would probably be more like half an hour) necessary to save us some money? Nope . . . been avoiding it like the plague!

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Emily May 17, 2011 at 6:27 pm

I can totally relate to the “over-thinking things”. I do that all the time. I think I’ve been debating on going on a year now about what to do first, pay off my car or take our emergency savings from 3 to 6 months. I seriously go back and forth on what would be best and just continue to do both because I can’t committ to either.

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Meagan Francis May 17, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Me too on the overthinking. I get anxious when I have a significant sum of money and am trying to figure out where to “stick” it; I feel uncomfortable until it’s accounted for, and if I’m not careful can run in circles trying to figure out what to do with it.

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Kris @ Attainable Sustainable May 17, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Oh, I am so with you on number three! I get so upset with myself every time I incur a late charge just because I wasn’t paying attention or lost track of dates. Stupid, stupid!

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SleeplessinSummerville May 18, 2011 at 9:16 am

The money thing is definitely something the two of us are struggling with now. We managed our money quite well together for several years before birthing the little man. The trap we fell into was of thinking that since other people do something (eg work full-time outside the home after baby comes), then we can do it as well. All it takes is one unlucky circumstance, or three and your well-managed financial picture is no longer so well-managed. We’ve had the income boosts recently, and can attest that it can make a big difference, but not enough to make things the way they were before we got lucky and then unlucky. We are having major discipline fatigue as well with the broke-ness and on top of that, our marriage has suffered a lot with the stress we’ve been under and we need to spend time away from the little guy to get that back on track and that takes money as well. The hard part for us, I think is that first of all, we are debt free and have been for 1.5 years. Debt was never our problem, so this is only a minor thing. Right now we have tons of money saved up in liquid form so that we aren’t really broke by a long way, but we are living on exactly what we make in a month and not saving any more. I feel dishonest complaining how broke I am when I have $25k in the bank. But I can’t use that money for my day-to-day expenses, that’s my emergency fund and next car. I probably should take a second look at our withholding situation, as that was out of whack last tax cycle (part of the reason the savings is so fat), but my husband and I are pessimistic about our money and worry about coming up short at tax time next year. I think the two of us just have a whole different set of problems than you had though. I got married and expected to be frugal and somewhat non-materialistic, but my other half is constantly looking at other people we don’t even know very well and complaining how everything we have sucks in comparison to what he thinks someone else has. Unfortunately, that’s more of a psychological issue than a monetary one, since I suspect it would be the same no matter how much we make.

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Molly May 18, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Wow! This came at a great time for me. My husband and I have lived just as you did for the first 10 years of our marriage. Always thinking it will be better when we just make a little bit more. Now, he is making enough for us to live the life we live today, but we are living on a strict budget to pay for all of our ‘stupid’ choices from the past. I can honestly say that I am a happily married, sahm even though we don’t have as much money as many of our friends but it took me a long time to get to this point! Thank you so much for being so honest about your financial past. I hope that we are able to pass along some money management skills to our kids. I would love to see more ideas about that in a future post.

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DawnE May 19, 2011 at 1:43 pm

Just getting around to commenting on this now. It’s so great to see a realistic post about money! I actually think our pitfalls have been the opposite of yours.

1. thinking things will never get better – so we better save save save now
2. not appreciating what it means to live in a certain income – yes we CAN afford such and such nice thing that we both really want
3. over organization – our spread sheet gives me a headache
4. too much talking about money – anything other than groceries gets discussed. even my $20 hair dryer.
5. breaking the discipline habit when we reach our goals – learning to relax a bit when we can!

My husband and I are 100% totally on the same page about money which is nice. But we both have to consciously think about combating our “cheap” reputation while trying to enjoy and appreciate what we have a bit more. At the same time, we’re proud of what our discipline has gotten us and we have a house we love to show for it.

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oilandgarlic April 20, 2012 at 1:09 pm

As always you’ve given me food for thought. My husband and I have very different backgrounds with money. While we’re both ‘frugal’, I see why it’s hard for him to understand my constant worries about money, due to a poorer upbringing. At the same time, I can’t understand why he ignores monthly bills like phone, cable, etc.. and would rather pay a lot than negotiate rates with them. This year, I knocked off $45 from our phone/DSL bill with just a 15 minute call! I know he appreciates it but he still doesn’t think that little savings are as important to monitor as earning more/big savings. That may also be due to gender differences.

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Regina S. April 20, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Interesting post. I like the line about your twenties being an unqualified financial disaster, sometimes I feel the same. My biggest weakness…tracking what I spend. I hate it. I’d rather not know, but doing it (every penny) really reins in what I spend.

Another weakness…feeling I HAVE TO have somethings. Right now, a new Kia Sorrento (we drive an ancient car). Last week, fancy shampoo. The week before, jumbo hair curler set. I find I just had to ride it out, put it on the wish list, and eventually forget about it.

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Sleeping Mom April 20, 2012 at 3:57 pm

In the last five or so years, I’ve done really well with handling money. And prior to that, I wasn’t exactly a mess, but I wasn’t saving either. I figured that I had a job, and that meant only one thing: that I could spend. So while I didn’t go into debt, I also didn’t beef up my savings. Thanks to reading personal finance blogs and books, I educated myself on the importance of saving and living within my means.

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sajmom April 21, 2012 at 2:58 am

I’ve never had money-I always knew we had to be really careful, money was always something I was aware of. Generally when left on my own I was very good at keeping track and saving my money. Men were where I got into trouble! It’s hard to express exactly…. but I always felt that $ wasn’t the most important thing in life, I mean I grew up without money-so it was important, but it wasn’t a big deal to me when I was the only one in a relationship with money. So I had boyfriends (and friends) who sponged off of me. Sometimes it was direct, such as talking me into buying things for “us.” But there were also situations like when I used my new credit cards to have the cash to get an apartment for my boyfriend and I. I had to pay for it all since he was “injured” at work. I married a nice guy-one who actually gave me $ to save for an apartment rather than making me pay! We feel pretty much the same about money. But we each started the relationship carrying debt largely earned by previous boyfriend/girlfriends. And although he is in a skilled trade-he remodels/repairs houses-the economy started faltering right when he went on his own in the business. We expected it to be a while for the business to do ok, but the financial crisis hit his business hard and we went from struggling to sometimes having to get some food from pantries and having family members occasionally help out. I’ve found that it is extremely difficult to make wise choices and be thrifty when you’ve been in a state of deprivation for so long. For example, it was easy to skip eating out when I had a chance to go out in years past, but after having so little for so long, anytime I am out I crave it. It’s a way to treat myself, and since life offers little opportunity for that I tend to want do it, even if I’m not that hungry or would really prefer to eat something I have at home. Your willpower isn’t as strong when your basic needs aren’t being met. I would also add that being self-employed adds another challenge to finances. We never know when the money’s coming or how much it will be. We lost accounts because when money got tight I couldn’t set up a payment plan because of that. My parents did the right things-had life insurance and savings plans, money invested and my Dad’s company was bought out and he lost his job after 33 years with the company. That was their health insurance and now they have none. He has health issues that made it difficult for him to find work and was declared disabled. Now my mother is working at a retail store, part time, barely making ends meet, and she said to me that she feels cheated because they planned for retirement and she didn’t think after all those years of working and planning that they’d still be barely afloat. So much for the golden years.

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William April 21, 2012 at 10:04 am

hi Meagan,
I have also lost may father last year.
Moreover I was separated from both my mom and dad for years!
Please forget the past and carry your life as blogger.
Thanks,
William

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Noah April 21, 2012 at 10:05 am

hi Meagan,
I have also lost may father last year.
Moreover I was separated from both my mom and dad for years!
Please forget the past and carry your life as blogger.
Go ahead,
William

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grace at {Gabbing with Grace} April 21, 2012 at 3:12 pm

great post. I think unfortunately we are in a bad place too due to different ways of growing up…just like some of the other ones you mentioned…. we have very heated discussions and it’s threaten to break us. arrghghghg. It’s such a frustrating thing. i’m thankful for your honesty in this…gives me hope. =)

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Lewis Caroll April 22, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Great post. I loved how you put together those five points here. I’m very disorganized and have problems with communications. I hope I can sort these problems soon.

-Lewis

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Alison April 23, 2012 at 10:02 am

I was the bread winner between my husband and I for the first 5 years of our marriage. He worked part-time, too, but his income always seemed to be just extra for his hobbies or whatever. We did fine for a family of 3, owning a home, 2 cars, and making under $45K. It was totally doable though we seemed to be scraping by all the same. Then, I left my job and my husband went to work full time and we took a 15-20K pay cut! Yikes! Our family grew to 5 and obviously things got tighter and tighter. We still own our home thank God! Coupons, sales, thrift stores, hand-me-downs, and simply giving things up is my way of life. I have a very close friend whose husband makes oodles more than we do. Their grocery bill is 3x our mortgage payment. And she complains they are feeling the ‘lack of money’ pains. Honestly I can’t help but roll my eyes in secret : ) But I think it is very true that the more money you make, the more money you spend and the reverse can be true with practice. My family’s goal is to get to a more comfortable lifestyle. I’m not sold on being lower-middle class.

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Heather April 23, 2012 at 10:52 am

WOW Meagan, great article. It’s great to know we are not alone. I could have just replaced the names in your article. It’s funny how our parents never talked about money. I wonder if that is a generation thing? We are trying to break that cycle as we are both clueless too. I strongly feel school failed us too – knowing how to balance a checkbook is not enough! We are trying to teach our children (almost 4 and 5) about money already so that they don’t repeat our mistakes. We have been working the Dave Ramsey system for awhile. And like you while we are much better off it’s still really hard to be an adult and WAIT for the things you want.

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