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How Financial Therapy Led to a Happy Fiscal Union


Published March 31, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.


"I'm not getting knocked up until we have $18,000 in the bank." That was my response when my husband, Jon, brought up the topic of kids a few years into our marriage.

I don't remember how I came up with that number, but I do remember why: I was a freelance writer without a regular paycheck. Paid maternity leave was not an option. I feared that if I took unpaid time off, all of my editors would forget about me. We needed my income.

Jon and I shared a mortgage and all of our expenses, but we didn't share a bank account. Despite our common upbringings — we both came from solidly working-class families — we had different attitudes about finances. For Jon, money was a means to an end: having fun in the present. For me, money was a source of anxiety about the future. I may be financially stable now, but what if...?

We both wanted children. And at that point, in our early 30s, we were ready to get started on the process. OK, maybe we didn't need $18,000. But if I had anything to say about it, saving a bunch of money would precede the unprotected sex.

I proposed a plan: We'd live on peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and lentil soup; we'd write down every expense. I went on. And on. Jon listened patiently, but I could see the life fading from his eyes.

For me, saving for a not-yet-conceived kid on a strict budget was a comforting challenge; for him, it was soul-sucking. So I suggested a compromise: money therapy.

Through my work, I'd been in touch with Christine Moriarty, a Bristol-based financial planner who bills herself as a money-focused marriage counselor. She seemed to be just what we needed.

Jon was game. So we made an appointment.

Instead of whipping out spreadsheets, Moriarty took a more holistic approach. She interviewed us, separately but in the same room — and not just about paying the bills. She asked us our how money factored into our childhoods and inquired about our dreams, personal and professional.

Jon revealed that he wanted to own a big house on a lake and travel the world, which didn't surprise me. I wanted to travel, too, and to keep writing for a living. I loved getting paid to be creative.

Yet I'd gone to grad school for nutrition partly because I worried my journalism career might suddenly bomb. I talked about the immense guilt I felt a few years earlier after paying full price for a wool coat at Banana Republic. My mother had never been able to treat herself to such an expensive item, at least while I'd lived with her.

I started crying. Jon looked uncomfortable. Christine handed me a tissue and then forged ahead kindly, unfazed. Apparently, this sort of behavior was normal. A couple with vastly different relationships to money was also normal, she assured us. And we had one big advantage: We were committed to coming together on the subject of cash.

For the next month and a half, we met weekly with Christine. We established a shared money system that still works for us today. It includes several bank accounts: ours, his, hers and a couple more we use when we're saving for something big.

We agreed that if we came into money — which, in our world, means a small work bonus — we'd stick to the rule of thirds: one third for the past (debts), one third for the future (savings), one third for the present (something fun).

Most importantly, we learned the value of regular "money dates," times when we meet to discuss money, with a set agenda, for just one hour. For a while, we did these weekly, often with a bottle of wine to lighten these frequently serious conversations.

Our money dates are now a monthly, sometimes quarterly, affair. Over the last eight years, we've worked out an agreeable system that reflects our historical tendencies.

I'm still the thrifty one who squirrels away for catastrophes, so I pay for the broken-fridge replacement, the big auto repairs, the electrician bills. Jon funds more of our spontaneous fun: weekend trips, indulgent dinners.

It's an agree-to-disagree kind of thing, but we feel truly aligned, which is important now that we have two little boys, Jules, 6, and Kai, 4. We want to teach them strong money values. Together we can show them that it's important to save and to spend on things that bring joy to you and others.

They seem to be getting the message. And they've established their own sort of financial partnership, as evidenced by a gift they gave me on vacation last year. "Mom, we bought you this!" said Kai, pressing a black wooden ring — procured from the pirate museum in Provincetown — into my palm. "Kai paid for it," Jules chimed in. "But I picked it out."

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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