Dec. 22nd, 2020 marks one year since I married my husband — a feat which I felt certain until the very moment that it happened that I would never accomplish.
I have always had a skeptical view of marriage and relationships, driven largely by the poor example I grew up witnessing and the instability my parents’ respective undoing had on my family and my childhood. Marriage never seemed like a beautiful lifelong journey you embark on with a partner, but rather a thing you were supposed to do — like going to college, buying a home, or having kids. And, true to my persistent and unshakeable stubbornness, I have never been much inclined to do things I am supposed to.
However, when I exchanged vows with my partner of nearly a decade in December 2019, a kernel of something yet unknown began to unfurl within me. After years of dubious regard for the sanctity of marriage, I experienced an altogether surprising and unexpected shift.
Partners or Roommates?
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey of nearly 10,000 American adults, nearly 78 percent of married respondents said they feel closer to their spouse than any other adult in their life — compared with just 55 percent of cohabiters. And, when it came to the driving factors behind the decision to cohabit or get married, nearly 40 percent of cohabiters cited finances as a primary reason for moving into together. Perhaps more revealing, two-thirds of cohabiters who want to get married someday cite either their own or their partner’s finances as a reason why they have not gotten engaged or married.
What’s striking about these figures isn’t really what it says about those who marry or choose instead to cohabitate. Rather, it’s what this says about our culture and the role that money plays in the narrative of our lives.
Champagne Tastes on a Korbel Budget
My partner and I have been together for a decade next year and while we are so very different in so many ways, we have one very classic thing in common: Like many American Millennials, we have a habit of living beyond our means.
For nearly our entire young adult lives, we worked in hospitality, first as servers and later as sommeliers. As we became masters of our craft, we spent much of our time with and around some of Washington, D.C.’s wealthiest and most elite. It’s not hard to see how regularly serving (and sampling) Krug champagne and caviar can breed a taste for the finer things in life.
At twenty-four, after a short stint as a very broke journalist, I returned to restaurants — something I’d done all through college to pay the bills — because I was lost and, like many people in my generation, still hadn’t really figured out what I wanted to be.
In hospitality, I found a rotating cast of incredibly intelligent characters and liberal thinkers, who often didn’t fit the mold of the “get a degree, get a job, start a family, grow old, die” mentality we’d all be taught to believe was what we were supposed to do.
I also found food. For the first time, I tasted fish roe and grilled octopus, foie gras and rack of lamb — things my finicky single mother hadn’t the slightest regard or budget for when I was a child. Making better money by twenty-five than my mother had at the height of her teaching career, I developed a penchant for European vacations, “Champagne Tuesdays,” and regular $200 Sunday dinners. I was living a life that, in reality, my pocketbook could not support.
I became a master navigator of balance transfers, saving very little and spending far more than I was making. When my partner and I moved in together in 2013, like the 38 percent of Pew Center respondents, it was largely driven by finances. Namely, that we had become accustomed to a lifestyle we didn’t want to give up — and didn’t really have to if we could live rent cheap.
The Money Relationship
As a child, money was always tight. As a landman in the oil and gas industry, my father made a life of volatility and futures. This became even more true when he began to trade work — a self-prescribed treatment for his manic depression — for alcohol, drugs, and binge spending.
When I was six, my mother finally left. It wasn’t much later that she discovered my father had cleaned out their bank accounts and maxed out their credit cards, including several she didn’t even know existed. We lost the house to foreclosure and had our car repossessed. It would take my mother until well into my teenage years to finally finish paying off her bankruptcy.
Even despite this, we always managed to get by. If I wanted to go to summer camp, my mother started saving in the fall; she put Christmas gifts on layaway in July and cooked buttered pasta five nights a week. To this day, she refuses to admit we were poor (mostly because she was raised in an upper-middle-class Catholic family and is a devout classist), but this was a pivotal time in my life. It showed me how to do with less. It showed me how to stretch a dollar and save for the things I really wanted.
And then, at eighteen, I discovered credit cards.*
Find a Sponsor, Work the Steps
Breaking up with debt is like deleting the number of your sexy ex who has crawled back to tell you that you were right all along and they can’t live without you.
I can still recall the deep well of anxiety I felt in December 2016, just six months after my partner and I bought our first home. It is the most broke I can remember feeling as an adult. At least we have until the fifteenth, I thought, counting the days between our next paychecks and the final date we could pay our mortgage without it being considered late.
And yet, I didn’t think twice about the cost of Christmas presents, running up our credit card bill as if the next month I wouldn’t be having a panic attack about how to pay it down. If I balance transfer $2,000 to the Bank of America card, with zero percent interest for a year, then we can pay $1,000 now and another $1,000 in two weeks, I rationalized.
In January 2020, just weeks after marrying my husband, we had finally reached our breaking point. We knew our lifestyle had become unsustainable. We had probably known it for years but were too busy having fun to care.
It wasn’t any one thing that did it, but rather a persistent feeling that we were barely treading water, despite our combined six-figure take home. We had begun listening to the Dave Ramsay podcast. Well, he had started listening to it in December, after prompting from his mother. I had waved it off. “I don’t need some crazy conservative Christian telling me how to live my life,” I think I said.
Now, less than a year later and completely free of all consumer debts, it turns out I did need Dave Ramsay to tell me how to live a pretty significant part of my life. And, even if I do still find Ramsay’s conservative Christian point-of-view off-putting, the man deserves all the credit he is due.
In just six months, Ramsay’s budgeting plan gave us the tools we needed to pay off more than $40,000 in debt (in the middle of a global pandemic, no less). Since we sat down to write out our budget last January, we haven’t once lived paycheck-to-paycheck— even in May, when the cat needed an emergency $1500 dental surgery, or in August, when my partner was forced to take a COVID-19-related pay cut.
If Ramsay’s plan is one you can adhere to and work, it will work for you. But it wasn’t just working “the Baby Steps” that changed our lives forever. It was us.
As a married couple, we became a team. It wasn’t me or him. It was us.
Are we cured of our own fiscal negligence? No, definitely not. But in the moments when we feel close to relapsing into a spendthrift lifestyle, we hold one another accountable. We sit down and examine our bank accounts (which have money in them!) and our budget and we tell one another, “No, not this month. Maybe next.” And then, when the next month comes, we’ve already forgotten what it was we needed so badly.
Progress — even incremental — is a powerful feeling. It’s also one that money cannot buy.
*Known as the credit card premium, research suggests people having a greater willingness to pay more when they know they are paying by credit card versus cash. When armed with a credit card, people make larger purchases, tip more in restaurants, and appear to even forget or misremember how much they have spent.