the money elephant
Money is the massive elephant in the room no one ever wants to admit exists.
I’m starting this conversation with the full knowledge of my own hypocrisy here. I mean, you can’t find a single post in my archives that focuses on money, and yet the entire time I’ve had this blog, our income has ranged from “struggling” to “scary broke.” That’s right: “struggling” was the high point.
Granted, losing both incomes at the same time as kicking off a lengthy custody battle while in the middle of remodeling two houses at once, and all of that right after dropping a bunch of cash on an (admittedly awesome) wedding and honeymoon probably wouldn’t have been easy for anyone. And it certainly wasn’t easy for us. Some of that, we definitely should have planned better. But other things— like the entire construction industry drying up overnight— well, we couldn’t do much about that.
Some purchases are not optional, even if your bank account says otherwise. You can’t not hire a lawyer when going lawyer-less means losing custody of your kid. You can’t not buy two round-trip tickets a month for that kid when that’s the only time your husband’s only child can be with the rest of you. And you can’t not buy groceries or refuse to pay bills. (Although you can make only partial utilities payments for a surprisingly long time before anyone gets uppity. Ditto your mortgage, if you don’t mind destroying your credit.)
I thought I was good at living on next to nothing before 2009, but that year and the next few were when I truly embraced the life of financial contortionist. If you’ve ever been there, you know exactly what I mean: making money appear where there is none; twisting in impossible gymnastics to pay this, then that, in order of most to least urgent (and of course it’s all urgent), constantly juggling the most dire priority against your sanity, praying pretty much every second of every day that you don’t have any kind of serious medical issues (well, we did have a couple of those) or car problems (oh hey, we had those too) or some other frighteningly large, unplanned hiccup (like, say— and this is obviously just a completely hypothetical example— ANOTHER umpteen rounds at family court that last ANOTHER better part of a year, and maybe this time include the additional costs of mandated counseling and stuff) that would REALLY mean you’re in trouble.
And all the while, not talking about finances. Because we don’t talk about that.
Unless your money problems are officially behind you. Then it’s okay.
So now that we’re out of the quicksand and back on solid ground again, I can casually drop into cocktail conversation (and blog posts) that Dan & I went from a normal amount of debt— whatever that means— to terrifying, unmanageable debt so fast it took our breath away. And now we’re climbing the long, slow journey back out.
Maybe because money’s an actual thing, something finite and ruled by mathematics, I think money is absolutely, 100% the hardest thing to have blind faith in. To trust that there will be enough. To carefully step your full weight on fragile dollar bills without the shudder and crack of a sudden crevasse splitting open at your feet. Practical stuff doesn’t tend to play too well with hippie-drippy sentiments like “Oh, it’ll all work out!” Ugh, those people. I want to punch them in the face.
Except, okay. Things do always work out. Even money. No matter how many times I’ve been faced with an unexpected expense, some windfall has come along to ease the blow. And even while writing this post and thinking about all the crazy financial shit that went down for us in the last half-dozen years or so, I realize once again that getting through all of that shouldn’t have been possible. You know, mathematically. The numbers definitely do not line up.
But it was possible. We did get through it. Because money showed up from weird sources at the perfect times, and blessings came from bizarre and unexpected places. For years.
Nourishing us just enough to get us through that day, even if we didn’t know where our account balances would be the day after.
Now, unlike manna, you actually can (and should) sock money away against the unknown, and it won’t get all gross and moldy if you do. But there’s a difference between saving the right way and saving the wrong way. Just like there’s a difference between swimming laps and treading water: one moves you forward; the other only keeps you from drowning.
Last December, I signed up for YNAB, a nifty little budgeting program that’s designed specifically to help you stop predicting your financial future— perfectly aligned with my larger 2016 goal to stop predicting everything else about my future, too. With YNAB, you focus only on the dollars you have in your bank account, and you give every single one of them a job to do. You don’t look ahead to next week’s overtime check and splurge now in anticipation. You don’t freak out over next week’s small check after taking that sick day. You just look at what you have, and make money decisions in the moment with whatever’s already there.
Seems so obvious, so sensible. Yet I cannot believe what a massive difference that seemingly small perspective shift has made.
No more basing our future on an estimate of how much should be coming in, and how much should be going out, and calling it “budgeting.” That’s not budgeting; it’s guessing. Those dollars don’t exist if they haven’t come in yet. Till they do, you’re playing with Monopoly money.
I’m also done with the stupidity of the other most common way to budget: track every penny you spend for one month, then use that as your new budget going forward. Note that any deviance from those numbers will count as failure, so enjoy that super-fun constant pressure. Also, good luck finding a “normal” month to use as your baseline— that magical unicorn month without any unplanned expenses.
When it comes to money, neither guesstimating nor rigidity truly work. You can’t know how much your next check will be, not really. And you can’t know what your expenses will be, either. A budget based on speculation is ridiculous, and one based on only planning for predictable expenses is unrealistic. Life loves to defy expectations; pretending that your finances are exempt from reality that only sets you up for stress and failure.
But YNAB is built with all these sarsaparilla rules in mind, so one-off situations ain’t no thang. And meanwhile your big picture remains clearly visible.
It turns out that the amount of money you have isn’t nearly as relevant as a healthier philosophy toward your finances. Expenses don’t have to feel like parasites. A symbiotic relationship with money is possible, if you focus on acceptance instead of control, on working within confines instead of against them.
This year, with the help of YNAB, I’ve learned to let income and expenses calmly coexist in their natural ebb and flow. I’m less stressed, Dan is less stressed, and every day we find we have exactly what we need, and feel thankful instead of uncertain.
We paid for a trip to Hawaii in cash this year. We paid for all our other travel in cash this year, too: traveling to see the girls, flying them to see us, moving Miss G into the dorms. We paid cash for Miss G’s first semester of college, and paid cash again for her plane tickets when she decided college wasn’t a good fit for her right now and maybe she could spend a semester in Hawaii with Dan’s folks instead. We’ve also paid off over $10,000 in debt, and are on track to be completely debt-free by next spring.
It feels like a gooddamn miracle. On par with something like manna appearing every morning in the desert.
Oh hey there, struggling stepparent!
Listen, I put together a new website just for high-conflict blended families: Blended Family Frappé. Come on over and join the hundreds of other stepparents who are reclaiming their sanity one Sunday newsletter at a time.