We were hopelessly young and poor as church mice when we got married. “For richer or poorer” and “in sickness and in health,” the words said to each other forty years ago resonate deeply in our marriage today. I was eighteen and my husband was twenty and we didn’t have a pot to pee in, as my Texas born grandma always liked to say. I had two years of college credits under my belt, and Stephen had three. I helped pay for the wedding with money I had saved working through high school. We were so poor we had to borrow one of his parents’ cars for our honeymoon because our old beater wouldn’t have made it as we camped our way up the Oregon and Washington Coasts
But the thing was, we had prospects. Though we were poor, the future loomed bright and shiny. We headed into marriage thinking we were going some place, but we weren’t deluded that it was going to be easy. I gave up college for a while because the plan was for me to work for a few years while Stephen finished his B.A. Then it would be my turn to finish my degree. During our first year of marriage I worked at three crummy jobs, but because better things were just around the corner, it was bearable.
The second year of our marriage, my adventurous husband proposed that he finish his degree in Japan at Sophia University. I was game, and so off we headed. Our apartment was the size of a shoebox, uninsulated with no furniture, except for a futon. What little furniture we did accumulate, we literally found on the side of the road. Sort of like a Monty Python Japanese version of “we were so poor…” We had a little two-burner cook top, no oven, and no hot water. We heated our bath water with a circulating heater, much like a hot tub system. Once we accidentally brought the water to a boil, which we discovered when we heard a strange booming emanating from the bathroom. It was the plastic bathtub undulating in and out in protest.
We both taught English for what seemed like amazing amounts of money to us then, and I worked as a fashion model, a bizarre job but a unique life experience. We were partners in an adventure rife with paradox. We were poor, but feeling rich. We made do but didn’t feel as if we were making do.
Though we had barely scraped by in our first year of marriage, living in Japan provided a concrete exercise in budgeting because Japan was a cash society; all bills were paid in cash, and I mean every one of them, because checks didn’t exist.
When we returned to California, I resumed studying for my degree and my husband started law school. Like many students, we struggled financially. I received grants, took out some loans and worked at least twenty hours a week in the library until I graduated. Stephen worked every summer. We drove the same old beater we had when we were married, or biked and took public transportation. I staggered paying the bills; we didn’t have the money to pay them all when they were due. And I’m not talking about credit card bills: we didn’t own one. We paid cash for everything. We were a team, a unit, best friends, partners, committed in every way, including financially. We still had prospects and shared goals.
We graduated, got good jobs and went in with another couple and bought a big old run down Craftsman that had been turned into apartments, intending to renovate it and make some money. The other couple promptly split up before we even moved in. So, it was Stephen and me and Joe, the half of the couple who stayed in on the deal. Joe got transferred to another city after the first year, but he came back every weekend to work on the house. Stephen and I worked on it nearly every night after work for two years and on most weekends. But, we sold it for double what we’d paid for it to Joe’s co-worker, who practically begged to be able to buy it. Interest rates at the time were a whopping 17%, but he really wanted that lovely old house impregnated with all our sweat equity.
And then we moved to Seattle and went back to graduate school. Stephen for an advanced law degree in Asian Law, and me for an M.A. in Japanese Lit. The Japanese culture bug had bitten us. We lived off the money we had made from the sale of the house and on scholarship money before realizing we were burning through our savings from the sale of the house pretty fast. So, the second year, we moved into and managed a 42-unit apartment building.
We moved to Tokyo again and Stephen worked at a Japanese law firm after he finished his Ll.M program. We lived in a 500 square foot traditional Japanese house. Though the kitchen set up was similar—we still had a two-burner stove and no oven—we had hot water! We had enough money to pay the bills and eat out every week. Japan was still a cash society, though ATM machines had appeared, so we were again able to budget pretty concretely.
I worked as an editor and writer, including during my first pregnancy and part time the first year of our oldest daughter’s life, who was the only gaijin baby in the maternity ward in the big Japanese hospital.
I have always been the money manager in our marriage. I think this is because Stephen comes from a really frugal family, and while he is one of the most responsible and hardest working human beings I have ever known, he has never been comfortable spending money. That was my job.
But then again, maybe that’s why when I stopped working to stay home with my daughter after we moved back to the States for the second time; I didn’t feel too anxious about not contributing financially. Stephen’s jobs over the next twenty-five years were incredibly demanding and required a lot of travel, often up to ten days a month. I happily held down our home life, raising two daughters, doing a lot of community work and managing our money. I even went back to graduate school for an MFA in writing.
Then just when I was one of only two students offered an assistant teaching position, Stephen was offered a position in Japan as the Asian General Counsel of his fast growing IT company. The money was great and the potential for socking a lot of that money away was a no-brainer. He figured we could save the entire COLA and more. And he turned out to be right, though it entailed some teary sacrifice on my part. I had planned on combining teaching with writing, and instead, I compromised and came down on the side of practicality in terms of our financial picture. And, let’s face it, more adventure. To be honest, I’ve regretted that choice on some levels ever since.
I did finish my MFA, writing a chunk of a novel in Tokyo as my thesis, but had to forfeit my teaching job. The next five years were full of memorable times and the daily demands of family life—but they were also daunting. We moved from the U.S. to Japan to England and back to the U.S. Every move meant I was literally the homemaker, arranging everything we needed to live happy lives. We didn’t live in sheltered expat enclaves or on a military base or a state department compound. We lived on the economy. Acculturation takes time, especially when it’s a first grader and a fourth grader who are not only settling in to a new school, but also a new culture. As the stay-at-home parent, I was the facilitator, the resource queen of our new country/home. And still and always, the money manager.
Back in California, the IT boom was big and we were incredibly lucky to cash in on our stock shares and buy a big house in a great neighborhood with good public schools. I got breast cancer and had a severe accident and between them it took me two years to heal.
The girls grew up. We found we still liked each other just as we had when we were young and penniless.
Many conflicting money issues tug at the shirttail of a marriage. Keeping your family going day-to-day contains enough conflict to be daunting in itself, but then somewhere along the way, if you’re lucky enough to pay attention, you may begin to discern the ghost of retirement haunting your future. A close friend of mine in Japan and I used to joke, calling it the “R” word, but if one lives long enough, there may come a time when work is impossible to get or do. So planning for retirement is vital.
And so Stephen and I’ve arrived at the “R” word. His company was acquired and though he’s looked for work for over a year, it’s been sparse pickings. Age discrimination? I’ve just finished a novel, but can I sell it? Luckily, we think we saved enough to live comfortably into our old age, barring another financial crash. In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. We’ve lived through it all.
Looking back, would I do anything differently in terms of our financial picture? I actively encourage both my daughters to plan on working at least part time when and if they have kids. I loved being a stay-at-home mom—and I was convinced it was necessary to ensure that my kids had the best childhood they could have. But I’ve changed my mind. I think kids can survive in good daycare just fine, and frankly, I’ve seen too many marriages end with the non-working partner winding up in a tough place, financially—and let’s face it, it’s often the woman, even today. I was lucky because my husband and I both felt I was an equal partner. Managing our money, as well as our family life, helped empower me in our marriage.
Still, I cherish the life and family we made together. Our financial decisions and our enduring partnership now mean we’ll have a roof over our heads and some soup on the hearth come what may. And hopefully, some golden years with each other, our family and friends.
Photos by: Karen & Stephen’s personal collection, final photo by Gabriel Harber Photography