Earlier this year, I wrote that Michael and I have been working to gain control of our finances using the budgeting tool YNAB. For those of you who are new to the conversation, we’d been fighting about money a lot and YNAB helped us gain control of that arguing by forcing us to face up to our financial baggage (more on what YNAB is and our experience using it right here). What I didn’t mention was that the impetus for so much of our arguing was that we had $33,000 in consumer debt and despite our best efforts, it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. And while a lot of extenuating circumstances had contributed to our ballooning deficit—unemployment, a lot of moves, a really sick dog—the underlying cause actually had nothing to do with what we were putting on our credit cards. The real reason, which I didn’t realize until just now, is that I was afraid of being a bad feminist.
Normally I’ll be the first to admit that I lack financial savvy. Ask me why I quit my photography business in favor of going full time at APW and I’ll tell it to you straight: I am great at making money and terrible at managing it. I feel no shame about this. I bring a valuable skillset to my job and it would be unfair to ask everyone to be good at all things, right? But I hold myself to a double standard when it comes to my relationship. There, admitting my ineptitude causes me shame on a bone deep level. Why? Because being bad with money and married to a man who is good with money makes me feel like a cliche. And as a good feminist, I should know better. I should be trying harder.
All the women who are INDEPENDENT
Like most people, my relationship with money is largely informed by how I was raised. The strongest influences for me came from the women in my family who believed that financial independence was an essential means of protection. My grandmother, in particular, had been raised by immigrant parents, lived through the Depression, then was left to raise three kids on her own when my grandfather abandoned them. Her lesson? Trust no one. Least of all your spouse.
So when I got married, I went into it with the idea the institution of marriage wasn’t necessarily flawed, but that shared sharing finances would be our undoing. Now, I’ll agree that there are some circumstances where keeping all or some of your finances separate makes sense (most of them involve coming into a marriage with pre-existing assets). But in my case, I got married at twenty-two and was barely employed at the time, so all I brought to my marriage was a boat load of student loan debt and a lot of emotional baggage around money. In the absence of any assets to protect, I gave myself the illusion of independence. I Frankensteined a system where I would contribute a portion of my paycheck to rent, leaving me responsible for anything “personal” like coffee, lunch, and clothes, but otherwise untethered by anything that didn’t fall into my personal realm.
In my head, I told myself I was an independent woman running her own show. But in practice? I was leaving my partner high and dry to manage our financial future all on his own. When our dog got sick, and we decided to move, and I insisted that we paint our apartment, I was actively involved in making decisions that impacted our finances, but I was willfully ignorant of how deep were driving ourselves into debt. And patting myself on the head for being a good feminist all the while.
I’d Rather Be a Bad Feminist
I wish I could say that my lightbulb moment happened when I realized how extravagant our debt had become. But it actually came from reading an article Meg wrote on APW about merging finances as a sort of mini-socialism. In it she wrote:
Being married is scary. It’s about creating great dependence and great emotional vulnerability. Anyone who tells you this isn’t terrifying shit has no idea what they are talking about. But it’s that release of our close-held ideas of self and protection that allow new things to grow and flower. New plans, plots, businesses, careers, travel, babies, no-babies, and all of it. It’s all made better by the truly scary shit of sharing your money and building a life together.
I suddenly realized that the people who had instilled in me the value of financial independence, did so from a place of fear and lack of trust. Yes, they are some of the most financially secure people I know, but they’ve been able to get that way, largely, by refusing to share that with anyone. And I was doing the same thing with my married finances. I was essentially tapping out and refusing to commit.
Make it Work
For those of you who have been following along, you know that YNAB played a huge rule in helping us unload a lot of our personal baggage around money. There are a lot of reasons for why it worked for us, but the primary reason is that it was the first tool we’d used that forced me to face our financial reality every day. It formalized our merged finances in a way that simply throwing all of our money into a single account never could. Each month, Michael and I sit down and agree to our budget, and we are both responsible for sticking to it. Michael inputs the numbers, but we’re equally invested and equally in charge.
But before we could ever make something like YNAB work for us, I had to get real about how I was approaching money. It started with me admitting (mostly to myself) that I am not good with it. And that being bad with money, or making less of it, does not make me a bad person, a bad feminist, or a bad wife. It meant acknowledging that just because Michael manages the finances doesn’t mean he’s in charge of the finances. It meant peeling away all of the cultural pressures, and personal pride, and just finding something that works.
I spent most of the early parts of my relationship expecting that merging finances would make my marriage weaker. That it would make me weaker. But I’ve been surprised to find what an empowering experience it has been. Today I discovered what it feels like to finish paying off $33,000 in debt (how’s that for kismet!). Knowing I’m mutually responsible for making that happen? Ain’t no shame in that.
This post was sponsored by You Need a Budget. YNAB is a powerful yet flexible tool for managing your finances, and has been paramount in our journey to pay down our debt (because that’s sort of exactly what it’s designed to do). With the YNAB method, there’s no ignoring what you’re spending. All of our regular and recurring expenses are budgeted in advance, so we’re able to see at a glance what kind of money we have for incidentals and make plans for a safety net. As a result, with YNAB we were able to pay off over $30K in debt in just two years. You can manage YNAB from your computer or check it on the go from your phone, where you can update your purchases in real time. Click here to learn more about YNAB and download a free thirty-day trial. Thanks YNAB for making the APW mission possible (and for helping us achieve a zero credit card balance for the first time since we got married).