Budgeting is a Love Thang

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According to Dave Ramsey, money arguments are the number-one cause of marital strife.

Now, I’m not sure where he got that factoid. And I don’t actually know whether it’s true, because marriages—as all relationships—are more complex and nuanced than a single cause. Regardless, it is surely true that money arguments are a leading factor in failing marriages.

In early 2009, after a series of bad software development jobs, I sunk into a deep depression. At the time, I attributed my mood to the bankruptcy of the software industry— And I still believe the industry in general is broken in several key areas, and needs to be fixed. But I later discovered, my problem was mostly connected to my own reactions, my own thoughts, going through my own mind, what Perry Marshall calls “inner head trash.”

I felt completely useless, uninterested in work, unable to earn money, unable to stomach an industry I now hated. I watched Friends straight through, and did nothing else, didn’t write, didn’t do software, didn’t look for work, didn’t even interact with my friends and family. Why Friends? I have no idea, but that’s approximately 87 hours of programming. But that really did make me unable to earn money, and if I felt depressed before, now I felt really good.

On top of that, we were having trouble making ends meet, and every time a bill came in, or a late notice, or an overdraft service charge… I kinda freaked out. My Beloved assured me, she had been in similar situations before, and she knew how to take care of it, and I should just ignore these things. And given my mental state, I was more than happy to let her just take care of it.

Depression is an excessively selfish syndrome, as you can see. I was not thinking about my kids. I was not thinking about my family. I was definitely not thinking about my future. I was not thinking about whether we could pay the rent or buy groceries. I was not thinking about how organized our finances were—they weren’t—or whether my Beloved and I were on the same page—we weren’t. All I thought about was how I could get out of dealing with these issues, because they upset me.

This story also shows the black-and-white nature of depressive thinking. Everything is either wonderful, or it’s unbearable, forever and ever, amen. And there is no in-between. I was not thinking that if we needed extra money, I could find a short-term job and save up for what I really wanted to to do. Or that we could scale back our standard of living (which we ended up doing anyhow, because—Hello!—we didn’t have any money). I was not thinking about options, because I was overwhelmed with upset, and so I was not thinking at all.

At one point, I had gone over a week without even looking at my email, and I didn’t care. But I acutely realized something was wrong. And I didn’t know how to deal with that inner head trash, but I knew I had to.

Then I discovered Ivan Tyrrell and Joe Griffin’s book, How to lift depression … Fast. Their ideas not only sent me along a different life-path, they also launched my writing toward a whole new level.

Since then, I’ve earned a chunk of change doing software projects, and I actually enjoyed a bunch of it. The enjoyment came from promising myself never again to invest myself emotionally in the software-development industry. In an unfinished post, dated August 11, 2010, I wrote:

Client Z is pleased with my work, so pleased that they already want to extend my contract. Ironic, since I’ve been very careful not to invest myself too much in the work. I do this as a defense mechanism, because caring too much about the software I developed previously had left me in a deep depression. So now, whenever I encounter something Dibertesque, I tell myself, “I don’t care,” and I chant to myself how much I earn in a minute.

I very much miss writing, because I allow myself to care about what I write.

I did other software work, too, and in general retained a little funding in my business account. I’ve been paying myself sporadically, helping out when the family needed extra cash.

In the meantime, my Beloved also received a small inheritance, set up a college fund for the kids, and put a little away in another account of her own.

Happy ending, right? Maybe, but…

Our money situation had become this strange triplet of disjointed moneys. I had my business funds, which I was burning through slowly; my Beloved had her personal savings; and we had our family accounts, which I still hated to look at. Meanwhile, we were still living paycheck to paycheck, and only on her paycheck— which was untrue, but made me feel like crap every time the topic came up. Nothing makes a man happier than to think that he’s useless, lazy, and isn’t doing his part to support his family, even if he tells that story to himself.

And under the surface, our marriage was feeling the strain.

The incident that made me flip out occurred after our rent increased. I don’t believe the increase itself was out of line. It amounted to about 5%, and is the first time our rent has gone up since we moved here mumble-mumble years ago. Adjusted for inflation, our rent has been steadily going down—real estate bubble notwithstanding—and was way overdue for a bump up. But my Beloved and I disagreed over what to do with the rent increase. She thought we couldn’t afford the extra rent. I thought we could probably scrape together the extra cash for a year, after which we had planned to move anyhow… especially since I had some funding set aside, and I also was expecting payment, a pretty large bag of coin, from a client.

But my Beloved and I had no agreed-upon budget. And we did not sit down and discuss the issue. Instead, our landlord was informed that with the rent increase, we would be moving out, and that wasn’t my idea. Additionally, we had no place to move to, but she assured me that we would be able to find a place that could take us, in the area, for less than we would pay here. I didn’t believe it. I hit the roof.

I remember the day I paid off the first of our two credit card accounts. I had discovered Dave Ramsey— Don’t remember from where. But I had long been aware of how much money we’d been wasting in credit-card interest, and so I found agreement with his fiscal philosophy. Paid off the smaller credit card, took a chunk out of the other. When I submitted that payment to completely eradicate that debt, I felt so good, I was flying on a burst of adrenaline.

Several months later, one of the men from our synagogue arranged to host Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University. His family’s finances had been transformed for the better by Dave Ramsey’s system, and he had become a true believer.

Margaret asked me attend FPU along with her. Ironically, I thought we had our finances in hand—Ha!—but she was so excited, I agreed. (Happy!) Then we discovered that she could not attend, because of a scheduling conflict. (Sad.) But she was so excited about it, we ordered the FPU kit anyhow, which we can use at no additional cost to take the course in the future. (Happy!)

Because Margaret was the driving force behind this financial project, I experienced feelings of hopefulness, which is the antidote to depression. And I tore through the FPU package, consumed all the media in, like, three days, while my Beloved was still on the first session. Now I’m going through it again, along with her.

See, an important part of Dave Ramsey’s system is that married couples need to combine their moneys and to do the family budget together, because it’s a family obligation.

It’s been about two weeks since we put together our new budget, the first budget we’ve done together in years. I appraised my business funds and inventory, and entered the number there on the balance sheet next to our checking account, savings, and credit cards and school loans. And there’s a line for my contribution to the family finances under “income.” And I finally faced the fact that we were behind on the rent and electric bills, and took a big equity withdrawal to get us caught up. That hurt, because I was hoping to burn through those funds more slowly.

But the results were immediate. During that first week, I looked at my Beloved and felt a sweetness and bond for her that had been missing in our marriage. Because we had filled a hollow space in our relationship, which had been craving fulfillment.

And that first week, we even came out ahead—actually spent less than we had planned to—and it’s the first time we’ve come out ahead in years.

But more importantly, we had rediscovered a part of “true love,” as I had defined it in Love through the Eyes of an Idiot, sound advice that we had unknowingly been allowing to go unheeded:

True love is not a feeling. It’s about doing love-things, even when you don’t feel like it, even when life drives you to the edge of insanity, even if you think you’ve lost love.

We had found a piece of true love, because budgeting is a love-thing.

Our budget is still incomplete. “We’ve only just begun,” to quote an old Carpenters song. The budget still has big holes in it, and I even know where the holes are. But at least now we have in place a process and communication channel, through which we can fill those holes together.