This is a guest post from Kathleen O’Malley, who writes about finding joy in a simple, frugal life at Frugal Portland.

It happened fast. We barely talked about it, but all of a sudden, about a week after we got engaged — and before we were really ready — my fiancé and I had combined our finances.

I can pinpoint the impetus: Southwest Airlines was offering a promotion where if you got both the Plus and the Premier credit card and spent x dollars on one, y dollars on the other, you got a Companion Pass through the end of 2015. “We fly Southwest a lot anyway,” we reasoned. “And we’ll hit the minimums soon since this wedding we’re planning isn’t going to be cheap. We might as well get one of us a $5 ticket every time we fly somewhere together.”

So we applied for credit cards in both our names and started spending money on wedding-related things. The photographer wanted a deposit, but would she take payment in full seven months before the event? Of course she would! So too would the portable bathroom people and the half dozen other vendors required to turn a party into a wedding. Just like that, we’d hit those spending goals.

Combining checking accounts was easier than I expected. I prepared a full speech about how we should use my credit union instead of his “evil” bank, but my fiancé didn’t need a speech. He simply moved most of his money into my account, we put his name on it, and it was smooth sailing.

Until I went shopping with my sister a few weeks later.

I hadn’t purchased makeup in at least a year, and I was running low on supplies. We were at Sephora, and I had a few items in my little shopping basket. I calculated the cost: It was over $100. I started to panic. Blood rushed to my cheeks, my palms started sweating, and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. I couldn’t spend “his” money on makeup. That would be irresponsible!

See, up to this point, every time we swiped those cards, we were buying things together. Wedding stuff? Groceries? Dog food? Clearly distinguishable as combined spending. But this? This was something just for me.

Now, it wasn’t a frivolous purchase (or at least, not entirely), and it was absolutely something I would have bought without a second thought before we had joined financial forces. And the reason combining finances was smooth sailing from the beginning is because he knew my money philosophy inside and out, because he read Frugal Portland from start to finish, reading about my path into — and eventually out of — debt.

So I texted him. “I’m at Sephora with my sister. I want to buy makeup, but I’m feeling guilty.”

Immediately he texted back. “You don’t need my permission to buy makeup any more than I need your permission to buy a pizza tonight.”

I started to relax, then he wrote again. “We’ll run into issues like this and talk through them. We’re doing it together. I love you.”

I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and bought the makeup. My sister noted that I looked completely different after the text: more relaxed, more confident, happier. And I was.

That was a few months ago, and we’ve had our share of hiccups since then, but I’m glad we already have combined finances. I no longer see it as my money or his money. It’s our money. We have shared money goals — like saving half our income — and we’re on the same page. Saving half is something we do at the beginning of the month, and we keep the rest in our checking account. We still have the same credit cards, so there are no secrets.

It’s funny, actually. That one conversation — where I was so upset, worried, and nervous — was the only time either one of us asked for permission to spend. My sister and I were shopping online for her bridesmaid dress (would you believe it, the dog ate her original one?) and I asked if he had the credit card number memorized. He did, and rattled it back to me. “What did I just agree to?” he asked jokingly, after the transaction was complete.

The moral of this story is to pick a mate who shares your vision for financial goals. They don’t have to align 100 percent, but you ought to be able to talk openly about money with the person you’re spending the rest of your life with.

And try to save half your income.

This article is about Choices, Reader Stories, Relationships

There are 29 comments on this post.

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This article is by staff writer Lisa Aberle.

When I wrote an article about poverty, I wasn’t sure where Brandon and Leah, the two people I shared about, would be in the next few months. I needn’t have wondered. Turns out, nothing has changed. Despite receiving money from various people for rent, access to free babysitting, and bags of groceries, the last few months have been peppered with evictions, arrests, jail, and now prison. Unfortunately, I am not surprised, and you probably aren’t either.

It is really easy for me to identify their stupid financial (and life!) decisions and ignore the impact that their life history has had on their future. But people don’t have to have drug addicts for parents or live in poverty to struggle financially or to struggle to fulfill life’s potential.

Take another friend I was talking to the other day. Barely into his thirties, Adam has a lot of things going for him: He’s healthy, has no consumer debt, and a job with lots of autonomy and flexibility, even if it’s not the highest paying job around.

“I feel like a failure,” he said, eyes lowered to the ground. “I’ll never be anything more than a manual laborer.”

“What do you mean?” I said, probably with more bluntness than the situation called for. “You’re in your thirties. Statistically, you have decades of working life ahead of you. If you don’t like what you’re doing, do something else.”

Slowly, he said, “It’s not that easy; I don’t know what to do. I am not good at anything.”

Talking with him is frustrating. Instead of offering solutions, I should just be quiet and listen — because I really don’t get it. My lifetime will not be long enough to complete all my dreams and schemes. And why can’t he see that he has potential to be just about anything else he wants to be? Not that there is anything wrong with manual labor at all, but apparently he’s not satisfied. Argh.

I don’t know all the factors that make us who we are, but the GRS editor sent me a link to an article that just might help people. Little people. Specifically, help little people become big people who tell the truth about themselves and about their future.

While you should go read this article to get the whole story, I’ll share a little. The author’s son’s teacher believes that her impact extends beyond teaching her students about math. Because of this, she asks her students to request four fellow classmates they would like to sit with the following week. The students know their written requests may or may not be honored.

Nice, right? But so what? What the teacher does with this information is the beauty of the story.

The author, Glennon Doyle Melton, writes: “Chase’s teacher is looking for lonely children. She’s looking for children who are struggling to connect to other children. She’s identifying the little ones who are falling through the cracks of the class’s social life. She is discovering whose gifts are going unnoticed by their peers. And she’s pinning down — right away — who’s being bullied and who is doing the bullying.”

The teacher is looking for children who are disconnected. They connect disconnectedness to school violence in the article, but that’s not the only thing that — in my opinion — is related to disconnectedness.

When she finds children who are disconnected, they just need a little help.

“It is like mining for gold — the gold being those little ones who need a little help — who need adults to step in and TEACH them how to make friends, how to ask others to play, how to join a group, or how to share their gifts with others.”

It makes me wonder about Brandon, Leah, and Adam. How would their life trajectories be different if someone had really paid attention to them when they were children? What if someone had poured truth into their souls, so that these three could tell themselves the truth about their past, present, and future selves? Because the lies we tell ourselves have a lasting impact, not to mention a potentially crushing impact on our financial health.

What if someone had been able to get Brandon to believe that his father’s abandonment had nothing to do with him? What if someone had been able to get Leah to understand that she was priceless … and she could wait for a guy who valued her accordingly instead of settling for addicts and abusers? What if someone had taught Adam how to share his gifts with others and not be ashamed if those gifts weren’t prized by society?

Who can deny that these situations have created people who make terrible (or, in the case of Adam, suboptimal) financial decisions? And in the case of Leah, in particular, her decisions have a ripple effect far beyond her personally. Taxpayers are funding her current and former stays in state prisons. Let’s not forget her children in the foster care system or her use of the legal system.

My optimistic heart holds onto the hope that it’s not too late for these adults to turn their lives around — but it’s easier to develop good habits in kids, right?

Speaking of easier, it would have been easier to write about saving money on baby stuff. Because writing this article has left me a little uncomfortable. But if I want to improve life for someone, I might need to get uncomfortable.

I’m uncomfortable because doing what this teacher does requires a commitment, a lasting commitment. It’s more than throwing money at a problem, it’s taking the time to get to know a child. It’s taking the time to mentor that child. And it requires patience to keep helping the child back up after he or she has failed. Clearly this is a marathon, not a sprint.

What do you think about this teacher’s approach? Have you ever done anything like this?


This reader story comes from long-time reader and commenter Bill McFadin, aka Cybergeezer, who commented that he had submitted a story months ago that never ran. We asked if he would resubmit the article, which he kindly did — and then he submitted another one! Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income. Want to submit your own reader story? Here’s how.

I maintain that the best way for you to pay off your debts may be just a matter of your personality. My own experience with getting out of debt goes back about 25 years. I didn’t get a particularly early start; I’m 68 now and attacked my debt in my early 40s.

There was precious little being written on the subject back then.

There was no Suze Orman, no Dave Ramsey — at least, I didn’t know about them — and there was no GRS because there was barely an Internet, much less any personal finance blogs. It was just me and a mountain of credit card debt.

Unlike so many today, I was fortunate not to have student debt from college. In the 1960s when I went to college, I didn’t even know anyone who had taken out loans for school. Or if they did, they didn’t talk about it with their friends.

No, my debt at the time was all credit card, courtesy of two ex-wives and some over-zealous spending of my own. I looked at it like losing weight. I wanted to lose the weight of my debt. And that’s when and how I decided that success with losing debt is just like success (or failure) with reaching any other long-term goal, like losing weight.

Never needed to lose weight? You may have had some other goal in your past that will tell you what your “debt-paying personality” is. Maybe it was quitting smoking or some other long-term goal. Whatever, I encourage you to look back at how you did it.

Competing debt-paying personalities

I have nothing against people like Suze and Dave, except for their insistence that their way is the only one that will work and the only one you should consider.

Suze, and what seems (to me, at least) to be the majority of those writing and talking on the subject, will tell you the only way to success is to attack your highest-interest-rate debts first. It makes sense because those debts are the ones that cost you the most in useless interest. (And, frankly, if you don’t think interest on debt is useless, you’re probably a creditor and not a debtor.)

Dave calls his method the “debt snowball” and it involves paying off the lowest-balance debts first. His method also makes sense because you see each debt disappearing more quickly. And there’s no feeling like that of seeing an account that’s paid in full with a zero balance.

Of course, in either case, when you have the first bill paid off, you put that new extra money toward the next debt in the sequence and so on.

But think back to that earlier goal and how you attacked it.

Are you the kind of person who likes to see some immediate success as a spur to keep going? Did you lose two pounds the first week or go without a cigarette for a half-day, then a full day?

Or were you able to keep your eye on the eventual goal and keep on keeping on, regardless of the inevitable setbacks?

Let your personality support your goals

My theory, and what I applied to my own debt, is that your personality in attacking other problems or reaching other goals will determine your own personal and best method of eliminating debt.

That need to see immediate gains toward your goal is well-served by using Dave’s “debt snowball” idea. If that describes your way of getting to a goal, this may be your way to debt relief. Sure, the interest will continue to pile up, but you’ll also have that great feeling of seeing bills paid being off.

But if you’re the kind of person who can stick to the program regardless of how slowly it starts, you might be a candidate for paying off the highest interest first. You won’t see the quick results; but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you are making slow, steady progress toward the debt-free life. And, importantly with this method, you’ll be paying less overall in interest.

What worked for me?

I realized that, although I hadn’t been all that successful at the weight-loss effort, I did feel motivated by even tiny early successes. I knew that in other things in my life, I had stuck with it when I saw immediate results.

The point of all this psycho-rambling is simple: There is no one-style-fits-all approach to killing debt. What works best for you may not be what works best for your friend, neighbor or co-worker. And your own failure to kill the debt might just be linked to who you are and what your goal-reaching personality is.

But it doesn’t matter if the job gets done, right?

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. It can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a paid or professional writer and is just learning about money like you are. Unduly nasty comments on readers stories will be removed.


This article is by editor Linda Vergon.

About four years ago, Breezy and her husband opened a checking account at their local credit union so they could save for car-related payments – insurance, gas, repairs, and the like. They liked how it allowed them to separate these expenses from the rest of their spending. Soon, they established more funds.

Right now, she and her husband have four sinking funds and she is considering adding another. The way they currently have their accounts divided is:

  1. Celebrations (holidays, birthdays, weddings, etc) – checking account with credit union
  2. Car repairs (and eventual car replacement) – checking account with credit union
  3. Medical expenses – HSA account
  4. Home improvement – savings account at a bank.

But managing the different funds is becoming a bit of a nightmare. Sometimes she finds that too much has built up in the car repairs account and there’s not enough in the home improvements account, so she often borrows from one account to take care of an expense in the other. In addition, she has a new goal.

“However, now I feel the need for more sinking funds to save up for some larger expenses, such as a vacation or a new car, but I’d rather avoid having five different accounts. I was wondering how other readers might manage this situation. I would like to add a vacation account for a trip that we are planning to take in about two years. But, I’m not sure [about] what is the best way to save up for that expense.

“How can I determine a healthy balance for each area? Is it best to keep the balance in a savings account, checking account, cash, or other?”

When Andrea wrote asking how much to keep in an emergency fund, J.D. Roth’s advice was to “do what works for you. There is no one right answer. Examine your situation – your income and your needs – to decide how much you should save.” And in the comments, Dylan also had a good suggestion for how to determine a healthy balance:

“Here is an easy (maybe even fun) way to ‘crash test’ your finances. Make a copy of your Quicken, Money, Excel worksheet, or grab a blank check book register and simulate emergencies. Try injuries, illness, job loss, car gets stolen, day care evaporates, part of your house requires repairs, legal fees to mount a defense, whatever you can think of. You may need to do a little research, but this can help give you a sense of what your cash flow needs might actually be so you can plan accordingly.”

As for the best type of account to use, Breezy says they do not use an online bank currently, but they are open to the idea if that’s an easier way to manage multiple funds. Once she establishes the “healthy balance” for each fund, she could build funds in an online account and then transfer amounts over to a certificate of deposit (CD) periodically, staggering the terms so they mature at the right time. This suggestion is a little more complex; but for her trouble, she’ll probably earn a little better interest over the next two years.

How do you determine how much to save, and how do you manage multiple sinking funds? What type of account should she use to save up for her vacation?


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