What Matters in Matters of Love and Finance

“You need to keep your skills fresh,” said a commenter in a recent post about the finances of parenting, referring to the concept of a mother staying at home with the kids. “In case of death or divorce.

I didn't argue, but I shook my head and rolled my eyes. (I do this to avoid leaving snappy replies to people's comments. Work with me.) I've long felt that combining one's finances with a potential, or existing, partner should be approached with the same attitude as the partnership. What point is there in marrying (or otherwise vowing your eternal love) if you don't think it has much chance of lasting?

Naturally, death is a part of life and should be considered as a possibility. But considering divorce when deciding whether a mother should stay home with her young babies, or which partner's career should be primary, seems counterproductive. My motto is, if you're so concerned about divorce that you don't think you'll make it through babyhood, perhaps you shouldn't be having babies.

This is not to say that certain classes of people should submit entirely to their partners, letting them make decisions and more money and all the financial House Rules. What I'd propose instead is a more sensible, trusting and ultimately relationship-friendly approach to the financial decisions of partners. I'd propose being ruled more by hope than fear. (Is that a campaign slogan, or what?) Here's what I mean.

What to fear

Death. It's only sensible to fear that your partner might die. If you're a woman with a male partner, and you are about the same age, it's statistically probable you will outlive him.

Unemployment. No matter how educated, successful, good looking or tall both you and your partner are (yep: tall people are more employable!), that one or both of you might lose your otherwise secure job is always a possibility, unless, of course, you're the boss or have tenure. Even then, awful things have been known to happen.

Ill-health. There's a reason all these things are listed in most marriage vows. One or both of you could contract a chronic or otherwise expensive illness that costs a lot, or changes employability, or even causes a change in personality.

The family unit gets an addition. Kids are sometimes unexpected (even for those awesome at planning; a good friend who planned carefully with his wife to have only one child ended up with twins! Surprise!). Older parents take ill or lose money, partners or mental faculties and move in. Brothers-in-law ask to live in your basement. You can say “no” in all of these cases, but most people's conscience, or gut, or soul, or whatever you want to call it, takes over and insists.

The heart wants what the heart wants. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that you're an investment banker. (What, who, me??) Let's say you marry your sweetheart, telling him you want nothing more than to become a CEO by the time you're 35. You are totally on track and then you take a different job and suddenly you're writing essays and telling said sweetheart you think maybe you're going to be a writer. Of books, the literary kind, the ones for which you can toil for years for a few thousand dollars. People, these artists are a real threat, they're among us. It could be your neighbor, your brother, your wife… (OK, yes, it IS me.)

How to manage your risk

I took a class in business school called “Insurance and Risk Management.” It sounds boring, but I loved thinking about everything in quantity of risk and the management of that risk. Life is inherently risky; the best we can do is manage that risk. We have a set of legitimate risks that will occur with any relationship, even the best and more flexible and most conventional ones. We can manage some of these risks.

Life insurance. If you are partnered with another adult and you have any financial dependence on that person, whether you are staying at home with the kids or the tropical fish, whether you are just making a little less than your spouse and you have some shared debts; if losing your partner would leave you unable to pay basic bills, you should have life insurance on that spouse. Many mothers choose to get life insurance when they first become pregnant and are considering the twin risks of new expenses and possible reduced income. (Remember, the risks of ill health are increased when you become pregnant; more friends than I can count spent months in and out of a hospital due to pregnancy complications or premature birth.) Military spouses are provided with extra opportunities to buy life insurance when their partner deploys. Life insurance — and here I'm referring specifically to term life insurance — is one of the best ways to manage risk.

Health insurance. I can't stress enough the importance of getting and keeping health insurance when you're young. While, indeed, most workplaces offer health insurance, the price of COBRA is terrible. Learn about all the health insurance options and always have one in place. Until the day our country decides that health care is a basic right, we'll be stuck battling for our financial health whenever illness strikes us.

Have a career plan B, C and D. I have to admit to feeling a bit smug; I've worked so many different sorts of jobs that I know I can always find work if the proverbial poop hits the fan, and my husband is in the same boat. I think you have to not just have a plan, but be willing to act on it, and even have a general concept of how you'd live if (say) you had to find a job as a waitress at the local pub. There are a lot of ways to keep your skills fresh if you've decided to stay home with children, older parents, or hyperactive puppies. Here are a few I've used or seen friends use (and for most of my friends, the stigma of mothers staying at home seems to be waning):

  • Freelance work/consulting. The last time I was at the buying club where I pick up my groceries, I saw two different mother friends finishing projects while their small children napped in their laps. Harmony was finishing some graphic design; she's both making money and keeping her portfolio alive while her kids are small. I periodically pick up project management and “serious” financial writing jobs. I have attorney friends who did occasional small work for their old firm or friends with new businesses to hone their skills.
  • Volunteer work. It's old advice, but there's no reason anyone can't keep skills fresh through volunteer work, from fundraising to grant writing to bookkeeping to sewing costumes. I even volunteered to help with catering service for a gardening nonprofit — they have a series of dinners in gardens to raise funds — and it made me remember how much I love working a catering job. We'll call that career plan D. You never know. And sometimes, as I've learned, a volunteer gig turns into an actual new career.
  • Start a business. It doesn't have to be an enormous business. (And remember not to over-invest if it's a career plan B or C or even further down the list.) When my sister lost her job as a private school teacher — I suspect she was let go for being a mother — she began an at-home day care. She started small, just a license, a class, and some reorganized spaces, and now she supports the whole family that way.
  • Keep your licenses fresh! If you're in, or have been in, a field which requires special licenses or continuing education, just do it. Pay your bar fees. Take the food handler's card exam every few years. If you have to go back to it, you won't have to find a way to budget the money to renew your certification. And you can also pinch hit for friends or do the aforementioned volunteer work while you're on break, or caught up in another career.

Recognize areas where you can and cannot sacrifice. When my heart wanted what it wanted — to stay home with the kids and write great and small works of non-fiction — we had to make some changes to our lifestyle. Fortunately for me, I'd already chosen to give up our car, an expense I couldn't have maintained with a writer's pay. I had to give up other things, like lots of eating out and traveling, for the time being. No more pricey ballet classes for my oldest. No more yoga. You may have to rent out a room, or cancel your gym membership, or just say “no” to cable. If you can have a basic discussion with your partner about things that you could live without, in the eventuality of a vow-testing life event, you'll be better prepared.

Be honest about your prejudices and standards and expectations. I think it was really hard for my husband when we switched roles, and he was the primary breadwinner. He'd been conned (I say that with a wink) into this marriage with the idea that I'd make an upper-middle-class salary and he'd support me in all he could. It was even harder for my ex-boyfriend when I got into a more prestigious business school than he had; he was used to his role as the better-credentialed partner. Our relationship began failing more drastically after that blow, although there were a lot of other factors. I've known several relationships to end after the babies were born and spouse #1 became more focused on the children, while spouse #2 showed that he or she wasn't really in the frame of mind to put other beings' needs before his or her own.

Never plan for divorce

If I could give some final advice, I would say, “Never plan for divorce.” Just like I would never write a business plan in which I included the possibilities for liquidating the assets or going through bankruptcy. It's self-defeating; having one leg always halfway out the door can make it far too easy to fall out when you go over a bump. If you've planned for the other legitimate risks of partnering, in the event of divorce, you'll be fine; and (if I can pull on my unlicensed relationship counselor hat for a bit) you'll probably avoid many of the divorce-engendering arguments. Remember how much we fight about money as spouses; and what we're really fighting about is security. Planning for the most likely risks of a relationship will increase your feelings of security and, I hope, reduce fear and its attendant vicious marital spats.

More about...Career, Planning

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