We’re more than two years into our debt journey now. It hasn’t always been pretty. Last month, when Melanie @ Dear Debt wrote on Financial Fidelity it resurrected some feelings I had squashed down. Coincidentally, Hayley @ A Disease Called Debt wrote that same week “How to make a relationship work if you’re in debt” on her own personal marriage struggles with debt and I said “Oh, boy! I’ve got to do a post on this too … when I’m ready”.
The Early Days of a Relationship Debt Crisis
I don’t remember now what particular purchase I tried to make with my credit card that was declined. All I remember is the date in early March 2012. I remember how my stomach sank and that awful dread feeling washed over me. It was quickly followed by a fluttering of butterflies in my chest, as anxiousness and fear temporarily paralyzed me. It wasn’t the first time. It hadn’t happened for years though. I didn’t see it coming.
I thought we were doing better. I remember there being an issue in 2004 when I tried paying for a rental car overseas. Then again in 2005, I poked my nose in and didn’t like what I saw. I started trying to conserve money in a half-hearted attempt. I remember not wanting to drive anywhere, as if saving on gas was going to be the answer to all of our financial problems.
Shortly thereafter, my Mum passed away, which set off a few years of YOLO with depression. I never looked at the bank and credit card statements during this time.
We started planning a cruise with some friends and family. I figured we would have time to save. All of a sudden it’s 2009 but our cruise is postponed due to the financial situation of one of the couples. It didn’t even dawn on me to look at our own financial situation then. I just blindly trusted my partner that we had the money. There always seemed to be a few thousand in the bank whenever I went to take cash out of the ATM. I was none-the-wiser. I had been looking forward to the trip and felt I needed a break. We went on a short one week cruise on our own anyways. The following year we took the other cruise as planned.
Fast forward to 2012 and the declined credit card. I decided that this was enough and I was sick of being put in these positions. I asked to see the line of credit statement. Maxed out. $35K Why? Because of the trip, car repairs, Christmas presents, that thing we bought for the house. The list was endless. I guess my husband was moving money around from card to card while trying to make minimum payments. Wait there’s more. There’s a home equity LoC maxed out as well at $100K. I thought we paid that. No we didn’t because we were aggressively paying down the mortgage. Why would we bother try to pay down the mortgage when there was still this huge HELOC sitting there? “For psychological reasons, to have the mortgage gone”, I am told. “Stupid psychological reasons” I mutter under my breath. Wouldn’t Dave Ramsey be proud?
Then la pièce de résistance, $100K in low rate credit card balance transfers!! I.was.in.complete.shock.
The Emotions of a Relationship Debt Crisis
I wanted to flee. I wanted to run. I wanted to get in the car and drive and never come back. I could not fathom the extent of our debt nor could I see a way clear of it. Divorce was the only way out of my misery.
How could someone who supposedly cares for me so much, have done this to me? Was I not working hard enough to provide for the family? I wasn’t gambling, or rampantly spending to keep up with the Joneses. I was just doing what any ‘normal’ family does. I deserve a holiday when I work so hard all year! The platitudes just kept coming and coming.
I was so furious and beside myself with grief that I didn’t know what I was going to do. I literally said to him “I spit on you!”. The venom was real. How could I love a man whom I was so seething at, …. again?
He slept on the couch that night. And the next night. And the night after that. By the fourth night, I guess since I was still in the house, he decided to come into our bed. I asked him why he was sleeping on the couch. He said because he didn’t want to get spit on.
The Getting-On-With-It of a Relationship Debt Crisis
The financial aspects we dealt with together at the bank, adding onto our mortgage. I went to work figuring out our budget and cash flow. He started renegotiating phone plans, satellite TV, internet etc.
But that’s not the point of this post. It’s about how does a couple come back together and repair the lost trust, respect and the “cared for” feeling once a relationship experiences a debt crisis.
It’s not easy but it can be done.
It was so easy to blame him for everything. But that would not help our marriage. I had to dig deep and acknowledge the role that I played in our debt position. I also have to ensure he is accountable for his part in our debt journey.
- It Takes Two – I had left him to manage it, never checking, never discussing, just assuming. We both have to be involved. Whether one takes one role, and the other takes another, we still have to share the load and be sure we are reading from the same book, let alone be on the same page!
- Communicate, Communicate, Communicate – He was overwhelmed but did not discuss it with me. Other than the odd comment about a purchase, there were no other indications that he thought or knew we were spending beyond our means. We now discuss our purchases, our progress against goals, our concerns and worries.
- Record. Review, Revise – We never tracked our spending to know how much we should allow ourselves to spend in different areas and to ensure we were staying on plan. I track everything now and review progress with him when we discuss. Usually Saturday mornings in bed with coffee. Romantic ay?
- Plan Ahead – Although not a big spender, my husband is “penny wise and pound foolish”. He will drive around to get sales on groceries, spending more in gas. He will not buy something that we need because it’s more expensive than he thinks it should be (consequently resulting in a second trip later), but will buy something that don’t even need, just because it’s on sale. Since I am doing all the ‘bookkeeping’ of our finances, this is his responsibility to think ahead and plan accordingly using lists and consulting the flyers for sales items.
- Bring Home the Bacon – He was not bringing home enough income. His job paid him like crap. I said he needed to get a second job to increase his earnings. He opted to speak to his boss about getting more assigned work. This (except for lower season) has worked out for the most part. He has increased his income dramatically from before, even if it is still quite low (in my opinion), but it is also variable. He works very hard, too freakin’ hard as far as I can see for what they pay him and what he upgraded his skills for during the last 10 years.
- Leave the Past There – There’s no point in resurrecting past mistakes and failures. What’s done is done. We’re either in this together or we’re against each other. Okay, sometimes we laugh now, about how he didn’t want to sleep in the same bed in case I spit on him.
- Be Informed – I let him research options about equipment / technology / home maintenance to ensure we are doing the best thing with our money. For instance, we switched our home internet provider to Tek Savvy from Primus and our home phone from Primus to Ooma. We save about $42/mth on our monthly fees (although there was some initial equipment investment doing this of about $300). I do the research on tools and templates for managing our financial decisions. We each do what we are more suited for and that (now) suits me fine!
- Keep Each Other Honest But Keep it Fun – If we find we are slipping into bad habits we remind each other and make a joke about it (You don’t want me spitting on you do you?).
We can choose to be miserable about our debt crisis but we do not. We both played a part in it and it will take both of us working together and working hard to reach our goals. We have more than two years behind us and four more to go to be debt free. That is longer than what is recommended (normally a three year rule of thumb is a good guideline in order to not experience debt fatigue, which I can attest to).
The only other way to get there sooner is to sell our home. I’m partially in favour of that but my husband is not. We’ve agreed to review each year and see if we’ve changed our minds.
After that, my husband can retire (he’s seven years older than me) and I will keep working until we have some money saved for house renovations and maybe some more for retirement. It will depend a lot on how I feel, our health etc.
If you are facing a similar situation, you need to consider whether there is gambling, alcoholism, gaming or other addictive spending habits involved to know if repairing a relationship after a severe debt crisis is feasible or not. There is no easy answer and every situation is different.
Do not let fear keep you in an unhealthy relationship. If both parties act (not say, talk is cheap) like they are committed to resolving the financial situation, repaying the debt, rebuilding trust and nurturing the relationship, then it is worth giving it a sincere effort.
We’re not there yet, but we are a work in progress! Now instead of a spitting cobra when he looks at me he just sees this.
Enough said? Okay, but first I suggest you check out this inspiring post on this topic from Big Guy Money – Improve Your Marriage – I Dare Youvia flickr Michael RansburgLlama via flickr Valerie Oh, one last thing. I joined the Yakezie Challenge. For anyone who isn’t familiar with it, its about improving your blog over a six month period in order to be eligible to join this community of personal finance and lifestyle bloggers. There is a forum where you can work with other bloggers to get support while you are doing the challenge. One of the criteria for measurement is your Alexa rating of traffic to your blog. You also write a submission post at the end of the induction period. You can see the button showing I’m doing the Yakezie challenge in my right side bar. So on that note, I just want to say that I appreciate all who come and read what I have to say here, whether you comment or not, it’s all good and the more the merrier. The post above is one of the reasons why I blog. If you like any posts you see or know of someone else who would