Family Finance Transparency

March 8, 2009

Transparency is a hot topic among investors, whether talking about the financial well-being of public companies, investment funds, or executive compensation.  But have you thought about how transparency factors into your personal financial life?

Most of us have suffered significant financial setbacks, ranging from investment holdings to the equity in our homes.  There’s not much you can do about those losses at this point, but you can do something to reduce the stress that you and your spouse may be feeling.  I find that very few couples do a good job communicating about their personal finances, which results in one or both parties shouldering a greater burden or feeling more in the dark than they would like.  And this puts a lot of stress on a marriage.

About fifteen years ago, I made a big mistake.  On a business trip, I heard a story on CNN that suggested that Microsoft was on the brink of some big problems.  We had a small investment in Microsoft, and in an effort to protect that investment, I made the decision to sell it – without consulting my wife.  It turns out that the stock never suffered the way that news story had suggested it might, and in the late 1990s the stock made some big gains and my rash move was exposed.  After my wife asked me how much our Microsoft investment had appreciated, I had to admit that I had sold it, costing us thousands of dollars in the process.  I didn’t look so smart, and more important, she felt betrayed.

We made an agreement that we would not make significant financial decisions without consulting each other. We created a family “finance committee” and since that time, every time I want to buy or sell something, we sit down together and I make an argument in the context of our current financial condition.  She always asks tough questions (despite the fact that she was not very sophisticated on financial matters when we started) and she generally accepts my recommendations, but the critical things is that we are partners in our shared financial life.

marital-decisions

Many of us (generally the husbands) operate under the false impression that shielding our wives from the details of our family finances will reduce stress.  That’s not the case.  My wife and I have been well-served by sharing knowledge and responsibility for our financial life and I urge you to do the same.  Here’s what you can do:

  • Sit down and review your financial situation:  Cash in the bank, investments, equity in your home, as well as liabilities like mortgages, credit card debt, and any other liabilities you may have.
  • Review your budget together.  It is much more effective than criticizing spending or issuing edicts on regular expenditures.
  • Obtain agreement on any significant financial move before you make it.

Being partners has a couple important benefits for our marriage.  First, we make better decisions when we collaborate.  Second, we share responsibility for the outcomes – good and bad – which means that she is never in the dark about where we stand.  And this eliminates a lot of the tension that inevitably results when one party knows a lot less than the other. It will not recover the value you have lost over the last 6-12 months, but it will make your marriage stronger.


Is My Marriage Solid?

January 3, 2009

I just came back from having a few drinks with a close friend.  We didn’t know each other five years ago – we met when our oldest children were in kindergarten together – and have managed to build a strong friendship since then.  It always amazes me how difficult it is to form close friendships after college.  There is something magical about the intense, shared experience of college coupled with the fact that that is the time when we are finally coming into our own as people (I hesitate to use the term “adults” since I didn’t display a whole lot of adult behavior between the ages of 18 and 22).

Anyway, we were talking about our families and our relationships with our wives and we stumbled upon this startling conclusion:  Every man we know is grappling, struggling with the same fundamental question in his personal life:  Is my marriage solid?  There are two facts of life conspiring to make the lives of American men aged 30-50 more challenging right now.  Forgive me the gross over-simplification, but I think it’s necessary to make my point.

First, as we age, most of us slow down; we have a decreasing amount of energy at our command.  There may well be exceptions, but I haven’t met them.

Second, as we move from newly-weds to empty-nesters, the demands on that diminishing energy pool change dramatically.

slide21Early in marriage, our robust energy is focused on the marriage and budding careers.  As we move into our late thirties and forties, careers get more time-consuming and kids hit the stage.  Not a lot of time to focus on our wives or even ourselves.  This is the stage when most of us fall out of shape and out of love.  Love in the romantic sense; our marital relationships are more important than ever, but for many of us our passion for our kids is more evident than our passion for our wives.  As the kids mature and gain independence – and here I’m conjecturing since I am not there yet – the kids consume less energy which means we can begin to focus on our wives again.

I saw my own parents go through this evolution.  There was a time when 110% of their time was consumed by kids and work, but now that they are semi-retired grandparents, their marriage seems to have regained a richness and levity that didn’t exist when I was living at home.

Why am I bothering to write this?  Because I think this is a universal issue associated with all young families.  It is easy to give up hope, to forget why you married your wife in the first place; to figure that your marriage will go downhill as time passes.  But that’s doesn’t have to be the case.  In fact, there are things you can do today to rekindle your optimism and commitment to your marriage.

  • Don’t give up the faith.  Recognize that the doldrums you may perceive have more to do with your stage of life than your connection with your wife.  At some point you and your wife will both have more time to devote to your relationship.  I can’t say when, but I know that kids become more independent over time which restores energy to your marital relationship.
  • Re-prioritize your relationship.  If you can see a light at the end of the tunnel – a rich, bright light – it is easier to commit more attention to it.  Dare to believe that you will turn a corner at some point, and you will find yourself putting more thought into maintaining a good marriage.
  • Look for the easy wins.  Most of us overlook chances to score huge points by doing the little things.  Take out the garbage without being asked, buy some flowers on the way home from work on a Friday, surprise her with a babysitter and a night out… These things don’t take a lot of time or energy, but they help our wives see that we are committed to our relationships.  And that, in turn, will inspire them to respond.

I’m no marriage counselor, but I’ve talked to enough friends to believe what I’m telling you.  I think women discuss the state of their marital relationships with their friends all the time; men never do.  And because we don’t, we have no support system to bolster us when we tire.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we men dared to talk about the universal challenges we face as fathers and husbands?  We’d all feel a lot better.


Emasculation Rewarded

December 20, 2008

img_0390Guess what.  If you can set aside your pride, emasculation ain’t so bad.  I posted yesterday about the embarrassment suffered when my wife went public as the family snow blower, and am happy to announce my full recovery today.

img_0395As predicted, the storm started yesterday afternoon and we woke to 12 inches of snow.  Worried that my wife might call my bluff by offering to let me clear the walks and driveway, the kids and I left before she got up and walked into town for breakfast.  It was one of those idyllic, snowy mornings with clean white snow and few cars on the road.  I towed the younger kids on a long sled, and the older kids (including a couple friends who had spent the night) had a running snowball fight.  Do you recall a time when you didn’t mind taking a snowball in the face or getting an arm full dumped down your back?  My kids are there.  We rolled into our local breakfast spot, ordered up hot chocolate, coffee, waffles, pancakes, sausage, the whole shebang.  It couldn’t have been nicer.

img_0407Meanwhile, it was still snowing and my wife was sure to be rising soon.  I texted her from the comfort of the restaurant – “driveway clear yet?” – but got no response.  Where could she possibly have been?  Were the shear pins behaving?  Not my worry.  We finished our breakfast and moseyed home.  As we turned the corner into the driveway, the steps were clean, the walks clear, and Johanna was about 90% finished with the driveway.  I made no pretenses about my masculinity.  I whipped out my camera long enough to take a shot of Johanna in action (somewhat annoyed at her carelessness in letting the snow blow on my camera) and cruised inside to start a fire and get a fresh cup of coffee.

She asked for the job, right?  Far be it from me to suggest that a woman shouldn’t operate heavy machinery.


Emasculation

December 19, 2008

darntoughanvilAs dads, we all understand the roles we are expected to play in our families. My wife and I have a twenty first century marriage, meaning we take a more balanced approach to parenting.  We both cook, bathe the kids, discipline… Ward Cleaver would be appalled; June Cleaver would feel disenfranchised.  I should have known I would get in trouble letting my wife play lead on snow blowing. For some inexplicable reason, she loves to do it, but today it went too far.  With a big snow storm heading our way tomorrow, I took my blows today.

Apparently, Johanna ran into Charles Rutstein at Ace Hardware this afternoon. Charles is a man’s man.  He takes golfing trips with his buddies, let’s his wife manage their social calendar, and has a professional grade wood shop in his basement.  I’m not talking about a simple table saw.  He has a table saw, a chop saw, a router table, a planer, and a lathe, all tied into the same saw dust collecting vacuum system.  It’s awesome.

Johanna was shopping for shear pins – yes, shear pins, those little clips in the augur that have a penchant for failing when the snow is heaviest. So in addition to exposing Charles to the fact that she works the heavy machinery in my house, the two of them evaluated rock salt options together. Which is better… the 100 pound bag or 40 pound buckets? She opted to take home two 40 pounders after concluding the 100 pound bag would be too hard to lug around. Did she think I couldn’t handle that? What am I, a girly man?

Suffice it to say that it hurt. I’ve been completely emasculated.  Next thing you know I’ll be pushed into darning the kids socks.

I hope all of you in New England enjoy the snow tomorrow. I’ll be inside baking cookies while the rest of you are shoveling.