When Don and I were married, we got to go through pre-marital counseling with Reverend Wendell at our family church. I was 19, Don was 21. We were living across the state and returned home for several weekends prior to the wedding for preparation and planning. We would drive overnight. When we made it home at dawn, my mother would hand us a schedule of where we had to be for wedding planning. Off we’d go!
To be honest, we were not at our best and brightest during those counseling sessions. Don has a specific talent – the ability to sleep with his eyes open – so I’m not even sure how much of what the Rev talked about was absorbed. Perhaps all the great advice went deep into his subconscious due to the suggestive nature of his dream-state. He’s always been fabulous at the husband talents!
Anyway, this was back in 1981. I was in college and Don and I both had expectations of moving forward with a two-career partnership. Reverend Wendell, to his credit, was able to see past the teen-age and barely past teen-age kids sitting in front of him and spoke to us as adults, specific to the adult-sized commitment and responsibilities that were we embarking upon.
There is one thing that I remember; one thing that stuck hard. The Rev gave us great financial advice that was not too high level and not too detailed. While he was quite aware that we were at a stage of our financial life where our only assets were $100 in the bank, a 1972 faded-red Ford Maverick, and debts of several thousands in student loans, he spoke to us of our future life. He told us about the kinds of decisions we would be making down the road and gave us a valuable guideline that we have repeatedly returned to.
The Rev said, “Don and Renee, I know that both of you are planning on working and I recommend that you try to live on one income and use the other for savings, vacations and extras. It doesn’t matter which one; you will have less stress in your marriage if you can work toward that goal. Money can’t buy happiness nor can it ensure a successful marriage; but one of the leading causes of discord between partners is financial strife.”
Please be aware that I’m paraphrasing. It was 35 years ago and I was pretty tired from the seven hour overnight drive. I just seem to remember that he would be the kind of guy that would use the the phrase “financial strife.”
This is not the same as, “Have one of you work and one stay home.” That decision is a different discussion and totally up to the partners – does it make sense for your family? The Rev’s advice is all about avoiding the trap of using all of the available dollars in your household to service the mortgage and other debts and expenses.
Sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you are using both incomes and still playing the “what day should I pay this bill” game. It took us a long time before we were able to reach the point that I could quite confidently say that all of our necessary expenses would be comfortably paid for with one income. After our wedding we went further into student loan debt and all of the other life-stage debt and expenses that normal people experience – babies, cars, mortgage and lifestyle choices.
Walking the Talk
The advice from Reverend Wendell stuck with us, though, through all of our years. Every time we were faced with a major buying decision, such as a car loan or how big of a mortgage, I would do some math either in my head or cipher it out on paper. Could we do this on one income if need be?
I have to admit, sometimes what I considered necessary versus extra was pushing the envelope a bit. Yes, necessary included paying on loans and mortgage but early on I would totally downplay how much we would need for groceries, gas, clothes and lunch. But still. Each time, every time, we thought about that advice and it made a difference in what kind of house we bought, what kind of cars we bought and how much we designated to savings of one form or another.
This advice was also different from the tons of articles out there about how to make it down to one income for those that are living on two. I think it resonated with me so clearly because it was about a pro-active means of making decisions rather than coming to the point of, “We are in a crisis and now we have to figure out what we are going to do.” Of course, people are successful with that approach all of the time. It’s life. You live through the downs as well as the ups. I think it’s because I’m all project-manage-y and it feels like a great risk identification and response strategy.
What about you?
What do you consider necessary? This is a very personal choice based on your own circumstances. There are many ambiguous issues like child care. Would you include child care in the necessary bucket? Or would you assume that the non-working partner would be taking that on? What about gas? Do you really think you would use less if you both aren’t driving to an office everyday? Right now gas is pretty cheap but it has been and will again be, much more expensive than it is now. What about retirement savings? If you aren’t at least contributing to your employer match, you are walking away from free money.
We have also been incredibly lucky to have been in professions and jobs in which we were consistently employed. Not every family has that experience and I know that it’s not just about our actions; sometimes we were just in the right place at the right time. I believe Reverend Wendell’s advice for partners is especially relevant in today’s employment landscape. Employment is much more likely to be something that comes along and maybe goes away throughout your career, not necessarily as consistently as we would like and often on the employer’s timetable rather than our own.
If you are in a two-income household, figure out what your necessary expenses are and identify if you can pay those bills on one of your incomes. For example, include mortgage and food but not necessarily the entire satellite TV football package (unless that is a necessary expense in your family). Here’s a starter but you need to make it your own. Notice I don’t have a Monthly Amount column for extras. You are focusing on your necessary items list today. If you want to, you can fill out those extras as well and you will end up with a pretty good monthly budget.
Important! If you haven’t established an emergency fund, put a monthly contribution in the necessary column.
What is great financial advice that you have gotten? Who gave you that great advice?
Please also share the best advice you ever received in pre-marital counseling. We can all use a little extra advice!