Hey kids! It's another MotherTalk blog tour!*
When John and I first met, neither of us were terrific with money. A previous relationship left him unable to have a checking account--she bounced a bunch of checks on their joint account and left him with the clean-up. And I had recently come to grips with a spending problem that sent me to a 12-step program. It was an interesting seven years waiting for his checking privileges to return. We paid cash and money order for everything. His troubles kept us from using checks and mine kept us from using credit!
Cut to the present. While we're not rich, we're in much, much better shape than we were 15 years ago. For instance, we have a checking account. ;) Just this evening, in fact, as we contemplated our current money troubles--unemployment--we were both satisfied that despite all the setbacks we've experienced in our time together, we've gotten stronger financially. We don't have much, but what little we have we've managed well.
In a way we were lucky. When we met we had both just faced financial troubles and so had our "money cards" on the table. We learned to talk about money right from the start.
Most couples don't. And that's who "The Big Payoff" is for.
The most important chapter in the book is the the very first one, dealing with budgets. (I was taught in that 12-step program to think of a budget as a spending plan instead; if you have a negative connotation for the word "budget," try substituting that phrase for "budget.") If you can't start working within a budget, and if you can't bring yourself to talk about money, the rest of the book won't help you and in fact your marriage is very probably headed for trouble.
"A budget helps facilitate communication," says author Sharon Epperson, and John and I agree. Our first steps towards making a budget were actually rather silly. We'd sit on the front steps drinking coffee and talk about what we'd do if we won the lottery. Since we never bought tickets, it was moot! But it did teach us what we each thought was important, and what our dreams were.
Epperson's approach is more common-sense. She suggests talking about money before arguments break out about who's spending frivolously, perhaps in a monthly meeting. (At our house, we have "spread sheet time" about every two weeks, when we sit down and figure out what's coming in, what's going out, what's left over and what to do with it.) Learning the difference between your needs versus your wants, she says, is critical. This is where money leaks away from people, and that certainly was our experience.
Once you get past the budget, Epperson goes through retirement savings, college savings, real estate, health and disability insurance, life insurance and estate planning. Her advice on college savings is particularly good, broken down by income level with strategies for maximizing the amount of money you can put aside for higher ed.
There is nothing here, though, that will lead to either instant riches or instant happiness. It takes thought, planning and discipline to work through your finances, and it takes trust and openness in your marriage. Epperson doesn't offer an easy way out, but she does offer a thorough and entertaining guide through the forest.
For John and me, right now, there isn't much we could take away from it, though. We, like so many other families, are just barely scraping by, and it's not because we're drinking $10 in lattes a day or putting Disney World vacations on the Visa. We've worked hard to clear our debt and stay debt-free (one of Epperson's commandments--stay out of debt), and that's about as far as we've gotten. The in-depth advice, while not aimed at the rich, is for families with more income than we have.
If you and your spouse have a hard time talking about money, or if you've just never really thought about it that much, this is the book for you. If you are easily bored when the subject of finance arises, or if your partner is, this is the book for you. And if you've got a wedding present to buy for a young couple, you could do much worse by them than this book.
*What that means is, I got a free copy of the book and a $20 Amazon gift certificate for reviewing it, in full disclosure.