DH = Dear Husband
Waking up: Rocky’s way vs. mine
I always know when our dog Rocky has woken up. Thump, thump, thump. It’s the sound of a happy tail in the confines of his cozy crate. I’m usually the first to see him, and I get the full benefit of his adoring gaze as he wags his enthusiasm for what is to follow. Am I going to go outside? Am I going to get breakfast? Oh, this is just too good to be true! His day is entirely predictable, but he wakes up and embraces it.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t wake up like that. I drift pleasantly enough through semi-consciousness, but once I hit that fully wakened state, there’s an immediate back-pedal reaction. Nooooooo! Not yet. A few minutes more… Sometimes, I trick myself back into that fog between sleep and wakefulness, and on rare occasions I manage to sink right back into sleep. But inevitably, I have to resign myself to consciousness.
Waking up to my financial state
When it came to waking up to my finances, I was much, much more stubborn. I remember significant wake-up calls in every decade I have lived. Life lessons with the clear moral to be wise with my money. But for some reason, I ignored each one and remained in denial. I kept hitting the snooze button.
First decade wake-up call
I remember one day after supper when I was very young – about six years old – I walked with my dad to a convenience store with 5 cents in my hand. I don’t know what he had to buy, but I was getting one of those thick black licorice pipes with red sprinkles on it. The youngest of five children, I could hardly believe my luck in having Dad all to myself, and I soaked in the cool of the evening, the sounds of traffic, the colourful variety of candies at the store, and the darkening sky as we walked home again, a licorice pipe in my mouth. And 5 cents in my hand. Still.
I had forgotten to pay the man! What would I do? If I told Dad, it would break the spell of this rare outing. I didn’t want to interrupt it with confessions of my mistake. We were walking across a field when the unpleasant realization hit me, and in that field, I dropped that coin – along with all unpleasantness it represented. It must have been months later when I told my parents about the incident. The story would be good for a laugh, right? No. My mom and I went back to that store and I paid the man for that long-since-digested licorice pipe. There was no anger in my parents’ response, but there was surprising alarm and swift action.
Moral: Be aware of what you’re doing with your money. Be honest, and don’t pretend things are different from the way they are.
Second decade wake-up call
Clearly, the lesson didn’t stick. As a teenager, I received a clothing allowance. I got $60 per month, and with that money, I was to budget for the expenses of things like movies, fast-food, concerts, gifts for friends and family, and of course, clothing. I babysat a lot in those days too, so in a typical month I would have more than $60 to budget. Only I didn’t budget. And I always ran out of money before the month was over. No problem, I would think. In another week and a half, I’ll have another $60.
But then something amazing would come up, and I’d need to spend money on it. NOW. “Can I have an advance on my allowance?” I’d ask my parents. My mom might sigh, or my dad’s mouth might tighten, and likely I’d hear a little lecture about how I needed to wait until the start of the new month and to stop spending every cent I had. And while I’d always get that advance (take note, parents: don’t enable your kids’ bad spending habits), it was always an ordeal of embarrassment and tension.
Moral: Budget your money so that you don’t end up with the irritations of being broke.
Third decade wake-up call
In my late twenties, before I met DH, I was a full-fledged disaster with money. I was working as a teacher and earning a decent income, but I always spent beyond my means. I loved buying clothes and going out for meals with friends. I had no sense of what was in my bank account, and I almost always ended up in overdraft before the next pay day arrived. With this level of financial expertise, I bought a small townhouse condo. With a very small down-payment – most of which I had borrowed.
I remember once doing some kind of transaction at the education credit union, and the manager I was dealing with asked me if my mortgage payment had already come out of my account for the month, and I told her that I wasn’t sure. She showed me my balance. And I told her that I wasn’t sure. I saw her eyes go wide. “You can’t tell by looking at what your balance is?” she asked. I immediately defaulted to cutie-pie – that self-deprecating, disarming, ditzy mode that sometimes succeeded in coming across as charming. It clearly didn’t that day. This woman was openly shocked.
Moral: Get a grip!
Fourth decade wake-up call
Instead, I got a husband. No need to worry about money anymore! DH would look after ALL the finances. He earned more than I did, and he was much better than I was a tracking and budgeting. There was a greater level of control in our now mutual accounts, but like me, DH accepted without question the common understanding that if you can afford the payments, you can afford it. Together, we operated out of our respective faulty money blue prints.
In our mid-thirties, we bought our brand new dream home. The rule of thumb about mortgages as we understood it to be? Make sure your mortgage is no more than three times your combined gross income. We maxed out within the boundaries of that (very bad) understanding, signed the papers in February, and had until August to sell our townhouse condo. Only it wouldn’t sell. With lowering interest rates, the market shifted severely against condos and their fees. I remember sobbing into the night as August came closer and closer. A big loan and an agreement to rent out the condo saw us through that fiasco, and we were house poor until we were finally able to sell our first home.
Moral: Don’t max out. Give yourself a financial cushion so that you can absorb the unexpected.
Fifth decade wake-up call (The one that worked.)
It was when I was forty years old that DH lost heart in what had been a three year roller coaster ride of employment chaos during the high-tech bust of the early millennium. He’d had enough, and he wanted a change in direction. It took six years for him to settle upon that direction, and they were miserable years. A home business brought back sufficient income, but it didn’t see us back to our old ways. Our financial sleep had brought a prolonged nightmare with it, and we wanted to wake up from it.
No more pushing the snooze button. No more whining. No more cutie-pie. No more “If you can afford the payments, you can afford it.” With eyes wide open, we began our journey out of debt. We never want to fall into financial slumber again.
Fruclassity Commandment #1: Wake up and be honest with yourself about where you are financially. Don’t try to hide from it. Don’t pretend it’s not there. Recognize your financial state for what it is.
We had resisted our wake-up because it was much less comfortable than the denial we were able to maintain … until we couldn’t maintain it anymore. I wish I had woken up sooner, but I’m as stubborn now about turning our financial reality around as I was before about tuning out our financial reality. Although the last thing you might want to see with clarity is the state of your money, here’s a promise I can give you: Hard on the heels of the wake-up comes POWER.
DH and I have done a before-and-after debt-repayment comparison, and in the year after our wake-up, with no greater income and no fewer expenses, we paid more off of our debt than we had the year before our wake-up by over 300%. We’re getting there. There’s still a long way to go, but the view is clear.
I like to imagine the day we reach our destination. Completely debt-free! As the sun rises on that morning when we make the last payment on our mortgage, I’ll awaken to the thrill of triumph. No desire to hit the snooze button at all! I’ll embrace the day. And I’ll fully know what Rocky has known all along about the wonders of waking up.