Monday, January 28, 2008

Shared Finances: Bad idea?

I have a very good occupation in the real estate industry, despite the tanking market and avalanche of foreclosures. I work from home most of the time, I'm doing something I absolutely love to do and my clients are the best employers I've ever had in my life. I could easily live off of this job, even with part time hours.

But due to my financial situation that's not viable. I need to live and then some, to pay off American Express, Discover and Visa. I need a second, dirtier job in the retail industry. This is absolutely fine. There's nothing to be ashamed of if you're working hard toward a legitimate goal with a legitimate job. However, I've found it nigh impossible to simply get the job done. I'm quite the private person (believe it or not) in the flesh and I prefer not to divulge too much of my personal life, especially to those I work with on a regular basis. I don't want my colleagues poking into my dirty laundry.

A question I often receive is "So, you work part time here. What do you do for a living?" My answer is almost always brief and to the point. This is when people get far too curious for their own good and ask me why, exactly I'm working in a stinking retail position when I'm doing the kind of things I do for my primary occupation. Then the past financial problems get out into the open and that's it, game over. I am now qualified for their expert advice on how to handle my money. Which is completely fine, I absolutely welcome advice. I'm not that uncomfortable with the two separate worlds I live in merging.

But a problem occurs when those giving me financial advice are little to no better off than I. And in some instances quite worse off. I'm sure they have had their adventures too and know quite a bit about how to eek out a meager living in a tin can, living off of table scraps and dropped pennies like I have. But it's kind of like getting marital advice from a friend who's been divorced four times. You're sure they have a lot of experience, but it's probably the wrong kind of experience. The kind that deals with court papers and restraining orders.

Which is why I never volunteer advice in person unless it is asked for. It's far too easy to take my words far too seriously and follow them blindly. Which is great if it's the right advice, but a sure way to find oblivion if I've made a small mistake here or there. But I like giving advice over the internet, it lets me sort out my thoughts. And those who may read it will most often than not have access to the lovely Internet Encyclopedia at the same time, making it far easier to research my facts should a piece of my advice be found interesting. It's easy to provide hyper-links to alternative sources on a blog, but not so easy on the street corner.

The assistant manager at my retail job is the kind of guy who's been in my position before. He really likes to offer advice and stories on all of his adventures. He's been divorced at least once and has gone through the gauntlet that is the U.S. military. He's about 40.

One piece of advice that he's offered is that under no circumstance should my finances touch those of the missus. I should have a separate checking account, savings account, credit cards, car loans and if it comes to it, separate IRAs and CDs. According to him, even after marriage I should keep my financial independence alive in the event of the unforeseeable. While this makes sense in some respects, is it a good move? I have mixed feelings on the whole issue.

I've been with the missus for nearly eight years now, the better part of a decade. I've known her and my best friend longer than anyone else I've ever known, excluding my immediate family. And even then it's close to the line. Throughout our relationship we've never drawn a line between what is hers and what is mine. Everything has always been ours. We have a single checking account, a single savings account and we've cosigned on every car we've ever owned. We're even share most of our credit cards.

In my logic this makes perfect sense. Everything we buy is going to be used by the other person in some shape or fashion. If I purchase a video game, it's quite likely that she's going to get some game time in too. Or if she buys a piece of furniture I'm likewise going to enjoy it just as much as she is.

As such we've both contributed equally to our irresponsible spending in the past. There's no possible way to deconstruct our credit card debt and see who owes what, it's like a car wreck. Everything is smashed up against everything else. But if I were to make a fairly educated guess I'd have to admit that it'd be very close to equal. A lot of of it is from the era when we'd go out to eat 2 to 4 times a week. A good portion of it was gifts to one another, for the holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.

But even the miscellaneous stuff balances out. Sure, she'd spend $200 on clothes, but I'd purchase a ferret. Or she'd buy herself a pair of shoes and I'd buy a video game and a couple books.

So is it fair in the end of things to draw the line and say "This is yours, you pay the balance." even though that debt was in part due to my irresponsible habits too? Sure, we could take our total balances and just cut them each in half, say we're both equally responsible for our current debts, but in the future we're each on our own. But I think that attitude is a little childish. It's the equivalent of cutting a room in half with tape or a marker.

Furthermore, if we kept those habits up after we've paid off all of our debts who's to say some other nasty personality defects wouldn't rear their ugly heads? If everything I make is completely apart from hers, who's to say that I won't slip into the mindset of "It's my money, I can do what I want" and make purchases without consulting her? Right now every penny each of us makes is tracked. And we watch one another for irresponsible behavior. She'll balance out my book lust and I'll balance out her clothes lust. But if our finances were separated, there'd be no balance.

Could we simply be responsible adults and manage our own finances apart from one another? Absolutely. We've learned a lot by being thrown into the fire that is credit card debt. But why remove a mechanism put into place that can only help and balance our spending habits? Why should we share everything else in life but not our money? Shouldn't we be fully responsible for one another? Isn't it her responsibility to make sure I don't make foolish decisions? Isn't it my responsibility to make sure that she doesn't do something damaging to her credit?

Sure. It'd be a messy business splitting everything up in the event that our plans fell through. But isn't planning such an event inviting disaster to occur? I think so. As such, for the foreseeable future our finances will remain meshed in such a way that there's no telling who made this and who owes that. I like it this way.


Anonymous said...

I share my finances with my other. but in my state we cannot legally file for a marriage. so we're forced to keep different savings and checking accounts, should one of us die.

I suppose your decision.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on solving your shared financial debt as a team...
There is nothing wrong with having a bit of non accountable discretionary money for each of you... but the household finances should be a shared experience.
I believe in a marriage turning towards each other instead of away from each other is always the answer.

I feel for you on the co-workers and acquaintances offering advice...
I had a college professor that taught a "Marriage and Family" sociology class I took in school. I thought he was kind of kooky, and come to find out, he had been married and divorced 4 times... YIKES... not exactly AN EXPERT ON MARRIAGE AND FAMILY!

Good Post...


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