November 23, 2016

5 lessons from 5 years of marriage

Our 5th wedding anniversary: Lessons learnedOur marriage is half a decade old.

Anniversaries were always a weird thing for me even before we wed, but Mom’s death right on the heels of our wedding day has meant the memory of our wedding has been closely associated with grief. I’ve felt some kinda way about our anniversary for years. That loss, though I never held that “happiest day of your life” mantra, has haunted me.

How odd it is to join hands and pledge “for better or for worse” to one another and almost immediately call that pledge to the test by burying a beloved parent. How odd it is, to start your own, new, family, and a blink later, say good-bye, forever, to part of your own, old, family. Indeed, to say farewell to your old family entirely, when the loss of one pivotal person feels like the loss of everything.

We weathered that as we’ve done most everything else. Sometimes well, sometimes badly, sometimes together, sometimes alone.

Each year, as we celebrated our marriage and toasted the strengthening of our relationship, it felt a little like I was also drinking a glass to the still gaping maw in my heart. This year, after so many years of feeling the pain of her loss far more than the joy of our companionship, this was the first year I had a little hint of peace.

Grief doesn’t play nice, or give you a discount on burdens carried because you just buried your grandma, your best friend’s dad, your dear friend’s mom, and your classmate within months of each other. It’s the same crashing denial, guilt, and mourning, over and over.

But it also gives you remarkable opportunity to learn to trust your new partner, your new family, in ways you’d been terrified to try before.

Truth? I never wanted to be married. I never needed a husband to complete me. A career, couple of dogs, warm comforter, I’m fine. But, given an extraordinary person like PiC, I’d have been a fool to refuse because it “wasn’t in the plans”. And I’m proud to say that there is a limit to my foolery. I’m also proud to say that we’ve learned so much about each other and how to make things work well. Imperfect though we are, we’ve figured a lot out.

Relationships are work

Never doubt that relationships and marriage require work to make them work. The work should not feel like a never-ending slog, but it is work, and both parties have to be committed to doing that work together.

The number of people who have told me they thought they had a fairytale relationship is the same as the number of people I know who were divorcing or were staying in an unhappy marriage because at least one of them didn’t expect to have to compromise, actively communicate, or be self sacrificing in some way. That was always the other person’s job, and I suppose magic was going to do the rest?

I’ve never heard a happily married or strongly committed couple pretend that it didn’t take work, compromise or sacrifice to stay that way. If someone says otherwise, do NOT buy that bridge they’re selling.

Mom and Dad never fought in front of us so I didn’t learn from them how to fight civilly. Worse, it was incredibly bizarre to see when they disagreed right out in the open because I had never seen that as a kid. Thankfully, they never pretended that it was all popcorn and roses. Mom also taught me that it’s also not THAT hard. The struggle should have a purpose and a resolution. If you find someone worthy of you, you must approach disagreements with compassion and kindness. Even if you’re angry, you’ll still remember that because you love this person, the goal isn’t to grind them into dust for the win. That’s abusive. No kind of abuse whether it be emotional, mental, verbal or physical, was acceptable, but it was important to differentiate between being mean, snippy, or a plain ole jerk and behavior that rises to the level of abuse.

Patience: learn to have it, learn to use it

These haven’t been the easiest five years, personally or professionally, and as a result we traveled a bumpy road on the way to building patience. Where one or the other might have been snippy over an inconsequential thing going wrong, a misplaced set of keys or forgetting to prepare part of a meal, we’re much better at taking a step back and taking a breather BEFORE letting the snark roll.

It’s one thing to snark your friends mercilessly, without heat. It’s another to snark your spouse over an honest mistake because you’re tired or in a bad mood.

I expect PiC to treat me with respect even when he’s not feeling at his best, as he has the right to expect from me. It doesn’t mean to pretend to make nice all the time, it means that you remember when you feel like crap, you lash out, and then learn not to do that to those closest to you.

Know your fear, learn how to let it go

I’ve always refused to admit weakness. See how I’ve only admitted to chronic illness occasionally on an anonymous blog? Yep, that’s completely indicative of how I’ve dealt with it in offline life. It helped me professionally where fear typically leads to paralysis. It was terrible for our relationship, in the trust department. More specifically, in the Where’s the Trust? department.

My family had, over the years, taught me repeatedly not to trust adults to make good decisions. With PiC, I had to undo all that history and figure out how to trust him.

It starts with understanding that we two are built pretty differently from each other. We respect that isn’t the end of the world, and then find room for compromise.

I’m obsessive about money and sticking to our spending and saving plans. Obviously. PiC is not at all obsessive. But I have accepted his premise that spending is actually good at times, and he’s accepted that I’m going to make That Face when spending happens.

PiC makes some interesting decisions about time management. I’ve learned to nod and say he’s an adult, he can deal with the result. It’s not my job to make him do it my way (even if I’m right) because it’s not me doing the job. He’s learned to live with the consequences of his choices and change if he doesn’t like those consequences.

We don’t just tolerate each other, what a terrible word to use for someone you care about! We accept that we have our differences and work with them instead of insisting that we do everything the same way.

This is the beauty of trusting your partner: their job is not your problem, it’s their job. If you don’t like how it’s done, then debrief for a better next time. Except for PiC in the kitchen, this is why he’s only my sous chef or not allowed in the kitchen at all if I’m Head Chefing. It’s for the greater good.

Communication: it only works if you’re both listening

We have a running joke that we don’t listen to each other. It used to be one-sided. I would repeat information five times, in answer to PiC’s Dory-like questions. It mildly annoyed me but eventually I found myself doing the same. We’ve developed a terrible habit of only half listening, you see. But since being annoyed about it changes nothing, we’ve had to confront that both with humor and the aforementioned patience.

It’s made an enormous difference that we not only talk to each other, we talked to each other about how we talk to each other, and what’s working and what’s not.

Fight with your gloves on

If you must fight, and we all do at some point, do it well. Again, with the respect. Just because you disagree over something to the point of arguing or fighting it out, that doesn’t mean that your basic respect for this person with whom you share your life goes out the window. For me, that means eyerolling is out, and don’t ever use the dismissive “Whatever”. For him, that means hearing him out and not interrupting until he’s finished explaining what’s on his mind.

Here’s to many more…

We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve got enough to keep our marriage running with just a few tweaks now and again, and that makes me feel pretty good about the choices we’ve made. It’s not that we see eye to eye on everything, but that we’re willing to make the effort to understand each other that has made it all work.

Case in point: We didn’t even agree on how to celebrate this anniversary at first. We went around and around trying to find a good compromise, talking over logistics, and what was important to each of us. He wanted to do something more than just dinner together at home. I felt like dinner together at home was perfectly fine, I didn’t want to spend $1000 on a weekend trip.

It could have been several fights. Instead it was several discussions and we eventually landed on a great compromise that felt just right and may become our new way of celebrating. Perfect!

:: What’s a significant anniversary for you? What are your most powerful memories? Who do you miss the most?

November 21, 2016

Open Enrollment 2016-2017, and the benefits of benefits

Between the election, hosting guests, and other demanding personal events, open enrollment flew right by. We scrambled to update our selections on the last day of the period instead of the first day like I like to do. I’m super glad PiC caught that because my attention was elsewhere and I would have been ticked as all get out if we’d missed it.

Most things are staying the same: medical, vision, dental, long term disability, life insurance, dependent care FSA.

We’re increasing our FSA allocations to the maximum possible $2600 in the hope that PiC will be an eligible candidate for LASIK, as much as the idea of having his eyes operated on horrifies me, because we’ve discussed it for years and objectively, if they can do some good, we should go for it.

I found a goof from last year’s open enrollment though. Can anyone tell me why I added JuggerBaby to our vision and dental plans when ze didn’t have teeth yet? I s’pose I didn’t know ze wouldn’t have to see the dentist at all this year but my child was toothless as of last year’s enrollment period and that was a curious waste of money. It wasn’t a *lot*, probably around a few dollars a month and possibly I chose to pay it just in case ze needed dental care early, but it’s unlike me to waste any money if I can help it.

My company shed a ton of benefits in the past few years, so we rely on PiC’s employer’s great benefits. This puts me on edge, in light of the possible threats to the ACA, because I feel like we’re just one job loss away from serious instability. Not only would be we be out half of our income, we would lose access to the remaining 401(k), FSA for health and dependent care, medical, vision, dental, and disability and life insurance benefits. We do carry private life insurance for me but not for him. Our costs would increase at the same time as halving our household income, so I’m considering how I might want to deal with that if he were to be injured or out of a job.

:: What benefits do you have, or miss? What do you wish you had?

November 2, 2016

Grief, hiding in my closet

Grief is a jerk.

It hides in memories you’d think wouldn’t have any power, bursting out and getting its ick on you when you were just trying to get on with your day.

I was singing the alphabet to JuggerBaby, in two languages, when it occurs to me that ze responds to only a few Secondary Language commands. Ze doesn’t grasp much of the language itself and it’s because ze doesn’t hear very much of it. I started speaking solely in Secondary Language for all of bath time and ze was uncharacteristically quiet, clearly not able to respond or unsure how to respond affirmatively or negatively. In English, ze is going great guns with the YES YES YES and NO NO NO. In other languages, ze cocks zir head and wanders off, or sits silently. 

It triggered a pang, and then a panic. I was immersed in my Secondary Language because my family were immigrants and they knew that I’d learn English just fine at school but it’d be hard to keep in touch with our culture if we didn’t speak the language everyday. Even now, living where we are, I so rarely have anyone to speak to in Secondary Language that it feels like a foreign language to me. I don’t naturally switch like I once did. This was Mom’s legacy – it was her labor of love to make sure I could read and write simple and basic words, and puzzle out the rest based on my speaking fluency. And now I’m losing much of that. And I feel like I’m losing her again. And like JuggerBaby is losing zir grandma in yet another way. 

I was taught to read and write and speak because none of my grandparents spoke English. They were all in their 70s when they immigrated, an entirely new language wasn’t happening. But this next generation? They’re being raised by parents one step removed from the old culture and customs. We grew up exposed to it, but we didn’t carry on with it. And so, particularly without grandparents to ground us all in the efforts of keeping that language and cultural memory close, it feels like a struggle just to hold on to what we have. It’s slipping away. 

***

There’s a white coat tucked in the back of my closet. I’ve never worn it. I never will wear it. It’s a massive thing that I’d never fit, even when pregnant.

That should be reason enough for it to be removed in this clearing up project.

Why hasn’t it been? Because of Mom. She bought it for me from a yard sale when she was in the throes of dementia. Just like she had done when I was a kid.

She was trying so hard to be Mom again, to take care of me when she couldn’t even manage to get through the day in her own mind. She was trying to find her way back to me, maybe subconsciously reminding me how she once provided for me instead of the other way around. I remember accepting it from her, knowing I’d never wear it, knowing she just wanted to be my mom again, bleeding inside from anger at losing her and not knowing how to help either of us.

It’s this last gift and remnant of her thinking of me, this physical symbol of my not being a better daughter when she needed me most. And I need to clear out everything that’s not useful but with this one coat, I keep getting ambushed by this towering wall of guilt.

She’s been gone five years this month. I still don’t know what to do with it.

August 15, 2016

Married Money: How we do it in 2016

How PiC and I build up our wealth: together, as a teamI asked how you manage your money if you have to compromise with another human. It’s only fair to share how we’re managing ours!

It’s taken years, but PiC and I have a pretty good system for us these days.

Once upon a time, my money was my money, and then it wasn’t. The last time it’s been totally separate was when I was 12. Since then, my own money has been intermixed with family issues at various times for various reasons. After years of hard lessons with my family, I had to learn to trust, and take risks based on that trust again when PiC and I started to cohabitate, and that’s where our money started to intertwine.

It took at least a year after we got married for it to truly sink in that our money was irretrievably connected, however we chose to handle it. I was evaluating our life insurance 4 days after we got married but viscerally, it’s a lot hard to remold “me” into “we”. Over the course of that year, it was a tentative subject and we weren’t ready to say much, but we were slowly aligning ourselves with each other without words, just through actions.

It’s never painless, not when you’re talking about unseating a decade of habits. Our foibles would occasionally pop up and give us some trouble. It was at this point that we began to learn the art of compromising with each other, and realized that neither of us did well with a shared budget and separate finances. It’s taken a few more years and a lot of adjustments but we’ve got a working system now.

Ours to have and hold

Budgeting the money

Pretax contributions come out first: taxes, retirement contributions, health, dental and vision, pre-tax FSA account, disability and life insurance benefits. Those all come out of PiC’s paycheck because his benefits are way better than what my work offers.

25% of our take-home pay is automatically deposited to our joint savings account, this comes out of both checks. We added up all our bills and made sure that it didn’t exceed the remaining 75% which is dropped into our joint checking account. All the bills are paid out of that account: mortgage, HOA fees, rent, daycare, credit cards.

Spending the money

All routine costs that can be are charged to credit cards that bring in the best rewards and that’s paid by the joint checking account: gas, groceries, utilities, travel, dining out, medical and vet bills.

We kept our own checking accounts and credit cards. I pay most of the bills out of the joint account, he pays a couple of the utility bills and his own credit cards. I do all the accounting, oversee our retirement accounts and, since my eye is on early retirement, I actively manage our brokerage account and our real estate property. We use Mint for bills reminders but usually have paid it by the time Mint sends the weekly update.

Pretty simple all around.

Communication is key

Twice a month, I ask PiC what he’s going to pay in the next week. I don’t see all his credit card bills so that helps me keep a bead on the expected withdrawals. Our mortgage, rent, and association fees are automated monthly payments so asking regularly and a quick eyeball of the account tells me if I am going to run short. That really only happens when a big unbudgeted four digit check is cut, but I’ve been burned by keeping too low a balance in the checking account before. Never again!

We also created a shared email account so all our financial accounts go there. That way if either one of us is out of the picture, access to important financials isn’t restricted to someone’s email.

Bonus money

I do some credit card churning on the side to earn travel money, that’s how we paid for our travel to Hawaii and Washington without breaking the budget. I keep that simple too, one or two cards per calendar year for specific trips. This year I’ve already done our second card, but I’m considering a third before the end of the year.

I alternate between cards under each of our names and don’t bother with any sign-up bonus less than $250 value in travel money or miles.

I used to be cautious about keeping  old credit lines open, which I still do, but I’ve spent enough years being responsible and carrying no debt that our credit histories are in great shape. I’ve shown that I can carry an auto loan and pay it on time for many years. I’ve got many years of credit card use, always paid in full and on time.  Same goes for the mortgages – always paid on time.

This means our credit scores are always in the high 700s or low 800s no matter how much churning I do, so I stopped worrying about preserving it years ago. This is good for anywhere from $500-2000 worth of travel value. Not bad for several days of work.

:: Do you simplify your money management (fewer accounts, less active management) or go for the more complex (maxing rewards sources, bonuses, etc)?

July 25, 2016

Married money: Combining finances or not

In our marriage, our finances are 99% combined. How would you do it?

PiC and I have taken years to properly combine and organize our money since the wedding.

The end goal has always been that I shall take and keep complete Dominion over All Things Money! Given our wildly differing levels of interest, it’s for the best.

We started out with completely separate finances. It was all too complicated to merge, I thought. But as we started to combine our lives, the separation and siloed information started to drive me bonkers. It turns out that I need to have almost complete control over the whole picture to be able to make effective, informed decisions. It’s simply how I work best.

There are still some loose ends. Some of them may stay loose-endy due to their nature of being specifically one person’s thing to deal with. I recently wrapped one of my own, dealing with a retirement account that was weirdly designated and dumping those funds into my primary retirement account. I have another one that I’ve started writing about and am not ready to put out there yet.

Things like inheritance gets tricky. I don’t feel like I have a right to touch money inherited from his side, nor do I want to touch it. On my side, there’s been nothing but grief when it comes to money so I especially hate the feeling that doing anything to protect his inheritance feels like I’m a moneygrubbing so-and-so. Except I don’t want any of it for myself! I just hate seeing money managed less effectively than it could be. But because of the feeling that I didn’t come to this union with my own family money (except I did, it was all money that I earned with my own hands), I’m more comfortable ignoring the nagging feelings that it could be better managed and leaving it alone.

Viewing the landscape, I see friends of varying economic levels from poor to very high net worth with all kinds of financial arrangements.

I also keep seeing strong opinions on how, if you’re married, you need to combine finances. I agree that you have to have a system but I don’t agree that it has to be any specific kind.

:: Have you ever had intertwined finances or finances that were dependent on others (partners or roommates)? How did that work for you? Do you have a personal preference for combined or separate finances?

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