Hot Spot: Money

July 4, 2005



I’ve alluded to it before in various posts but probably need to give this topic better coverage by itself. While sex is a perennial trouble spot (or the lack thereof) money issues are a major concern, mainly the lack thereof.

It doesn’t matter how much I’m pulling in except that it is less than the national average. But even if I was pulling down 6 figures, it still wouldn’t be enough. My wife would still be able to spend more than I make. In fact, in the past year she has spent $20,000 more than I take in. And what does she have to show for it? Nothing. Nada. The kids have some extra toys, videos and clothes but that’s about it.

I remember reading somewhere that a fundamental difference between the way that men and women spend is that men tend to invest their money while women tend to want to exchange it for some sort of emotional experience. Guys typically like tools, gadgets and machinery. Women like clothes, trips to the salon and cruises. For birthdays, Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day the worst thing a guy can do is buy for his wife something that plugs in. While looking at father’s day flyers, you see all sorts of electronics, tools and gadgets advertised. It’s because women are looking for an emotional lift through the sheer experience of acquiring something extremely costly and equally worthless and nonfunctional. The joy she experiences seems to be directly proportional to the amount of effort devoted toward the exclusive feeding of her vanity…code named..”appreciation.” A man’s vanity seems to be fed by having some fun toys. All the more so if they are useful, shiny and powerful.

So here we have a fundamental difference in spending priorities and spending habits. Much of this may stem from fairly radically different backgrounds.

Arwyn’s father was a dentist, so he pulled in some pretty good money. He was also an alcoholic, so he might have been spending some serious money. However it seems the biggest thing, where his children were concerned, was guilt. So he attempted to pay off the guilt with money. Arwyn sometimes grouses about how much her father spent towards her two brothers, especially the youngest, but I’ve watched him drop hundreds of dollars on her. When he visits, she gets him to pay for virtually everything. The man is quite generous, but maybe to a fault. He must have paid the $1800 hospital bill this last spring because it disappeared and the hospital has’t been after me. In some ways I’m okay with his generosity as he has helped as in the case of the medical bill and getting Arwyn’s car fixed. But she has never really had to come to grips with how to manage money. Her mother is not exactly thrifty, either but she’s not had the luxury of having someone to fall back on. She has been retired about 2 years and what little she had saved is long gone. She gets some small pension plus social security and that’s it. She lives in some sort of subsidized housing as she never did own a house. The house she got in her divorce settlement years ago was sold and the money blown. Now she is virtually penniless.

Gift giving with her family is a HUGE deal. Christmas involves a dizzying and constant parade and array of gifts. Last time we celebrated with her family in Minnesota, gift opening took almost 2 hours of nonstop paper ripping. The poor boys didn’t get to enjoy any of their new toys until two weeks later when her Dad had mailed the boxes and boxes of stuff back to us in Georgia.

I grew up on a farm, and was milking cows at the age of 11. This was during the Carter administration. You can tell the folks who hate Bush today are either too young or too old to remember the fiasco that was the Carter years. At 20% interest, my folks were paying nearly $20,000 a year in interest alone for their various farm loans. Combine this with a trade embargo against the Soviet Union which sent farm prices plummeting and these were horrible times in the midwest. We always had food, thanks to a big garden, cattle and a mother who knew how to can vegetables. It also helped that my grandmother was queen of the garage sales and could make or sew anything. My family was made up of hardscrabble stock, who scratched a living out of the ground. It helped that the ground happened to Iowa farmland.

I took out my first loan at the age of 12 for 3 4-H beef calves, two of which were shown at the fair. I remember going into the bank with my dad, who cosigned the loan for me. I remember paying the money back when I sold the calves. I also remember worrying about the bank coming after me if the calves didn’t sell or if they got sick and died! It was with money from these and other beef animals that I bought my first car, a 1973 Mercury Montery from my Grandad.

While Arwyn always knew she was going to college because her dad had set up a fund for his kids for just such an occasion, my future was not so well known. My parents simply didn’t have it to give. If I was going to college, I needed to find my own way. I started out with loans, grants and workstudy. I later gave up the workstudy and joined the Army Reserves. The Army helped pay back most of my loans while providing a bit of money to live on plus I had a built-in summer job. My parents provided all the beef and milk I could get back and store in my apartment freezer in Ames in additon to stuff Mom canned.

I grew up with a fear of debt, despite having used it on many occasions. While I was in college in the early 1980’s, I saw neighbors selling off their farms, livestock and machinery. Those loans made in the 70’s were coming due and banks were foreclosing. I remember my parents always being concerned about money and we always learned to “make do.”

“Making do” has seemingly never entered Arwyn’s lexicon. I remember she was complaining bitterly about not having a chest of drawers for Elmo. She claimed that having a dresser for him would solve all of her organizational woes. I found one at a garage sale with a drawer rail that needed fixing. I loaded it up in my truck, bought the necessary parts at Home Depot on the way home and minutes later had a working 6 drawer chest. It was not too fancy, but it worked.

Arwyn took one look at it and proclaimed that she did not want it in our house. I wanted her to just try it. “NO! I don’t want that thing in our house!”

I was infuriated beyond words. I took it and gave it to a woman I knew of who was living in a trailer park nearby who had a disabled teenager. She was SO thankful and appreciative! She just couldn’t thank me enough for the lovely dresser. It was such a stark contrast to the reception I got from Arwyn with the same exact thing.

That was 2 years ago, and I never did buy another dresser. Most of Elmo’s clothes are in his closet or in a glass hutch Arwyn had converted to hold his clothes. I’m not buying a dresser, either.

Christmas at our house with my family is a bit different. We agreed that we were not going to do gifts beforehand simply because we didn’t want to cart all the stuff back to Georgia. It consisted of my parents going out behind the house and sledding with the grandkids. A huge deal for our two boys from Georgia who weren’t used to seeing enough white stuff to make a decent snowball. My parents actually spent a lot of time with our kids. Arwyn’s parents spent our entire visit shopping for gifts, pretty much leaving Arwyn and I with the kids by ourselves. We could have stayed in Georgia for that!

The point of this rant is that I learned to survive on a lot less money. I learned to respect debt, altho I don’t fear it as much as I ought. I learned to sacrifice and make do. Arwyn struggles with our less-than-Park-Avenue lifestyle. She wants our boys to have everything. I see that as a recipe for creating spoiled brats. She sees it as an expression of love. And so it is that she seems to view money as a way to express love and affection because her father used it to treat his own emotional guilt. He used it as a substitute for love and affection.

I saw money as a tool, and one that was always scarce. I don’t scrimp and scrape like my grandparents, but I think I could if I had to. I have no qualms about wearing clothes I buy from a garage sale. Arwyn would be absolutely horrified at the prospect. To her, scrimping and scraping means shopping at Wal-Mart!

I need to say that she is trying, in her own way. She still snubs most things that are cheaper, but has become more tolerant of some things. She’s buying Sam’s Choice potato chips, now, so that is a start!

Money will always be an issue because it best expresses priorities and resources. I get angry because she sometimes acts as if I merely create money out of the air. It’s my back and body that provides that stream of income and it’s treated with such disdain. I’m like the milk cows we had on the farm; as long as I keep bringing it in, I have some value and am worth keeping healthy and happy enough to keep producing. But my overall happiness and satisfaction are not particularly valued if they happen to be at odds with my “owner’s” stated goals and purposes.