There were two topics that were never discussed in my house while growing up: age and money. My sister and I never asked how old our parents were. We never questioned our grandparents if they were 200 or 50. I don’t know if we were told once not to ask people their age because it was rude or what the reason was; we just didn’t. My parents never discussed salaries, raises, or expenses in front of us either. Soon culture and society taught us that it was tacky to discuss finances of and to others. Never did I question friends or relatives when they would drive up in their new car and ask them how much it cost. I never asked how much anything cost even as I matured. It wasn’t my business.
It wasn’t until I began seriously dating my husband did the topic of money and finances become the topic of conversation. Yes, at the time, my husband and I worked for the same agency, but I didn’t know what his salary was. My parents were concerned. They wanted to know if the person I married (whoever it would be) would be able to support me as well as a future family. I couldn’t blame my parents. It made sense. They wanted to make sure their daughter and family could afford rent, groceries, car payments – daily living expenses.
I had known my husband for years before we started dating. We spent many, many hours together, but the topic of finances never came up. As you may be able to figure out from reading this column on a weekly basis, I have no trouble talking. But for some reason, this was one topic I couldn’t bring up. My husband and I were unofficially engaged (meaning only our parents and siblings knew, we hadn’t announced it yet), when I was asked, “Did you discuss finances?” I would meekly answer, “No, but I’ll get to it… eventually.” I knew it had to be done, but how do you ask someone you love and want to spend the rest of your life with, “By the way, how much money do you earn? Do you have any credit card debt? Do you have a retirement plan?” Ugh! It felt awkward. It felt as if I was asking, “Can you support me in the way I want to be supported?” even though I know I was asking basic questions that had to be asked.
Some of the many qualities that I admire about my husband are that he has more patience than I do, is cautious, and always weighs both sides of a situation, so I couldn’t imagine that he would be the type to spend whatever he was earning as soon as he earned it or was in any type of debt. But I didn’t know for certain. So, on a sunny day after work, I looked at him and said something to the effect of, “I’m so sorry, but I have to ask you a question. It’s awkward and it may be rude, but it’s something that we need to discuss. You should ask me also...” The introduction for the question lasted a while. The words wouldn’t come out. My then chasan just smiled and said, “I know what it is, just ask.” I took a deep breath and asked, with my eyes closed tightly, “How much money do you earn? Do you have good credit, an IRA...?” After that, we had the very important discussion about finances. Nothing surprised me and nothing surprised him (I hope). But this is a conversation that had to happen. Later that night, when I got home, I told my parents that “we spoke about money.” I didn’t go into detail, but I told them that everything was just fine and there weren’t any surprises.
Why am I bringing up this topic? Because every couple that is seriously considering marriage must have it. I hate to say it, but things may appear one way and really be the exact opposite. I wrote an article about a girl I am friends with who married someone from a “very chashuve family.” It turns out her husband had a severe gambling problem, was in serious debt – and is now her ex-husband. Baruch Hashem, there are people who come from meager upbringings, but pinch every penny and save every dime and are able to build a very nice and comfortable nest egg for themselves. But when you are discussing taking the jump into marriage, where your problems become someone else’s and vice versa, wouldn’t you like to know what you are getting yourself into?
Recently, I received a letter from a young woman who was in shock. She had just become a kallah and also became aware that her chasan’s parents’ life was a carefully painted illusion to the rest of the world. “They have a bill at the grocery in the thousands, are behind in payments for their luxury car, take a good look at their house and you’ll see the cracks, leaks, and disrepair...” Her chasan has a good job and has the potential to earn a substantial salary, so all is fine there. She feels that her family was swindled by his family and others (who may or may not know the truth) that portrayed her in-laws to be people of wealth and luxury. The kallah wrote, “Money is not everything; but lying, even for shidduchim, is wrong. I wonder what else I don’t know.” She brings up very valid points. Money is not the end all be all, but it is important. Lying is wrong, even for shidduch purposes; and in those cases, it may cost the shidduch itself depending on the lie being told or perpetrated. But this kallah admitted that she never had the conversation about money with her chasan while they dated: “I didn’t think I had to. Everything was there, the car, house, clothes, vacations. I know my chasan can earn a very good living, but this changes the way that I saw things for our future, at least for the very beginning of the marriage.” The kallah goes into detail how she didn’t want to work and wanted to be a stay-at-home mother; but until her chasan/husband has enough years working in his field, the “big money won’t be coming in.” She never planned on having a part-time or full-time job once they start a family, but now it’s become a reality. She found out that her chasan has been helping to pay his parents’ debts with his own salary, “so there isn’t as much in his savings account” as she originally thought. Her parents will be paying for most of the wedding, which means, “all the things I thought about for my wedding won’t happen, because my parents won’t overspend or go into debt for a wedding, and I can’t blame them.” It’s just a sad situation. For those of you wondering, she is not breaking the engagement over this. She pities her in-laws for thinking they have to keep up appearances and for that they overspend. But she and her chasan have since discussed never going into debt and they’d rather go without than to owe money. This is one headache the kallah did not need.
As I mentioned, it felt very awkward and uncomfortable to bring up the subject of finances, money, salary, and savings. I still remember wishing I was anywhere else except having that conversation, but it had to be done. You must wake up from the dreamy state of dating in order to face the realities of life. I’ve written many times that life isn’t like dating. I can’t remember the last time I went to Chelsea Piers or for a walk in Central Park on a Sunday or just spoke on the phone to my husband (or anyone for that matter) for hours on a weeknight. Life is grocery shopping, folding laundry, paying bills, rushing home from work in time to meet the school bus, and not burning dinner because you are trying to multi-task by giving the baby a bath while the chicken bakes in the oven. Married life is also a lot of smiles, laughs, disagreements, compromises, as well as happy and sad tears. You must be prepared as best you can, and having the financial discussion is one way to know what kind of life you will have. If one spouse has a little credit card debt, you have to plan how to pay it off and not let interest rates bury you. If one spouse doesn’t earn as much as you thought he or she did, then you know you may have to start cutting coupons. People must have their eyes wide open to what they may expect once the sheva brachos are over and it’s just the two of them. Whether it’s decided to keep separate bank accounts or to join monies into one account, it all should be discussed beforehand.
For the moments of awkwardness during the discussion, I was able to have peace of mind, which is priceless. Unfortunately, I have heard of a few too many stories where one spouse was shocked to find out afterwards that what they thought was reality was just a fantasy and they had a very rude awakening. Don’t let that happen to you or someone you care about. Have the discussion and urge others to have it, as well.
Hatzlachah to you all.