Our big money fight: The trip that almost destroyed our marriage
How a backpacking adventure in South America taught me and my husband how to talk about money
Two weeks after tying the knot, my husband, Robert, and I set out to Peru with $3,000, two one-way tickets, two backpacks — and two wildly different philosophies about how to handle our money.
I'd been raised with a fear of spending that verged on unhealthy, while he lived by an "it'll be fine" attitude that had helped him acquire an astonishing number of defaulted loans before we met. This might have been quietly swept under the rug had we stayed in Seattle with steady jobs, but not so with our Indefinite South American Adventure. Traveling abroad with just our combined savings to depend on, there was no way we could ignore our money differences.
On our three-month anniversary, we sat in furious silence on the Playa La Curva in Huanchaco, watching local kids dive into the waves like fish. I was fighting back tears and my husband was close to storming back to the hotel room — and all over a simple budget discussion.
Our first money fight
What happened that fateful day? Well, let's just say, nothing ruins a good mood quicker than having your partner say, "Babe, we need to talk about the bank account."
In Huanchaco I'd done just that, springing a Budget Talk on my husband while he was trying to choose between a tamarind or guanábana (a native fruit) snow cone. We were walking on the beach, taking a leisurely day off from our hectic sight-seeing schedule, to celebrate our three-month anniversary. The sun had burned away the morning's fog, and a stop at our favorite snow cone stand seemed like the perfect treat.
Our conversation turned to what we would do once we left this sleepy beach town. Should we head back to Lima? Finally check out the Gringo Trail hotspots like Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines? Move on to Bolivia?
All this daydreaming was well and good, I said, but it was time to start thinking about our return flight. I pulled out my notebook and began to run the numbers. At our current rate of spending we could only last three more months, I pointed out. We either needed to cut back our spending or find some other income.
"Don't worry so much about it," Robert said, handing Dante, the snowcone vendor, a few coins. "We'll be fine."
Don't worry? "I wasn't worrying, I was just doing the math," I said. "But if that's your attitude I'm starting to worry now. These things don't just work themselves out."
"I just don't want to talk about this right now."
"Then when?" I snapped. "When we're broke in Bolivia?"
"You always stress about money too much," Robert said.
What our vacation taught us was that, there on that beach, we were up against decades of conditioning.
"The money's fine," I said. "The only thing stressing me out right now is you."
We sat on the retaining wall, staring angrily out over the waves, snow cones melting as we lost our appetites for them. I held back tears. Our anniversary should have been a celebration, but all I could see were the cracks in our foundation.
Where we were each coming from
Time has edited most of the frustration out of our travel memories; now we can look back on that day and laugh. After four years of marriage, we've long since settled into compatible financial roles.
I'm the budget guru. While we were traveling, I obsessed over where every nuevo sol (the local currency) was being spent and compulsively tracked our dwindling savings account. To me, having a solid grasp on the numbers was comforting. To my husband, it looked like I was needlessly stressing myself out.
You see, what our vacation taught us was that, there on that beach, we were up against decades of conditioning.
I was raised to pinch pennies by parents who were very good at making do with what we had, so my instinct was to pull the budget strings tighter whenever my husband wanted to splurge, say, on yet another souvenir soccer jersey.
Robert grew up as an only child who was used to his family splurging here and there. He always had enough money for a good time right now — though, mysteriously never enough to pay for things like past debts and those pesky parking tickets. He has a taste for the hottest and newest in bicycles and camera gear. He views each expensive purchase as an investment, a down payment on the next upgrade. (I, on the other hand, have a tendency to aim low, going for the cheapest thing, even if it might not last as long.)
It took time to get a handle on each other's money personalities. Robert needed to understand that my urgent need to tackle our daily travel budget didn't come from a desire to shut down the fun we were having today, but rather from a goal of having our trip be sustainable. But I also needed to see that his aversion to having a money conversation on our anniversary stemmed from an admirable desire to live every moment to its fullest.
Learning to meet halfway
As our relationship has grown, my husband and I have rubbed off on each other. I've learned to appreciate splurges, like spending $180 on a pair of quality hiking boots that I love (which beats buying something that I hate just because it's on the clearance rack). I've learned that spending a day's travel budget on tickets to a Peru vs. Uruguay World Cup qualifier game really can create amazing memories. Most of all, I've learned there are some things which absolutely cannot be scrimped on — like the amount of legroom in an overnight bus.
My husband, meanwhile, has grown to appreciate that saving money instead of buying things impulsively means we can afford a better quality of life. It's still a work in progress, but we're both slowly becoming more balanced. We've been back in Seattle for almost three years now. Not only have we almost paid off two of our four collective student loans, we've also socked away a hefty sum for our next global adventure — all while continuing to enjoy the moment with a good meal out (usually my idea) or a splurge on the latest carbon-fiber bike frame (his).
Also, rather than waylay each other halfway through a snow cone, my husband and I have discovered a trick: We always come into a money talk with an agenda. We list out a few key topics that we'd like to cover, such as whether we can afford a new car, or how to spend less on groceries. The nebulous subject of "Our Finances" seems much easier to tackle when broken down into tangible points.
When bringing up the points on our agenda, we always try to focus on the positives, identify the concerns and come up with solutions that are agreeable to both of us. For example, during the trip, I once opened a conversation with: "We've done a great job coming in under budget this last week, but if we want to take those surfing lessons we're going to have to cut out a few other things this week. What are our options?" The solution: We cooked the next week's dinners at home, and managed to scrape together enough for a lesson.
If only every money decision was about how to pay for surfing lessons! Yet, even when tackling more mundane or sensitive issues (like outstanding parking tickets), the lessons we learned from Our First Money Fight have helped smooth the way for four good years of sharing finances.
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