This piece was published by ELLE in 2008. A lot has changed since then but the ideas discussed here remain as relevant as ever.
She doesn’t know the bank balances and that’s the way she likes it.
I’m almost afraid to admit this—afraid that I’m tempting fate, that I’ll be punished for my blitheness, my avoidance of knowledge. The apple has been bitten; we all have to know. I’m afraid that one drizzly gray morning, a doleful sheriff will present himself at my door, or in the middle of the night the phone will ring: “Am I speaking to the wife of Mr. Gregory Samuels?” Or that a few years from now, my husband will come home, tie oddly askew, to announce: “I’m leaving you for another woman.” Aren’t these the fates that befall women who fail to stay on top of their finances? The ones who let the menfolk handle the money, the bill paying, the investing and saving? First, their partners vanish, of their own accord or otherwise, and then the women discover that they’re penniless.
In Smart Women Finish Rich (rich and smart being the cornerstones of the monetary self-help oeuvre), financial planner David Bach, who has made gazillions writing books that tell other people how to amass mere millions, recounts this conversation with a couple of women he met at one of his seminars: “We’d be in deep trouble if we left everything up to our husbands,” one proclaimed. “We need to know about our finances so we can be independent and take care of ourselves.” Another chimed in, “Nobody is going to take care of me. I have to take the responsibility myself.” Good girl! you can almost hear Mr. Bach thinking. Or, rather, Good woman!
For them, money is power. For me, money is a brittle skin; when it’s stripped away, I feel almost raw. I grimace slightly. For protection, I’ve cultivated (subconsciously until now) a cocooning haziness about the family finances. Our nanny is paid weekly, and I’m occasionally the one who writes the check. Every time, I have to ask her: “How much is it?” Or I say, “I’ll sign the check. Can you just fill in the amount?” Ahhhhh. I feel so much better when I don’t have to ink out that large sum. It’s like it’s not happening; the outflow is stanched. I’ve asked my husband at least three times how much we pay each month toward our mortgage—for the life of me, I can’t remember the figure. Is it $1,500 or $2,000? As for the overall size of the mortgage, I know it’s a lot lower than that of our last house, which is why we moved in the first place—to reduce our indebtedness. But I can’t keep the number in my head.
I once went a whole year without noticing that I hadn’t received a promised raise.
For the record, no one would call me the ditzy sort. Nor would anyone call my husband and me poor. I’m a busy writer and editor, and Greg is an accomplished lawyer. While he decided to work for himself rather than at a more lucrative law firm so he could spend more time with our children, he still earns an income that—together with my smaller contribution—puts us among the country’s economic elite. We don’t feel extraordinarily well-off, but neither of us is craving more, more, more. Like me, Greg isn’t particularly acquisitive, nor does he harbor aspirations of grandeur.
He pays all the bills; he handles the retirement accounts, the wills, the life insurance. Do we have disability insurance? I don’t know, though according to those monetary self-help books, we should. I can’t bear to know the details. It’s not the math. I was always pretty good at math. It’s how much being pretty good at math hurts. Just the thought of paying for any significant expense—our two girls’ educations, our health insurance (because we’re self-employed, the astronomical cost isn’t obscured in employee deductions)—puts me in the mind of a burn victim, the gauze being carelessly removed from her limbs.
Oddly, not thinking about money brings out my better aspects, most fundamentally in the work I’ve pursued. Inspired by my parents’ respective passions for their vocations—my father was an executive who rose through the ranks; my mother, who returned to work when I was 10, was a guidance counselor with a dedication to elevating the down-and-out—I’ve chosen a career that has been personally fulfilling and has, at times, done a bit of good for the world. I chose it believing that I’d be happier stretching myself creatively and helping other people than I would be getting rich.
I’ve taken this obliviousness to extremes, it’s true. I once went a whole year without noticing that I hadn’t received a promised raise. My general perception of raises had been that they’re virtually unnoticeable—one’s net pay barely budges—so why look at my check and be disappointed? When I mentioned the error to my boss, she offered to arrange back wages…and I told her to forget about it! I’d pointed out the mistake, yet was embarrassed to have to reveal my oversight. Acting nonchalant about the money puffed me up again, restored my pride—I didn’t really need the raise. I know it was ridiculous to give my boss the message that raises were trivial to me—and to leave what was owed to me on the table—but like I said, it was such a pittance.
Everyone knows that no amount of money is ever enough. At the age of 44, I can buy $100 shoes without feeling a bit guilty or persecuted; my mother still can’t. But $300 shoes? I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. God, maybe I did once. In other words, if no money is ever enough, why bother being preoccupied with trying to gather more of it? Work with what you have.
I did not experience a childhood of deprivation; my suburban Cleveland family was securely middle-class. There was an aura of hardship in our household after my parents divorced when I was 12, but that was mostly my romantic fantasy. My sister and I lived with our mother, and somehow I imagined us as characters in that ’70s sitcom starring a young Valerie Bertinelli—three women on their own, making it One Day at a Time. But the reality was that we saw my father every Sunday, and my sister and I got everything we needed—and a bit more. We both had our Jordaches.
What I absorbed from my parents about money were two strands of thinking that have knotted in me to produce a distasteful psychology I’ll call “aggressive hoarding.” My father always had an air of being slightly ripped off—not forlornly so, but pugilistically: A person has to do what it takes to survive, even if it means cutting a few corners. (Perhaps this attitude stemmed from his childhood, where the love was as scarce as the cash.) My mother, meanwhile, clung to every last cent—or that’s what it seemed like. We knew somehow never to order the most expensive item on the menu; before grocery shopping, my younger sister and I watched her flip through a cache of coupons and compare prices among salad dressings or peanut butter. Certain foods, like shrimp, were luxury items, and she bought them only when the price was right. At department stores, she’d track a certain sweater or skirt through the season, waiting for the big sale; if it didn’t happen, she went without.
Where did her tightfistedness come from? When my parents married, my father was just starting his MBA, and they didn’t have two nickels between them, as my mother would say. But her thriftiness was more than a practical response to life’s exigencies. Her father had turned a two-year degree from a business college into a lifelong position as a midlevel insurance executive. But I’m guessing he always felt one paycheck away from being plunged back into the truly grinding poverty of his parents’ ugly three-chicken farm. His daughter, my mother, drank in the fear.
And me? Like my father, I rarely feel fear: I punch it. (“Hit me as hard as you can,” he used to say to my sister and me, tightening his abs for us to swing away.) Thus, the “aggressive” part of my hoarder identity.
What, specifically, does the aggressive hoarder do? The most shocking manifestation is that I’ve been known to shoplift. I’ve been at a grocery store, feeling my cart growing heavier, feeling the money being torn away, and I’ve dropped the Camembert into my purse. Why not take it? I think. The world is cheating me. It’s not that I need such luxuries for myself; I’ve got these entitled New York friends coming over, and they expect fancy cheeses. I’d be happy enough with store-brand Muenster.
Banishing thoughts of the filthy lucre prevents me from lingering too long in that repugnantly ungrateful state where money represents everything that I “deserve” more of.
I’ve never stolen from anyone I know even vaguely, including the Korean grocer down the street. My thievery, which began with a pair of hot orange, interlocking hoop earrings at Higbee’s department store, is reserved for retail behemoths that are ripping off all of us. Right? I know that such reasoning, such behavior, is as pathetic as it is amoral. (When my husband first learned about it, he was appalled, and still is.) If I let myself imagine the shame of being caught, my bravado slips away. A grown woman stealing barrettes! What a sad, silly nutcase! And if I imagine my daughters as teenagers following my example, I feel sick.
A way I keep my larcenous urges in check is by not thinking about money. By keeping it in the abstract, I feel less fear, and thus less anger. Perfect! Banishing thoughts of the filthy lucre prevents me from lingering too long in that repugnantly ungrateful state where money represents everything that I “deserve” more of. Who doesn’t believe that money can be a metaphor for love? Talk about something many people feel that they can never get enough of.
Blissful financial ignorance wasn’t possible until I married, at 35. I didn’t marry for money; I married because I was besotted with my husband. But it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge that one reason I was attracted to Greg was his willingness to make my life comfortable, to provide for me and any children we might have. Unlike so many of my friends’ boyfriends, he was effortlessly generous with me from the start; what was his was mine. Even when we were not yet married, we had a joint bank account. He never criticized a purchase I made. It’s not that he made much money back then—he was a government lawyer—but he shared what he had, including perks such as fully subsidized vacations, which come to those like Greg who have affluent parents.
Before we merged our money, however, I kept careful track of the peaks and valleys of my checking account. The only way I could have avoided it was if I’d been willing to live beyond the means of my relatively modest reporter’s salary, and going into debt literally didn’t occur to me. I had one credit card, which I paid off monthly—and even at my first job, I maxed out my retirement accounts. (You mean my company is going to give me money if I save money? Who wouldn’t do that? Many young people wouldn’t and didn’t, I discovered. But the aggressive hoarder never misses a chance to captain. When my husband’s law practice was in its infancy, I inadvertently discovered that one way he kept the cash gurgling, despite the ups and downs of our respective professions, was by taking out new credit cards when he spotted one with a zero or one percent interest rate. By my estimation, we’ve carried massive loads of debt on these cards, but Greg says he always paid them off—or transferred the outstanding amount to another low-interest card—before we’ve had to start coughing up 18 percent or more. I couldn’t tolerate the uncertainty of this strategy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s rather brilliant. (It would be less so, granted, if my husband weren’t so relentlessly careful.)
I trust and respect him because he’s working with what we have.
As traditional or unliberated or naive as it may sound, I think I took sufficient steps to ensure my financial security by choosing the man I did. Which is not to suggest that I was a perfect rational actor when I married. Reliability and eagerness to share are paternal traits, of course, so it’s likely when Greg presented himself to me in this way, he fulfilled that other need, the need of the girl who wanted evidence of big love.
To be clear, Greg is not a financial genius—in fact, a major reason I trust him is because I know he’s not trying to become Donald Trump. I trust and respect him because he’s working with what we have. And his lack of worry about money is a gift, an antidote to my angst: He just thinks things will turn out all right, and they mostly have. Neither the girls nor I have ever wanted for anything, though that is in part because, as my husband has told me, I never want anything that is too expensive. Another cog that makes this system hum is that Greg trusts me as much as I do him: He knows that I’m not constitutionally capable of spending at levels that could shock his conscience, or upend one of his artfully constructed arrangements. Because our financial values are so in sync, my decision to stay on the monetary periphery contributes to something that becomes ever more seductive as I age: marital harmony, simple marital harmony.
I know that permanence is an illusion, that some tragedy could befall Greg or we could one day divorce. But if and when any of that occurs, I’ll deal with the knowing then; I’ll figure out what I have to figure out. Broadly speaking, I know my husband is saving for our future, even if I’m unaware of the ins and outs. And I’ve never stopped working and earning money myself. Were Greg not around, I’d be able to support our family.
I’m confident that my husband, even if he were moved to become my ex, would not leave me with any awful financial surprises. I’m sure of this just as I’m sure he won’t have an affair or endanger our children. After all, isn’t that what these dire warnings to women are ultimately about? We’re supposed to immerse ourselves in money matters because we can’t trust the men?
Could my comeuppance be around the corner? Perhaps. But I took the measure of my husband’s character when we decided to marry, and I choose not to live in anticipation of the worst. Daily life with two daughters, two careers, and one marriage is already like an emergency room. Every day, every moment my husband and I are performing triage—I’m leaving the bloody green mess to him.
Laurie Abraham is executive features editor at New York Magazine, where she edits cover stories, other features, and packages for the magazine. Before joining New York in 2017, Abraham, who started her career in magazines at Mirabella, was at Elle in various roles including as executive editor and features director. She is the author of Mama Might Be Better Off Dead: The Failure of Health Care in Urban America and The Husbands and Wives Club: A Year in the Life of a Couples Therapy Group. Previously, she was a regular writer at Elle and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn.