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February 20, 2010

Marriage is a haven for the lazy.

Of all the things I forgot or never bothered to learn while married, I regret my financial incompetence the most. Unlike, say, fixing the tub (a piece of cake, it turns out) or mowing the lawn (not hard, but if your yard is huge and the local mow-for-hire guy is handsome and inexpensive, not worth the trouble) or, I don’t know, packing the car before a road trip (these are just my examples–every marriage has its own areas of specialty, little chores you do and feel smug about or don’t do and feel incompetent), managing my own money has yet to become rote. Two years post separation, I still quail at my bank statements and shudder at the thought of filing and organizing receipts. I routinely deposit checks weeks after I receive them–which suggests, to me, ill mental health, even though one could, I suppose, argue that it suggests robust financial health. (Hanging on to my child support checks absolutely infuriates my ex-husband, who mutters darkly that I must not really need the money after all. But this is not some new post-separation quirk, as anyone who ever sent me a birthday check knows well.) And I am sloppy about collecting payment for the work I do. I send invoices late, or not at all, with the bizarre result that accounts payable often ends up contacting me. I lose gift cards. I order things from catalogs and then fail to return them. I am, in short, an ass.

Since the separation, I’ve demystified most tasks simply by tackling them. Actually, most chores (no matter how unused you are to doing them) turn out to be like fixing the tub; laughably easy when you’re the only one in charge. I suppose it comes down to this: the energy wasted wishing someone else would do the dishes takes a toll. If you’re the only one who might do them, you stop thinking about it. And bigger chores can be turned into adventures, if met with the proper attitude. My consoling-window friend came over with a gigantic wrench one day and showed me how to fix a rusted pipe under my sink. Despite these minor triumphs, however, it distresses me to admit that my learning curve in financial matters has not been particularly steep.

My ex-husband and I didn’t have one of those hideous relationships where we kept track of who did what obsessively, but we did unconsciously divvy things up. And since I am vaguely neurotic about money and completely incompetent at math, he took over the finances. He wasn’t perfect at it either (we recently had to pay a distressingly large sum to the IRS, because he’d done our taxes incorrectly two years ago), but I didn’t care. Did I feel symbolically disenfranchised, did I worry I was powerless? Not really. I got up all night to nurse the babies, and he kept track of the bills. From each according to his or her abilities, as it is writ in the Marriage Manifesto. Right?

The problem with marrying your college boyfriend is that you don’t have much time out in the world to practice using your very own abilities to meet your needs. Looking back, I was far more independent at twenty than I was at thirty-five. When I was twenty, I moved to a foreign country where I had no working papers and didn’t speak the language. I had no money: I didn’t know a soul. But I found an under-the-table job and a place to live, and I learned how to talk, and I made friends. I had no idea what I was doing, but I kept on doing it. And then I went back to college and met my ex-husband, on whom I happily relied until we split up.

So I spent a very few years being bold and then hopped into a cozy domestic situation, which means that the qualities my kind friends and family often tell me I have–resilience, courage and so on–are precisely those that have never been truly tested. I know that bravado is a key part–perhaps the most important part–of bravery. Who doesn’t? But marriage is a nice soft landing if you happen to fall. Marriage means someone has always got your back. If your ship goes down, at least you all go down together. And so forth.

I’m exaggerating a little bit–a very little bit. Truth be told, these days I feel that every stupid financial gaffe–every unpaid parking ticket that metastasizes into a summons, every errand left undone, every deadline or dentist appointment missed, every overdue bill, every minor insurance fiasco, every botched bit of bureaucracy (it took me nearly seven months to renew the registration for my car)–is a signpost pointing straight toward disaster. In two years, despite all evidence to the contrary, I do not feel that I have, even remotely, managed to get my shit together. I pay bills with something of the blind insouciance I had during marriage–the money will come from somewhere! It always does! Again, this could be read as self-confidence–obviously, I have faith, or I would not be so carefree! One flip of the lens, however, and my life is a shambles. A smoking ruin. I fear my own incompetence like a phobic fears snakes. I worry that I will push my luck too far, that the mistakes will pile up, that I’ll finally go down in shameful, unnecessary flames.

My mother gave me software to help me figure out my income taxes, and I am afraid to open the box. I need to do them by Monday, so that I can send my older son’s school the forms, so that they will (one hopes) give us financial aid again. This is the first year I’ve been divorced, the first year I’ve tried to do my own taxes. What a terrible hardship! Look, I tell myself through clenched jaw, every other fucking person on the planet manages to do taxes; you could even have hired an accountant, if you’d managed to make one damned phone call when you were supposed to. And still I can’t get started. I have learned exactly nothing from all my previous mistakes.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2010 7:44 pm

    oh my hell. we are the SAME PERSON. i have a $78 check sitting up on my dresser about to expire…from december. i really would like to cash it but i never have check and bank at the same place at the same time! i can’t even tell you how many paychecks i’ve lost. and gift cards? puh-LEEZ.

  2. Heather permalink
    February 20, 2010 8:04 pm

    I love this post because now I don’t feel as bad about my own lack of bill paying and appt making. Last week I had to call the water company and beg them not to turn it off- I’d pay it ASAP, really, I swear.
    I’ve been enjoying reading your blog. Divorce is hard on many levels- many unanticipated.

  3. February 20, 2010 10:14 pm

    You are so very hard on yourself! You are just describing things that so many of us do (or don’t do, as the case may be).

    I find myself wanting to hug you, poor you a glass of wine, and then tell you to give yourself a break for cripes sake.

    I think there are much worse things you could fuck up, if that makes you feel any better. 😉

  4. February 20, 2010 10:51 pm

    A year ago I paid an application fee out of our checking account and the check bounced. I was furious at my husband, ostensibly because he is the one who tracks our finances. He was out of town and I had no idea how to go about fixing the problem. At some point I realized that the reason my anger was so out of proportion to the problem was because I was terrified to have discovered that, somewhere between singlehood and our fourth year of marriage, I had become financially incompetent. Would the same thing happen if I bounced another check tomorrow? Yes, because I’ve done absolutely nothing to fix this problem.

  5. Bethany permalink
    February 21, 2010 9:23 am

    I think if it were true that you had learned NOTHING from your previous mistakes, you wouldn’t be making these realizations. You may not have made changes yet, but that doesn’t mean you’ve learned nothing.

  6. February 21, 2010 5:30 pm

    I have often remarked about how competent I was with personal technology matters (computer, printer, DVR, cell phones, etc.) before I met my husband, and how that part of my brain has atrophied since I married him and left every aspect of such matters up to him. I even leave tasks as small as changing batteries on the TV remote to him. Silly.

    But I do the finances in my house, only because when my husband was in charge of them he worried nonstop about money, whereas I pay bills and then move on with life. But not being naturally adept at it, I have developed a system which might help you as well. I keep a folder for bills. When bills come in the mail, they go into that folder. Also in that folder is a handwritten list of monthly expenses. Each month I write the list again, going off of last month’s list. There is a column for the Payee, one for the Due Date, and one for the Amount…although in my sloppy handrwriting, and without actual column headers. When I create the list, I don’t always know the due date of a particular bill (until they come in), so mostly I am filling in the payees, adding in the amounts and dates only when I know them.

    As the month goes by, I pay the bills and cross them off the list one by one. The details of my online billpay system would bore you, but the real point is the list, and the folder. Simple, but crucial.

    But I would never do my own taxes, any more than I would hunt for my own meat. No system could help me with that. 🙂

  7. February 21, 2010 8:11 pm

    When I first got engaged to my husband, also in college, I swore I would not let my mind atrophy in areas where he excelled. Yeah right! Even if you aren’t married, some things in life fall by the wayside, or you hire someone. Unfortunately, we are both only marginally competent financially.

    I keep a MSWord calendar (downloaded free from, which lists all my monthly bills. After I pay them I write PD next to that bill. After the money is taken from my account, I write OK after PD. Elementary perhaps, but that helps me know what’s been paid, what’s gone through already, and what we have left. I only wish that what’s typically left was a much larger sum than it tends to be.

    I’m all about interpreting your weaknesses as signs of faith, though! And it HAS worked out okay thus far, right? I live so many areas of my life with this premise! It’s a sign that you believe in yourself and in the benevolence of the universe enough to let go. Or so I tell myself when I fail to adequately prepare time and time again! And in the areas of my life where I’m a total control freak, I can’t say I’ve ended up much further ahead than I have with blind faith. So if you can keep blind faith working for you, I say: go for it!

  8. kris permalink
    February 21, 2010 9:30 pm

    i have been contacting my bank since the day after christmas to fix my online account so i can transfer money between a checking and savings account… all i have to do is call..yet here i sit…not calling.. and hoping i don’t have to transfer money quickly..

  9. Spinoff permalink
    February 22, 2010 9:53 am

    As the wife of a CPA and mother of four college-aged kids, I can tell you that many accountants will make exceptions to the queue when the FAFSA is involved. Well worth giving it a try to not have to do your own taxes. Shudder.

  10. March 3, 2010 12:44 am

    Yes. Yes yes yes and then some.

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