Month-end. Year-end for that matter. I tapped balances and prices into my financial scorekeeping spreadsheet. A ritual of sorts. Tradition even, given I had been doing the same thing for 34 years now.
A crash echoed from the family room. The lockdown kitten emerged from beneath the toppled Christmas tree, looking guilty. He spied a bauble rolling across the kitchen floor. Crouched. Sprinted after it in hot pursuit. The wooden floor providing an excellent pitch for a game of feline football.
Rather than right the battered plastic tree yet again, I chose the path of least resistance and packed it away for another year. After surviving two children and two cats, it looked decidedly worse for wear.
Soon bound for retirement. Destined to be replaced by a younger model. Not better, just better looking. A sobering fate that awaits us all at some stage.
Once the dismantled tree had been entrusted to the care of the crawlspace spiders, I returned to my laptop. The screen now bore a series of paw print shaped smudge marks. Bastard!
Cleaning the screen caused the laptop to awaken from its slumber. I was surprised to discover the December market rally had propelled my net worth past an arbitrary round-number milestone.
I felt a momentary sense of elation. Demonstrable forward progress. Something to tick off my goal list.
Then I chuckled in wry amusement. Celebrating round numbers is irrational.
The gap between 98 to 99 is the same size as that of 99 to 100. Yet the former passes by unnoticed, while the latter produces feelings of achievement. The more zeroes involved, the larger the warm fuzzy feeling. Silliness at scale!
Yet rational or not, I did feel good. I grinned. Fist pumped. Did a celebratory victory dance.
The lockdown kitten pounced, attacking my dancing feet like a drop bear grabbing an unwary tourist.
Sensing rather than seeing the streak of movement, I snatched the loaded water gun from the kitchen bench and squirted the kitten square in the face. Bull’s eye!
Gave me a baleful death stare.
Stalked off in a huff to plot his revenge.
Water guns had proved remarkably effective at dissuading the lazy cat from jumping on the dining table or kitchen benches. In this, as in so many things, girls seem to learn much faster than boys.
With a flourish that felt much cooler than it looked, like a Hollywood gunslinger I twirled the water gun around my trigger finger before placing it back on the countertop. Feeling pretty good about myself, I turned and somehow managed to break my little toe on the corner of the kitchen cupboard.
I swore loudly and with much enthusiasm.
My inner saboteur chortled something harsh, but fair, about karmic retribution.
The lockdown kitten smirked from where he was stealing the lazy cat’s food. Bastard!
Talking about money
Once I hobbled back to the computer, I reflected upon the attainment of that arbitrary round number.
It was something I was proud of. Years in the making.
The culmination of strategy. Planning. Taking action. Measuring. Monitoring. Analyzing. Adjusting.
Good fortune played more than a small part. Being in the right place at the right time is down to luck.
Recognising that it is the right place and the right time requires having done the work ahead of time. Equipping yourself with the necessary knowledge, skills, and experience to identify the opportunity.
Merely recognising an opportunity makes little difference, unless you have the confidence and means to act upon it.
I felt like celebrating. Shouting from the rooftops. Sharing my victory with… whom?
That thought abruptly stopped me in my tracks.
When it comes to financial milestones, who can we tell?
From an early age, we are socially conditioned that talking about the topic of money is verboten.
It will cause trouble.
Upset social standings.
Attract unwanted attention from handout seekers. Tax authorities. Thieves. Extortionists. Maybe even kidnappers.
This leads to a bizarre, tragically comedic, circumstance where wealth can only be perceived rather than known for certain.
The illusion of wealth is created based upon visual cues. Conspicuous consumption. Trophies.
Seldom are those perceptions at all accurate.
Those living like millionaires, displaying the trappings of wealth, rarely are. Big mortgages. Holiday homes. Leased expensive cars. Maxed out credit cards. Personal loans. Private school fees.
A disheartening number of those who do manage to become rich, then live rich, fail to remain that way.
Meanwhile, those clichéd “millionaires next door” hide in plain sight amongst us. Leading financially humble lives. Children in state schools. Driving old cars. Flying budget airlines. Residing in small, yet comfortable, houses located in unfashionable neighbourhoods.
So who can we talk to about money matters?
I mentally ran through a list of my real-life friends.
Money matters only ever came up in conversation tangentially. Renovating or moving house. Car purchases. Overseas holiday plans. The cost of children.
Occasionally there might be a boast of a windfall. Inheritance. Performance bonus. Sale of a business.
More often, worries. About death. Divorce. Relevance. Solvency. Unemployment.
Fears for how their children might ever achieve a similar standard of living to what they currently enjoy.
But rarely are exact numbers mentioned. Or even hinted at.
Doing so would be gauche.
The behaviours of a boastful braggart or sympathy seeking martyr.
Falling firmly into the “too much information” category, alongside discussing haemorrhoids, recounting Tinder hook-ups, or providing a blow by blow description of nappy-geddon.
Next, I momentarily considered telling my parent or sibling.
My inner saboteur shrieked a terrified “hell no!” at the very prospect. Major pucker factor.
Hard financial numbers had come up in discussions exactly once in my family that I could recall.
My brother had applied to the bank of Mum and Dad for some help with a house deposit. They grudgingly agreed, but as ever there were strings attached.
To receive the money, they required him to enter into a legally binding loan agreement with them. That agreement contained a poison pill. Were he and his wife ever to separate, the loan must immediately be repaid in full before any property settlement took place.
My parents wanted their hard-earned money to remain in the family. They were willing to loan him the money, but wanted to ensure any future ex-daughters-in-law would never get their hands on it.
The blast radius was huge. Nearly blowing up not just my brother’s marriage but also my own. For the first time in recorded history, the daughters-in-law had something they agreed upon: both interpreted the loan agreement as an active bet that their marriages would fail.
My parents poured fuel on the fire by arguing it incentivised the exact opposite. Which raised an uncomfortable question about why golden handcuffs might be required to achieve that outcome.
The fallout from that particular debacle is still felt to this day. Families are complicated!
Finally, I thought about closer to home. My lady wife or my children.
The mere thought of doing so made me shift uncomfortably on my seat.
My younger son? The mental image of him telling his friends in the school yard that his old man had more in the bank than some of their parents would earn over their entire lifetimes was cringe-worthy.
My elder son? He would understand the achievement, but what does he then do with the information? An idle boast made in passing by me could inadvertently sabotage his world view. Whether we realise it or not, as parents we contribute mightily to what our children consider to be normal. Of where they set the bar for “enough”. Hopefully, he will one day be successful in his own right. How that success gets defined is for him to determine for himself, not via a pissing contest with the ghost of me.
Our childhood experiences help to shape who we are as adults. Our beliefs. Desires. Risk tolerances.
My lady wife serves as a real-life example of this. Throughout her childhood, her father had been a tyrant. Wielding and withholding money as a means of exercising control. Demanding obedience. Expecting respect.
For my lady wife, money became equated with having choices. Being in control. Providing a safety blanket.
Aged several years older than I am, when we first moved in together she earned considerably more than I did. Fearing the silly boy who appeared to fancy her might see her as a meal ticket, she insisted on maintaining separate finances then.
That insistence remains to this day.
For convenience, we opened a joint bank account for shared household expenses, to which we contributed an equal amount each week. The account covered rent, bills, and groceries.
Everything else operated on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis.
At first glance, the arrangement appeared to make sense.
If she wanted to buy an expensive toy or a pair of designer shoes, she just did. No discussion. No debate. No judgement. As long as she paid her share of the bills money, it was nobody’s business but her own how much she earned or what she did with it.
However, this arrangement also resulted in duplication. Inefficiency. Friction.
Applying for mortgages to buy investment properties became a matrimonial minefield.
Lenders demand evidence of household earnings and expenditure, not just those of the individual purchasing the property. This made the experience akin to undressing in public. Some people are content to strut their stuff. Others find the experience of having their privates on display mortifying.
Credit card bills.
A financial striptease. Ending not in a big reveal, but with feelings of inadequacy. Jealousy. Simmering resentment. Sometimes tears.
My earning capacity had swiftly caught and then surpassed that of my lady wife. The gender pay gap. Different fields of specialisation. Owning a business rather than working in someone else’s business.
She is smarter and harder working than I have ever been. Yet those brief glimpses afforded by mortgage applications revealed my efforts were more richly rewarded financially. It wasn’t fair!
Each time, we would talk about money. Discuss how we might better combine our efforts. Share.
Each time, those discussions would stall. My lady wife takes great comfort from having her own money. In knowing that hitting eject has always been a viable financial option. That she could provide for herself should our relationship run out of steam.
Each time, the only material change to our financial arrangement would end up being a rebalancing our respective joint account contributions, to reflect our respective financial realities. Wary the financial balance of power in our relationship might shift. Determined to never again be financially dependent on someone other than herself.
Early on, this used to frustrate the hell out of me. We were financially hamstringing ourselves. Making things harder than they needed to be. Eventually, I learned to accept it was simply part of who she was.
Something to be respected. Worked around. Occasionally thwarted by.
There were no right ways and wrong ways, just different ways.
The cost of matrimonial disharmony incurred soon came to outweigh any potential financial gain from obtaining cheaper mortgage deals. Existing lines of credit were retained. Existing debt recycled. A more expensive option, but a conflict-free one.
There is little point in suiting up for for a battle when any victory would be of the Pyrrhic variety!
In the end, I opted not to mention my arbitrary financial milestone to anyone in real-life.
Instead, I joined my kids on the couch for a game of Super Smash Bros, while icing my busted toe with a bag of frozen peas.
The lockdown kitten leapt onto my lap and settled down for a nap.
Shallow and vain creature that he is, he had already forgotten about his fleeting stolen food victory and recent water gun defeat. Now he was content to be friends, for at least as long as I was willing to stroke his fur.
I gave another wry chuckle. We were a fine pair! It doesn’t get much more shallow, vain, and fleeting than celebrating arbitrary round numbers contained in a spreadsheet.
The lockdown kitten purred in agreement.