By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’ve been married to Schmuli for three years. He works to support the family, but I also work part time. We have one child, who is 17 months old.
One of the reasons that I was attracted to Schmuli is that he struck me as a responsible, organized person. My father, who is a sweetheart, is not. Though my parents don’t share all that much with me in terms of their own financial situation, I know that my father has made more than a few bad business decisions and that my parents are not as financially secure as they should be. They see their friends living fuller lives, traveling more, buying homes in Florida or Israel, and they are unable to reap the benefits of years of hard work. It’s unfortunate. That’s why it was so important to me to marry someone who seemed fiscally responsible.
So when Schmuli and I first married, he came prepared with a budget and rigid ideas about money—down to a spreadsheet! At first I was impressed and loved the idea that I would be taken care of and could look forward to a safe future. The idea was that we would both work as hard as we could now and, G‑d willing, eventually take it easy and enjoy life.
But I was not prepared for the way I’ve been living for the past few years. At this point, I feel like I’m working for Schmuli. When I go shopping, even for groceries, he wants to see receipts for everything. I have to ask permission to buy something “extra,” such as a new pair of shoes, a pair of sunglasses, you name it. Even though I don’t ask for anything that I don’t feel I truly need, he often says we can’t afford it. Here I am, working and contributing, and it’s gotten to the point where I need to ask him for permission for the smallest thing.
I sometimes feel like I’m living in a prison. I often ask myself how I got to this point. I’m so beholden to him in every way. When I question his tactics, he reminds me that we both talked about wanting a secure future, but somehow he thinks I gave up all rights to a normal present! And when I complain, he brings up my parents and reminds me that we don’t want to wind up like them.
I never even go out with friends for a coffee anymore. How would I explain a receipt for something so frivolous? My family and friends don’t understand what has happened to me. I tell them that between the baby and work I’m just too tired to run around with them, enjoying meals or shopping together—like I did during the good old days. Oh, how I miss those days.
Sometimes I find myself agreeing with Schmuli and thinking he’s doing the right thing. But other times, I find myself feeling resentful and trapped. I’m not happy and tell him so, but he just treats me like a silly child who is acting out and reminds me that this is something we agreed upon. Yes, in general, but I never agreed to show him receipts and deprive myself so thoroughly.
By the way, Schmuli earns a nice salary. I contribute a decent amount of money as well. I’m sure we earn just as much as and possibly more than many of our friends who go out and enjoy their lives. Friends who even take vacations—G‑d forbid! But with Schmuli, it’s become all about saving for the future. And we are saving a lot.
I guess it’s easier for Schmuli because he grew up with very little. His father was a teacher and he is one of seven children. Not only did he figure out, at a young age, how to make money, but he also figured out how to make a pair of pants fit him for ten years. Though my parents made many financial mistakes, we nevertheless lived nice lives. We ate out occasionally, dressed nicely, and enjoyed what we had. (Maybe too much—but at least we had fun along the way.) Schmuli and I are not having any fun. We’re depriving ourselves and living like full-time accountants.
Anyway, though I sort of signed on for this life, I want to know whether I have the right to change the rules at this point and tell Schmuli that it’s not working for me anymore and that we need to reevaluate our priorities and change the way we live.
And if I do have the right to change the rules midstream, how do I approach Schmuli, in order to get the best results?
That’s some pickle you got yourself into! What must have sounded at one point like a practical idea has turned into a prison sentence of sorts—and you have every right to be dissatisfied with the arrangement Schmuli has so successfully structured for the two of you.
Let me remind you, first and foremost, that a marriage should be a partnership. Two people coming together, who bring to the table different strengths, different ideas, but hopefully mutual goals and the ability to communicate through differences when the two individuals do not see eye-to-eye.
Somewhere along the way, the concept of compromise has escaped from Schmuli’s vocabulary—but from yours as well. Though the idea of being responsible with your money is a noble one, even the noblest of ideas can be taken to such an extreme that it loses its value.
We all have to find the balance so that we are thinking about our futures—and acting responsibly so we can have a future—but also living in the moment and being able to stop and smell the roses. And that’s where it sounds as though Schmuli has lost his way. He is so hyperfocused on saving every penny that he forgot that there is a beautiful world out there waiting to be enjoyed, experienced, and appreciated.
To deprive yourself of outings with people you love, whether it’s over a coffee or even, heaven forbid, a lunch, is a reality that sounds rather bleak to me. I would much rather see you putting away a few less dollars every month, but living your life more fully with activities that fill you with joy. I have to wonder whether there is any joy in Schmuli’s life—other than seeing the balance in his savings account grow larger each month.
Clearly, I’m on your team. Something isn’t right here and change is necessary. I’m wondering why you are so ready to embrace Schmuli’s dogma every time he reminds you that you both agreed upon saving money. There are nuances in every conversation that make all the difference. He is looking at this situation from a black-or-white perspective. He can’t see the gray, and gray is where you have to reside. Yes, it’s important to save. But how about a conversation regarding how much is a realistic amount to put away each month? How about a conversation about how much money should be allocated for perks? Shopping? Vacationing? Non-essentials? If you were both not earning a living, and these treats were impossible, then there would be nothing to talk about. However, you both work hard and, from what you say, do well and therefore can afford to loosen the grip of deprivation that Schmuli has created around your household.
Schmuli has his ideas, but your ideas are just as valid and you need to really believe that your desires are just as relevant as his and that somewhere between your two different ideas lies a compromise that both of you should be able to live with comfortably.
So what is stopping you from going forward with a conversation that should take you to a healthy place of compromise? Why have you allowed Schmuli to shut you down so completely each time you have tried? Is there something about making your needs heard that makes you feel uncomfortable, unworthy, not entitled?
If the answer is yes, then you have some internal work to do as you try to figure out why you lost your voice with Schmuli and, more important, how to regain it. You shouldn’t have to develop some brilliant strategy to use when talking to Schmuli about your shared money. You should just be able to tell him that the arrangement is unacceptable and it’s time to revamp the system.
As far as handing over receipts, the idea kind of makes me cringe. Perhaps there are some people who find it to be a great idea, in order to understand where their money is going each month and allow themselves to budget more effectively. If that works for you, go for it, but if you, too, find it cringe-worthy, that also needs to be brought up to Schmuli.
Yet always keep in mind that Schmuli’s needs count a whole lot. In fact, just as much as yours do!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.