A Spreadsheet Divided Them

For Sonia, it felt like her husband Dave was having a separate relationship, one that didn’t include her.

With whom, you may ask? With their household finance spreadsheet.

She told me “I felt Dave was having an affair with his spreadsheets, like it was something secret that I couldn’t take part in.” She said she wanted to be part of it, but it felt like he wouldn’t ever include her.

Dave, an Electrical Engineer in Space Sciences at a local nonprofit, research and development organization in San Antonio, admits he likes his spreadsheets. But Dave disagrees with Sonia’s description.

As he told me, “The truth is, Sonia helped me build the spreadsheet. I got the budget categories from [well-known finance guru] Dave Ramsey. I forwarded it to her, and she’d tweak it a little bit. I think she would agree she was included. She probably didn’t want to be included. My perspective is: We both came up with the plan. The problem with it was sticking to the plan. Then later she would say, ‘I don’t want to talk about the spreadsheet.’”

spreadsheet_divided_themAnd that description by Dave is quite different from the way Sonia experienced it. “I did have a part in creating the spreadsheet but once it was created, I felt excluded from maintaining it or suggesting changes to it,” she told me.

In my self-appointed role today of pretending to be a financial therapist, these different narratives are troubling.

Now is the time I should mention: Sonia and Dave got divorced. They agreed to speak with me separately about their distinct approaches to shared household finances.

There’s no villain here. Just two good people for whom shared financial responsibility couldn’t reconcile happily. They both agree that irreconcilable approaches to spreadsheeting did not cause the divorce, but they also both describe it as an unresolved tension in their marriage.

Totally irreconcilable approaches to money are extremely common in couples. Google “top reasons for divorce” and money generally makes the top three of any list.

Dave’s engineering mindset couldn’t cope with Sonia’s approach. He said, “I like to keep everything within a few squares. When I was a kid, I was certainly someone who likes to color within the lines. And Sonia was a person who colored outside the lines. I remember clearly coming home and there were a bunch of Target bags, and I’m like: where is this going to fit on the spreadsheet? We’re going over our budget.”

yoga_mindset
Yoga mindset…different from an engineer mindset

Dave described their differences like this: “She came at it from a quality of life approach. But the way I see it, you have $10, you can only spend up to $9.99. That thing over there would make my life enjoyable, but we don’t have the extra money to do it. I’m an engineer, so numbers explain the world. When I talked to her about money, I used to get a blank stare.”

Sonia also remembers being blamed, she felt unfairly, for making Target a favorite, well, target. Sonia, in recalling that same interaction, described it more as a glaring stare, rather than a blank one. “I felt like he overreacted when I’d made purchases that didn’t have a spreadsheet category – we never broke the bank – in fact with our two incomes, we had a promising little nest egg building up,” she said.

Sonia is an executive for a non-profit organization in San Antonio.  She has a professional life beyond yoga, but I first met her when she taught my daughters sun salutations in a local studio. In her office job she works with spreadsheets to track projects. But at home, rather than representing a shared solution, she felt the spreadsheet tended to limit their collaboration. She resented it.

I myself enjoy spreadsheets, but while listening to Dave I could empathize with Sonia’s reaction to his “stay inside the lines” approach. That, in turn, reminded me of reader feedback I received last fall.

Loyal readers of this blog (both of you!) may recall me asking for your help last November  with a project. We know that couples stress about, fight about, and sometimes even break up about money.

engineer_mindTo prevent that, what questions – I queried back in November – should couples ask each other before they get married or commit to a life together?

I figure good communication can’t guarantee a happy financial path but maybe is the first step to solving problems together.

I received some nice responses. Thank you. I also received some responses that made me laugh, ruefully. They frankly made me worry about the relationships of my readers.

Like when the husband responded to my open-ended query by mansplaining to me over email how his spreadsheet was the key to their financial success. Notice “my spreadsheet is a key to our success” is a far cry from the original topic of “what questions should new couples discuss together about their financial life?”

To state the obvious, “here’s the answer” is not the same as “what are the questions?”

Dave, with his engineer mindset, struggled with Sonia’s yoga-teacher mindset. Dave remembers their marriage counselor telling him, “your way is not the right way.  Or the only way.” So even while Sonia probably needed to work harder to fit inside the boxes, Dave probably needed to work harder to let go of his rigid plan. Sonia’s feeling of exclusion was real, even if Dave didn’t see that as a big problem, or the main problem.

The two now face financial challenges that come with divorce.

Sonia and I recently chatted about building her financial plan, now that she’s single and head of her own financial household. We talked about her mortgage, savings, and investments. I asked her if she had any money stranded in retirement plans with previous employers that she should “roll over” into a brokerage account. She looked sheepish.

She said, “I might have some.” Sonia wasn’t being coy. She just didn’t know.

“That’s why Dave loved his spreadsheets more than me. Because the spreadsheets always knew where the money was,” Sonia told me.

On a positive note, we’re coming up with a plan that doesn’t involve a spreadsheet. She gave full custody of that to Dave in the divorce decree.

 

A versions of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.

 


or as Wu-Tang_Financial would say:

Please see related post:

12 Money Questions To Ask Before You Get Married

 

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I founded Bankers Anonymous because, as a recovering banker, I believe that the gap between the financial world as I know it and the public discourse about finance is more than just a problem for a family trying to balance their checkbook, or politicians trying to score points over next year’s budget – it is a weakness of our civil society. For reals. It’s also really fun for me.

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