After I divorced in 2000, I bought a house of my own. It was my sanctuary, a little three-bedroom place the same age I was. I knew it was meant to be mine from the moment I walked into the open house and saw faded wallpaper with blue carnations and purple roses in one of the bedrooms. The exact same paper had been on my bedroom walls in the home where I’d grown up, even though this was California and that was Massachusetts.
“Tell the other people to go,” I said to the real estate agent. “This is my house.”
It was the cheapest one in the neighborhood, because it hadn’t been updated in 40 years. The backyard needed drainage work and landscaping, the countertops in the kitchen didn’t match, and the oak boards of the living room floor were blackened and cupped in several places. But the roof was solid, the school districts were good, and I could just afford it.
My family rallied behind me: My mother, brother, sister and aunt helped me make the $120,000 down payment because they wanted me to have a house in which to raise my son and daughter. But from there on out, I was going to do this on my own.
I was used to supporting myself. Even when I was married, my husband and I kept our finances separate, splitting only rent and groceries. The rest of my paycheck was mine—I thought—so I bought my clothes at Goodwill and contributed the maximum to my retirement savings account, only to discover when we divorced that according to the state of California, it was technically “our” retirement account. I hadn’t fully understood that when a marriage ends, the laws of the state trump any private agreements you may have lived by.
The only way I could bear asset division was to treat it as a onetime rip-off-the-Band-Aid process. I proposed we split what was in both our names but keep our separate accounts. I also offered to waive my right to alimony as long as he did the same. My lawyer sent me a document stating that I was acting against her advice. I signed it. I just wanted his hands out of my pockets.
After a year in my sanctuary, I recovered enough of my joie de vivre to look for love again. I started dating and eventually met Dan, and when he moved in another year later, we wrote up a month-to-month renter’s agreement and negotiated a fee that factored in his share of the groceries and utilities.
Still, I didn’t ever want to feel that I had to stay in a relationship for financial reasons, so each month I paid the full amount of my mortgage from my own income and deposited his checks in my SEP IRA and savings accounts.
But one Saturday morning, after about eight months, as we were eating pumpernickel toast and drinking coffee in my dark corridor of a kitchen, Dan said, “I’d really like us to remodel the house. I’m here for the long haul—you know that—and it would make a big difference to my enjoyment in living here.”
“I can’t afford it,” I said reflexively, though I, too, had dreamed of expanding my kitchen, replacing the cramped stall of the master bathroom with a larger, glass-enclosed shower and adding a small home office to free up a bedroom so my kids could have separate rooms.
“I know. But I probably could.”
Silence. Though we’d each logged more than 10 years of marriage to other people, we’d never figured out how to talk about money within a relationship. My ex-husband and I had not been able to adapt our no-sharing financial model to the arrival of children, and we divorced shortly after our son turned three.
Dan and his ex-wife had followed the all-in-one-pot model. But she didn’t work once their daughter was born. After they divorced, he shouldered a generous alimony payment, child support and the credit card debt. She bought a house; he rented a room and drove an old pickup truck.
But that was them, and this was us. We had to chart our own path, yet as soon as spreadsheets came out, I felt squeezed into their little cells and somehow wronged.
“Let’s not talk numbers yet. Let’s start with feelings,” I suggested.
“All right,” he said. “What feelings?”