“When I was growing up I used to think that poor people lived in those houses,” my husband, Daniel, says, while driving down a quaint street in a suburb of Toronto. We’re visiting his parents, and our three kids are sleeping peacefully in the back seat.
I look outside and see a cute semidetached house — a well-maintained garden at the front, a sweeping porch with a rustic swing. A gingerbread trim gives it a hint of country charm. It’s a beautiful home, far nicer than any of the houses that I’ve lived in growing up. I’ve been married to Daniel for nearly a decade, but in that moment I feel the distance between us.
I was raised by a hard-working single mother. I knew that money was tight from an early age, and did my best to appreciate everything that my mother was able to provide me with. Most of our homes were small, but perfect for the two of us. When we didn’t have a place to live, we’d stay with my grandparents, two Maltese immigrants who came to Canada with nothing. I grew up around my family’s Maltese culture, language, and food. My nana would feed me stuffat tal-fenek, or rabbit stew, and convince me that I was eating “Maltese chicken.” As an only child and latchkey kid, I was independent and learned to take care of myself before I reached double digits.
I didn’t meet Daniel until we were in college, but we grew up only 10 minutes away from each other — our paths just never crossed — likely because of our vastly different childhoods. He is the oldest of three children, and his parents are still happily married. As a child his father owned a successful business and his mother stayed home with her three kids, driving them to various competitive sports and activities. Theirs was the home that the entire neighborhood hung out at; their mom was always around to supervise and feed the group of kids that would congregate in their kitchen. Daniel also comes from a line of aristocracy, he is the great-great-grandson of Canadian diplomat Leighton McCarthy, the first Canadian Ambassador to the United States. McCarthy was known to enjoy the company of Winston Churchill, and other well-known historical figures.
His childhood couldn’t have been more different from mine. While his upbringing was rich in opportunity and material things, mine was full of culture and tough life lessons.
As adults, we continue to navigate our family histories. For example: He likes his clothes from Banana Republic, I buy mine from Salvation Army. It’s this tug-of-war between two very different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds that has sometimes created division. It’s also been a learning opportunity for both of us. We respect that we each value different things, and we work hard to also be understanding of each other’s perspectives.
Marina Edelman is a marriage and family therapist in Westlake Village, Calif., she says that when she sits down with couples, she has them honestly and openly discuss the value that they place on purchasing goods and services.
According to Edelman, while overspending can be problematic, so can underspending. “I define underspending as a mental state in which one feels as if he or she doesn't deserve anything more than having basic needs met,” she says.
I resonate with the idea of underspending and devaluing yourself. There have been many times that my husband has encouraged me to go and get my hair highlighted, or buy that dress for an important business meeting. I admire the ways that Daniel invests in himself. But after nearly 10 years of marriage we’re starting to rub-off on each other, too. Recently, Daniel accompanied me to a thrift store, where he found brand new Zara dress shoes, and a nice suit jacket. I’ve challenged myself, too: On Valentine’s Day we dined at a fancy restaurant, where I ordered myself alcohol (gasp, so overpriced!), and enjoyed a four-course meal with zero regrets.
When my husband made the flippant comment about the cute gingerbread house, I saw a small reflection of who he was as a child and adolescent: Unaware of the difficulties that families of lower socio-economic statuses experience. He’s grown tremendously, partly because he’s married to me and understands my history, but also because his lived experiences have shaped his understanding. We married young, and lived through our own poverty, relying on the goodness of others, and lots of lentils and beans to see us through some tough financial years. Still, we remained privileged throughout this time — I can’t tell you how many times my mother-in-law paid for my groceries, or gave us a bit of money to see us through tough months. In my own way, I learned the benefits of having financial support from a parent.
One way that my husband and I have worked together is by creating long-term goals that we are both excited about. Edelman agrees that couples who are struggling to get on the same page should create these mutual long-term goals.
There are concerning behaviors to look out for when it comes to spending within a relationship. “A red flag is financial infidelity, as well as financial enabling. I have seen relationships destroyed over breach of trust,” says Edelman. Financial infidelity is when a spouse or partner is essentially secretive about their financial situation, whether it is spending cash, stashing cash into a separate account, or incurring debt without their partner’s knowledge. Financial enabling is when a partner enables or supports poor financial habits.
Five months ago my husband and I bought our first house together — a ramshackle townhouse in need of a lot of work. It took eight years of saving and dreaming, and was the biggest and most expensive purchase we’ve ever made in our lives. Miraculously, we managed to both agree on the home that we’d eventually purchase, and we also experienced the joy of meeting a major financial goal. I can’t help but wonder what the kid-version of my husband would have thought of his eventual home.
We’ve come a long way: A Canadian boy from an affluent family, and a Maltese girl that used to share a bedroom with her mother. Together, we’re meeting each other somewhere in the middle.