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OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: Love means frank talk and joint investment in a future

by Sarah Catherine Gutierrez | February 9, 2021 at 1:54 a.m.

This Valentine's Day I have the greatest love story for you -- in fact two love stories bundled into one. I am calling this the "Romancing of the Financial Cornerstone."

Love and money are inextricably linked, for better or worse. For worse, newlyweds might begin their tender first year of marriage with credit card debt from the wedding, massive student loan burdens that loom over the marriage or years of payments on engagement rings. Financial decisions made with little thought or conversation weigh on even the sweetest relationships. Statistics sadly tell us that these patterns can ultimately become a breaking point.

Bonnie Thomas, a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist at The Finding Place Counseling and Recovery, warns that "the consequences of mismanaged finances will erode romantic love. It's hard to be emotionally connected when you are financially avoidant, resentful or in opposition."

But what of healthy financial management between lovebirds?

Meet Angela, who shortly after college met and, after three years of courtship, married Drew. They came from middle-class, farming families and planned to follow in their families' footsteps. They had no student loan debt, but they were broke -- and abundantly happy.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehsljj_83uQ]

Their comingled financial life began on their honeymoon trip to Canada. Drew had saved up for it, but they needed a credit card to rent a car. In that moment, Angela had to "fess up" that while she had a credit card, it was maxed out. In her words, "not ideal, but I think it set us up for success." Their first difficult conversation happened on their honeymoon, where they both contributed and agreed to "hard rules and lofty goals" for their finances. Thus, a great love story unfolded.

Their first home was a farm shop on his parents' farm, where they lived for 6 years and into which they brought their first son. Angela recalls that it didn't look like a farm shop because of a drop ceiling they installed, but they were reminded from time to time when cats, birds or bats would occasionally drop through a tile to say hello. Even though they made so little, Drew as a farm employee and Angela as a teacher, they dreamed big. Their dreams drowned out the occasional ridicule from friends for how they chose to live.

Their dream? To purchase farmland, and together they bought their first 80 acres. It was all they could afford, but they committed to each pay $650 a month from their pay (a steep sum for them) toward the mortgage to pay it down faster. Extra mortgage payments would free them up to buy more land down the road.

After they had their first son, Angela panicked that with the cost of diapers and new baby, they couldn't keep making those extra payments. Maybe they could just skip one month? Drew reminded her of their plan, and Angela said his words became an anchor for her. "If we said 'no' this time, it would be easier another month to say 'no' to writing the check." They found the money elsewhere in the budget.

She recounted a time that their baby was hospitalized with meningitis, and after he recovered the bills came in. Drew came home to find her crying over the bills, and according to Angela, "Without looking at the amount, he firmly said, 'I don't ever want you to cry over money again. We can work through this if we don't let it beat us.'" He reminded her that they had jobs, insurance, their health and a healthy baby. Their plan and discipline bought them the luxury that money didn't need to be a source of conflict, fear, anxiety or sadness.

On Jan. 28, 2012, Drew passed away from an illness that took him far too early. He left Angela behind with two children. The insurance agent arrived the next day with his life insurance check. That money came in time to pay burial expenses, but for Angela, this was a reminder of the inextricable link of love and the planning she and Drew did. They had a financial defense even for the unthinkable. She grieved for her husband but did not have to fear for how she would make it financially raising two children on her own.

Love found Angela again in 2013. Alan and Angela married, and a new, different but beautiful love story unfolded, built on similar principles and dreams. In the beginning, they both worked at Alan's construction company, raising a herd of cattle on the side.

In 2014, they established Rabbit Ridge Farms, a dream for a new kind of farm that they wanted to build together with truly free-range animals. The dream expanded to include a vision of people gathering at the farm. Working together toward this common vision was fun for them. In 2017 they built an events venue together where people could stay overnight and host weddings and other joyous occasions. Building the farm marked a different season of life, but their commitments stayed the same. They would build it as they went with little to no debt. Every time they needed new equipment or a new barn or structure, they would scrimp and save and work until it was built.

They phased out the construction company, and together they have continued to grow Rabbit Ridge Farms while putting four children from their blended family through college without taking on student loans and continuing to live frugally on the farm.

While these fundamental money and marriage principles endured and felt second nature to her, Angela remembers a moment that stopped her in her tracks. Her son wanted to quit a sport, but Alan objected. His words? "The first time quitting might be hard, but if you start, it will get easier each time." Obviously, this was a recurring theme in both finances and family.

Angela talks openly with their children about love and money. For her, the legacy they leave behind will be more than financial. She wants her children to see that what matters in a marriage is continued trust, honest conversations, commitment, self-control, the desire to resolve conflict, the ability to delay gratification, contentment, and a whole lot of excitement working toward common goals.

While this is not the usual vocabulary of money, when we consider each word, we realize that they are the emotional and financial deposits into the hopes, dreams and future of our love stories.

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book "But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life," published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at sc@aptusfinancial.com.

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