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My Husband and I Lived Paycheck to Paycheck Until We Did This

I half-expected the financial planner to stamp “BROKE” on our file and declare us beyond help.

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Checkbook, aarp, sisters
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I was 7 years old and had recently come into possession of a whole $2.50. You couldn’t tell me nothing.

“You act like that money is burning a hole in your pocket,” my mom said. “Why don’t you put that in your savings account?”

But I had already figured out exactly how many 7-cent Blow Pops and 15-cent Milky Way bars $2.50 could buy, and I was determined to spend it all at the candy store.

Mom and dad were big savers and tried to get me to do the same. But even as a child I was too grown to take their advice. And as I got older, I didn’t get any wiser about my finances. I kept a roof over my head and food on the table, but that was about as far as my vision and my dollars stretched. Even when I was earning a salary that theoretically allowed me to save, the most I ever managed was to stash a little in my company’s 401(k). Friends got married and our conversations turned to mortgages, college funds and home equity loans. But I was still single, and despite my dad’s encouragement to consider buying a place, figured all that could wait until I tied the knot.

Besides, thinking about money made me uncomfortable. I knew I’d mindlessly spent my way through my early earning years, and since I couldn’t make up the time or money, I fell back on avoidance. I hired an accountant to do my taxes but tuned out when we reviewed my returns. I had no idea how my 401(k)s from previous jobs were invested nor how much they were worth. I never kept a budget. I’d thought about hiring a financial planner, but the prospect of being confronted with exactly how badly I’d messed up, and for how long, made my stomach churn. Besides, wasn’t paying someone to manage your money only for folks with stocks and bonds and property? I’ll wait until I amass a big enough stake and then I’ll get help, I thought.

So I kept myself willfully ignorant. And when my parents asked if I was saving money toward a down payment on a condo, I lied to hide my shame. How could I admit I didn’t have enough to cover emergencies?

Eventually I got married to a man whose familiarity with long-term financial planning barely exceeded my own. When I got laid off, I dipped into my savings account until it dropped below $50 and I was forced to close it. I started freelancing while my husband worked at a worthy but low-paying nonprofit, but we started falling into credit card debt. Our joint earnings barely covered our living expenses and a-few-dollars-over-the-minimum credit card payments. The only future I saw for myself was as the world’s oldest Uber driver.

I finally realized that we’d never be able to save money without help. So I found a planner that another freelancer friend assured me worked with people of various means.

The goal of our first meeting was to accurately total our debts and assets. Even our families didn’t know the truth, and we were about to lay it all bare to a stranger. With a sense of dread, my husband and I began writing. The experience was deeply humbling. When all you can do is shrug when you’re asked your net worth — and you’re closer to retirement age than college age — there can be no doubt that you’ve made poor decisions. As I whispered our credit card and bank balances to the planner, my face grew hot with shame.

I half-expected the money pro to stamp “BROKE ASS” on our file and declare us beyond help. But, to my surprise, instead of a rebuke he offered a roadmap to move forward.

“Everyone I meet thinks their finances are a total disaster,” he reassured us. “I’ve seen much worse.”

Yes, credit card interest made every payment feel like throwing money down a deep well. But my one good habit of always paying more than the minimum meant we’d been reducing our balance, albeit slowly. And there was good news: My neglected 401(k)s had actually grown to a respectable sum.

So the planner drew up plans to grow our retirement accounts while attacking our debt. Next, he asked us what age we wanted to stop working. Based on our current annual expenses, he calculated how much money we’d need to live on and exactly how long we had to save it. The figure was high but not crazy. And since I’ve always been goal-oriented, having a hard figure and timeframe to work toward was really motivating.

Since that first meeting, we’ve set up a debt consolidation plan and streamlined my 401(k)s into a single IRA. My husband and I have kept our eyes on the prize and are sticking to the plan. And I have to admit, finally being able to see a way out of the mess I made is way more satisfying than any candy store bonanza.