Financial Infidelity

Here, in a nutshell, are the principles of economic empowerment handed down to me from the women in my mother’s family: Your money is your money. Your husband’s money is your money. All the money in the house and the bank is your money. A man only needs enough money in his pocket to buy a snack or, if he must, a lunch.

Imagine my surprise, and yes, even some guilt, when I recently learned that I’d been committing financial infidelity for years. My husband Ken doesn’t believe that all of our money is mine to control. Worse, Ken rarely buys anything for himself. For example, he put an iPod purchase on hold indefinitely until I gave him the darn thing for his birthday. Since I barely make enough money to merit a W2, it might appear that Ken bought the iPod for himself anyway. But in my paradigm of financial independence, appearances are often deceiving. There’s no question that I was the generous giver here.

Financial infidelity is virtually impossible to pull off without a trusting partner. But some perspective please: it’s not like I’m hiding a Swiss bank account. Ultimately, though, I’ve breached my husband’s monetary trust. If you ask Ken he’ll say the only way to make it up to him is to stop buying things I don’t need. He’s right of course, but it’s not that simple. Our standards about what I need often wildly diverge.

When my children were little they liked a song with tongue-in-cheek lyrics that went something like this: “Look left, look right—everything you see is mine.” As the self-appointed chief executive officer of my busy family of four, that pretty much sums up the perks I’ve awarded myself.

For example, after Ken dawdled for months about upgrading our television sets for the 21st century, I finally left the house one Saturday morning and became the proud owner of a forty-inch high definition TV. I announced to my stunned family that our new cable-ready addition was waiting to be unloaded and hooked up. It was apparent from the hurt look on my husband’s face that I had committed an indiscretion.

“I thought we were going to pick out a television together,” he said.

“You had almost a year,” I shot back.

“But this is a major purchase,” he complained.

“I know, it’s too heavy for me to lift by myself.”

My husband’s procrastination with regard to purchases (he’d argue it’s economic prudence) has an upside. It gives me the opportunity to jump in and do what I have to do making me, so far, the proud owner of a GPS, an iPad and another high-def TV for our bedroom. Financial infidelity? I call it reasonable upgrading.

Growing up my parents fought a lot about money—how Dad should earn more so Mom could spend more—an old-fashioned corollary to my mother’s mantras of economic empowerment. I’d go along on revenge shopping trips with my mother to Lord & Taylor where everything was bathed in gold light. I’ll never forget how beautiful my mother looked in her new gray suit with the military jacket and the killer boots she bought to go with it. All the money in the house was hers and she meant it. The day she went back to teaching full-time was the day she opened up her own checking account.

I’ve never thought of myself as financially unfaithful because of my own relatively harmless shopping habit. But there’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about financial infidelity. Suddenly I recognized the blood boiling, heart-racing telltale symptoms of my inner financial philanderer. Since I could never be as openly brazen as my mother, top on the list of can’t-miss signs was leaving purchases in the trunk of my car until the coast was clear. In other words—no witnesses.

Another sign.  Nine times out of ten I will carefully integrate a new piece of clothing or a pair of shoes into my wardrobe. I make it easier on myself by not buying two-toned platform leather boots, stunning as they were back in the day. Camouflaging a new handbag—my Achilles heel—is trickier, especially if it’s a tote or it’s not black.

Like most illicit affairs, my days of overt financial infidelity are winding down. My daughter is in college and I just sent back that designer bag I bought on whim, on-line, at two in the morning. But it seems that once you’re a shopping philanderer, you’ll always be a shopping philanderer. I’m sure there will be the errant purchase here and there—something on sale just begging to be bought. What else could I wear to my uncle’s recent surprise 70th birthday party  but a vest with tulle skirting attached? Reduced from $900 to $200. Just one left, lo and behold, in my size. (I’m wondering who bought the other pieces for almost a thousand dollars. I think, I know. Someone who’s finished paying tuition).

There’s a concrete bottom-line here: All the money in the house was my money. Now it’s being forked over for tuition in the foreseeable future. But I bet I’ll find a way to continue to sneak in chocolate and that pair of shoes that was wondrously reduced just for me.

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