All couples have disagreements about finances—what to save, how to spend. Research indicates that it's more common for spouses to fight about money than about sex or in-laws. Daryl and Angela Dickhudt, of Bloomfield Township, Michigan, believe the statistics. In ten years of married life, finances have proved to be their biggest relationship hurdle. And, believe it or not, their troubles began after they became financially comfortable.
Poor, but Happy
Neither Daryl nor Angela was working when they married soon after graduating from Kalamazoo College. "We had this happy-go-lucky attitude," Angela says. "Our parents were more scared than we were."
Daryl got the first job he applied for—as a computer programmer. Angela, who had planned on entering the corporate world, ended up overseeing maintenance of executive vehicles at the Saturn headquarters while pursuing her MBA—in finance. The Dickhudts lived on a shoestring, like most newlyweds, and were perfectly happy.
"Back then our goal was to have a house," says Daryl. "Meeting that goal together was great."
"We also promised each other when we got married that we'd spend our five-year anniversary in Greece," Angela says. "And we did that. But after that we didn't have any specific goals for our money."
The big disagreements over finances came later, after Daryl's first promotion, which came with a significant salary increase. So how did two knowledgeable, happily married people end up struggling over money?
"In the early years, we didn't charge at all—because we couldn't," says Angela. "And you wouldn't believe the amount we saved in relation to what we were earning. But we were used to doing without luxuries, and we had goals. It seemed like when we were given little, we did amazing things with it. But when we were given lots, we got sloppy, careless."
The Price of Success
"Daryl was blessed with great salary increases," Angela says, "and we fell right into that 'keeping up with the Joneses' thing. 'So-and-so lives in that neighborhood; so can we.' Of course, we never stopped to think that 'the Joneses' are probably charging everything!"
Daryl puts the problem simply: "We had a hard time telling ourselves 'no' or 'wait.' Remember the Jeep?"
Angela laughs. "We drove rotten cars all through college and into our marriage," she explains. "Daryl's car was falling apart. We had to kick the door to open it. The windows wouldn't roll down. And the second we found out he was getting promoted, we ran right out and got a red Jeep Cherokee. We didn't wait to save a good down payment. The Jeep was the beginning of our slide into, well, pride. Into comparisons and overspending."
That first promotion doubled their income, and within a couple of years they were making about three times the amount they brought in as newlyweds. Daryl is still with the same company he started with 10 years ago, working as a computer consultant helping large companies change their computer systems and create business strategies.
But success brought challenges, namely comparing their own lifestyle with the way other people lived. So as they earned more money, they started spending it. But the American Dream became the Dickhudts' financial nightmare.
"We had some really painful episodes over the bills," Daryl says. During their money fights, he would grow quieter and quieter, and both of them were left depressed.
"Most of the time we'd blame each other, justifying every purchase we'd made," Angela says. "But then I'd end up in tears, blaming myself, since I'm the one who makes most of the grocery and household purchases. We'd go to bed anxious, thinking about checks that might bounce, and very sad—both of us."
"It felt like we were always under pressure," agrees Daryl. "There was never enough money."
"But of course there was," Angela says now. "I felt ashamed. I grew up with my mother, who worked as a secretary with a very low income. We went through some hardships, but I don't remember her worrying about checks bouncing. Then here I was with an MBA and a great job as financial analyst for a hospital. My mom thought, 'You've arrived. You're so successful.' But in actuality we were in worse shape than when we'd just graduated from college."
"We extended ourselves when we bought our second house, not really considering roof repairs and other expenses," says Daryl. "We took a nice vacation. We spent more at Christmas." Their family grew as Mackenzie (now three) and Rhys (one) came along. Angela cut her work hours in half.
"We were spending without planning, so we never had cash for when the car needed brakes or new tires. We'd turn to the credit cards," Daryl explains. "Credit cards were our big trap."
Angela and Daryl were increasingly fed up with their financial struggles, and they felt God was convicting them about poor money management. "We were headed for real trouble," says Angela.
For a long time, the only bright spot was that they'd stayed so committed to their giving for God's work. "A couple of times at Christmas we've adopted a needy family through Joy of Jesus, a local organization. That shakes me up," says Angela. "It's crushingly humbling in making me come to terms with how blessed we've been. When these families say, 'Thank you, thank you,' it's awful. I say, 'No! Don't thank me. Really, don't!' Because I know we don't deserve all the stuff we have."
"Sometimes God lays it on our hearts to give to people, and we don't have the money or the budget to do it," says Daryl. "That's when I think, 'We haven't lived up to what God wants us to do.'"
The Dickhudts identified three basic problems: they weren't accountable to a budget or to each other, they no longer worked toward shared financial goals, and they compared their belongings to what others owned. In the past few years, they've been attacking those problems. They found some help in Christian books on money management. They both started carrying pocket ledgers to record spending—"to help us see where our money was going," says Daryl. "We'd write down everything—gum, pop, gas for the car. We needed the discipline."
"Except that we didn't stick to it very well," Angela admits. "And even when it did help us see where we were misspending or wasting money, that wasn't always enough to stop us. We had to help each other keep choosing to live by the budget."
Now the Dickhudts agree on financial goals. "Every year around Christmas, we review our budget and do some planning—what we'd like to accomplish in the next year, in three years, even five years," Daryl explains. "The central goal is to be as debt-free as possible."
"A couple of years ago we were in big trouble with our credit cards, but now we're close to paying them all off," Angela explains.
"We're even trying to pay down the car loan," says Daryl. "Then we'll start on a good emergency fund."
Daryl and Angela now hold each other accountable on spending. "I try to let a new purchase sit in a closet, tags on, for a day or two, to make sure I haven't spent on impulse," Angela says. "I'm getting great at returning things! Sometimes Daryl will say, kindly, 'Don't you already have a dress that same color?' or something like that. It helps."
And when they're tempted to buy something beyond their means, they remind each other of the Jeep they no longer own.
"When we bought our mini-van—used—we didn't even look at new cars," agrees Angela. "We were afraid to, since we're both subject to letting pride take control of our senses!"
They haven't turned their backs on every luxury, though. They find inexpensive ways to have fun—going to the park, riding bikes in the summer and skiing in the winter. For their 10th anniversary later this year, they're headed for Hawaii—courtesy of Daryl's frequent-flyer miles, which will cover airfare and hotels. "Now we save up ahead of time," says Daryl. "We're not going to do anything we can't afford to do."
The Dickhudts seem convinced that only diligence and prayer for God's help will keep them from slipping back into old patterns. "I think it's our lifelong thorn in the flesh," says Daryl. But these days they're thanking God that fights over bills have turned into good communication and shared goals. And they're thankful they can go to bed feeling at peace again.
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