A Debt-Free Love Story: How One Couple’s Promise to Stop Using Credit Cards Rekindled Everything

There was this fight over money between us.  It wasn’t an overt fight—we weren’t screamers and we didn’t like to argue—but it was there, permeating the room all the time like a poisonous gas, sightless and scentless but lethal just the same.  It infected everything.  It was a silent-treatment standoff of a fight over who wasn’t earning enough, which of our money choices was making the relationship unstable, and which of us was to blame for our debt and the reverberating mess.

Maybe, had we fought it out, had we raised our voices and splattered the walls with our shame and frustration, we would have done better.  But, no—scratch that—the couples we knew who fought loudly and nastily over money had already perished as a team, and had long ago hit the road looking for less landmine-filled nesting grounds.

There was the crazy stuff:  we’d hear about secret post office boxes with $200,000 in credit card debt that was hidden from the other partner, and then, the burn-all-bridges divorce.  Or one partner’s leveraging of all they had for a jewelry stash worth more than their house.  But it was the everyday, “normal” stuff that was most upsetting.  Every couple we knew had trouble with overspending, blame and money vagueness, and angst with each other about it.  There always seemed to be one partner in these pairings who thought that their money issues were the other’s fault.  And debt, it seemed, began to play a bigger and bigger role. 

So, we said to ourselves, maybe it’s just about working harder.  Maybe we should do everything we can to make more money and work more hours.  But that made no sense since my husband already had two school jobs—one very physical one and another teaching, and I worked like crazy, moving from one high-pressure non-profit job to another searching for higher pay and more sanity.

Then again, maybe it was about having fewer needs—or, no needs, really.  But self-deprivation would realistically only last us a month or two—three at the outside—and then we were back to what it really cost us to live, to what we were doing with credit to fund our expenses, and to facing off on our “wants.”

So, we parted.  We couldn’t “get” it; we couldn’t figure it out.  With no extra money and mounting debts, long-term counseling was not an option.  We didn’t know what to do.

I remember when it hit me that we were about to break.  We were sitting at The Tadich Grill in San Francisco—a dinner my husband was going to put on our already racked-up credit card—and I was softly crying, telling him how miserable I was at my work, and that I needed to change.  “You can’t leave,” he said, panic rising in his voice.  “We need that money to pay the minimums.”

When we divorced I went into a spin about my work and my direction in life.  I was afraid I harbored an inability to love.  There were things I wanted in the world—most of them creative aspirations—but it didn’t seem right or fair or even necessary that these should get in the way of real love.  I still loved my ex-husband, but there it was:  I lived in Los Angeles, and he lived in San Francisco, and though we talked on the phone from time to time and always made each other laugh, we were no closer to solving our issues.  I had moved with $700 in my purse, my car filled with clothes and a friend’s place to stay until I found work.  My money problems were not improved by my leaving, and I knew it.

In L.A. the relationship money stakes were higher.  I was just as likely to date an under-earning carpenter with a twice-a-year, day-player gig on a soap opera as I was a man who had $400,000 in indie-filmmaker credit card debt.  Leveraging borrowed money, in some dating circles, was an art form.

But it was what I faced in myself once I was on my own that was eating at me.  It seemed I was the common denominator.  I wrote grants for a living—a kind of cosmic joke, my work being all about raising money—and would earn just enough to cover my expenses for a while and then spend the extra cash until it ran out.  Then I used credit to live until I found another gig.  All I wanted was time—to figure out what in the world I could do that I enjoyed, what would support me. 

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