Surreal Estate: Marriage and Money
By Lady Lazarus on November 23, 2012
Ah, let’s talk about in-laws.
Among the many topics percolating in my mental soup is my mother in law. Let’s call her J-Mom. J-Mom has taken it into her head to set us up in life, to help us buy a house. As a very pragmatic woman, with an eye for budgeting, she’s helped us crunch numbers and we discovered that We Could Do This. With her help on the down payment and taxes, Mr. Liz and I could actually afford a house. This blows my mind. And I need to talk about it.
I did not come from money. My family, in the decades before little-me appeared, was pretty comfortable. Standard middle class white America. A home was owned. Dogs were walked. Parties were held and vacations had. Sure, it was all on a modest scale, but it was there. And then it was not.
I’m not clear on what happened, but there was some sort of problem, and the house and any sizeable assets were lost. Sure, we had our furniture and stuff, and our car, so we weren’t exactly the fever dream of the bleeding hearted (or the nightmare of the well-heeled). But we were scraping silently behind our lace curtains. This is my normal, this sort of struggle. You know, the 47%.
No one would have ever known it, but we plain didn’t have money. We were able to keep the secret for a long enough time, but that will catch up to you. If you are in a community where money matters, those that do not have it take on an invisible stamp. We lived very isolated in a wealthy town, somehow able to make rent. We lived too close to over our means just to keep me in good schools, and later in county college to save money. When I was able I, too lived too close to over my means to help out with household expenses. And it literally cleaned me out. I took a Masters’ degree to (hopefully) get me the sort of salary and stability to halt this cycle with me, so my kids will never have to go through what I did.
And I don’t think I need to describe student loan debt, do I?
So enter Mr. Liz. And J-Mom. She really took a shine to me when he and I were dating, and has since gone whole-hog with that “gaining a daughter” thing. Really, it’s been a lovely experience overall. I have to once more get used to having family around. One thing I was not prepared for was how common it is for families to help their kids out financially. J-Mom footed the big wedding bills, like catering, and on some level, I thought “welp, that’s it, you’ve used up your parental assistance budget! Now she’s going to watch lovingly from the sidelines, but you blew your wad, kids!”
Except now we’re talking about houses, mortgages, taxes, and other exotic creatures. And I still haven’t got over my guilt for not being able to completely pay for my own wedding! (Irrational guilt often comes with money troubles, as that wise philosopher over at Cracked.com points out. Go get on his bus, people!)
J-Mom makes what for her are perfectly normal suggestions such as “if I give you the down payment, you can buy this house for X dollars in monthly payments….” Then she does some tablecloth arithmetic and, I don’t know, possibly demon summoning, and ends up with a monthly payment that is half our current rent. And my ego concedes that this is sensible. My id, meanwhile, is in a closet, hyperventilating into a brown paper bag.
She wants to help us, and has the best of intentions. The thing is, her baseline of living, her most basic budget, is my wildest dream of avarice! Owning property? Maintaining an investment? Deductions for doing so on my taxes? These are perfectly normal things in my husband’s family. But I literally cannot fathom living like my in-laws. That’s not a criticism, but the idea of having nest eggs, savings accounts, properties (as opposed to only being able to plan them) is so strange to me you may as well ask me how I’d decorate my tentacles if I grew them out. Their mere existence would be so foreign to my life that I’m not sure I could get over that and even think about details!
J-Mom and I have had some pretty frank discussions about our backgrounds, so she knows what my mother and I went through. She rather astutely observed that my fears about this “come from poverty”.
Poverty – not something I find applicable to myself. I’ll claim many words and images: “poor”, “broke”, “frugal” (of course!), “on a budget”, “shoestring”, and so on. But “poverty”? Surely not. I never went to bed hungry, I went to Catholic schools, I didn’t find myself falling down various axes of economic and racial oppression that pervert our country. I am deliriously lucky to have been born into my family, into their collective knowledge and privilege, and to look and sound the way I do.
But I can’t deny I came from a different fabric than my in-laws. Her family consists of kids that grew up on a farm, and went to attain an assortment of careers and degrees. Their father was a builder, so there was a great deal of property in the family, wealth that stayed there. Wealth, not riches. This is a very important distinction to make. J- Mom did struggle for many years, and built up wealth of her own. My family struggled for years and we sort of broke even. Like many with little money, we knew all about savings, houses, and other middle class apparatus, but were obliged to keep this all theoretical.
Now I’m in a position where I not only can, I should consider all these impossibly middle-class things. Of course I’d like to have a little house. Not some place to spend the rest of our lives, but to start out and build our nest egg. So we can actually achieve what I have wanted all my life. It’s just odd. A very good “problem” to have, but still odd. On some level, I presumed I’d muddle through, but I never considered things like property ownership in terms of something I could do. I’m delighted, grateful, apprehensive, eager, and all sorts of things, which I suppose is simply part of life. But yes….surreal.
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