[ Pick a Dollar, Any Dollar ]

How Financial Abuse Made Me Financially Strong Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash There was this game my husband would play. He would splay out bills in front of me but do it in such a way that I couldn’t see the denominations, fanning them like cards. Maybe ten to twenty bills, a span of tightly splayed green. “Pick two.” “Nah…pick three; I’m feeling generous,” he’d say, a broad smile on his face. This was fun for him. I didn’t want to play along. Or maybe I did, hoping I would choose the most valuable ones that day. There was always a chance I would get at least one twenty. That chance was always there because, if I picked just ones or fives, he cherished the moment when he could wag the twenty in front of me, jubilant, swinging it back and forth, laughing that I hadn’t gotten it that time. “You’ll be fine,” he’d say while looking at the tens or fives in my hand, “How much could you need, anyway?” When I did hit the jackpot, scoring $20, $30 or more, he’d say I was all set for the day, plenty of money. Good to go. I got used to feeling like that was plenty. I could stretch it. When I went grocery shopping, usually every Saturday or Sunday, it was a similar scenario, but with his debit card. “How much are you going to spend?” He’d ask. Then, whatever amount I gave him, he would insist on less. I quickly learned to aim high so that his lower number matched what we really needed. The funny thing is, I learned to get by, feeding a family of 5 on as little as $150 a week. I didn’t learn until much later that my budget was laughably low. I bragged to my mother-in-law one day that I had found a laundry detergent that was just pennies-per-wash. “You should try it,” I beamed. “But does it get anything clean?” She asked. I was crestfallen. I had only thought of saving money, not getting the job done. Years later, in therapy, I kept telling my therapist over and over what a good husband and father my guy was. I ended most of my sentences with but. She would nod her head. “He’s great, but I wish…” “He works so hard but I never…” “I feel like we should be further ahead, but…” After about a year of these, she finally asked. “Are you sure he’s so great?” “What actually makes you feel secure in this relationship?” I was at a loss. I knew. I didn’t feel secure; I felt like I was constantly worried about money, worried that there wasn’t any, wasn’t enough, was none left for me. I started to piece together all of the financial worries, all of the parts. I began to talk to her about the long history of our marital finances and where we were with all of it. During our marriage, I had gone back to college to finish my undergrad degree. When I took out my student loans, I did so by myself, with my mother as my co-signer. When I graduated, and the loans came due, he said, “those are yours to pay, not mine. You didn’t help me pay my student loans.” He was right; I didn’t. His loans were nearly paid when we met, and we had a child right away, so I didn’t work. It was a slippery argument, but I didn’t push back. I also didn’t have enough money to pay my loans, so my mom made the first couple of payments. I was accepted to graduate school right away, and the loans were deferred. His reaction? “Great, now you’ll just owe more.” My reaction? (Not aloud) “I’ll have more education than you, and maybe someday I’ll make more money…we’ll just see.” In those therapy sessions, I began to realize that things like the money game, and the grocery limit, and the response to my Master’s degree — all of those were financial abuse. I didn’t have a name for it at the time, but the signs were all coming together, becoming clearer to me. So instead of pushing the “eject” button, I started saving. Thanks to his insistence that I pay my own student loans, I had my own, separate bank account. I began putting more and more money aside for myself. More and more in amounts that I knew were just for me. I knew if I was responsible for my student loans, I was also responsible for my future. I kept talking with my therapist about how it felt to be told that I had a small allowance with which to buy the kids’ shoes in the fall for school and the look on the kids’ faces when they couldn’t get the ones they wanted, only to watch him go to the Steelers game the following weekend, spending hundreds on tickets, food, and beer. I talked through how he was earning the top salary a teacher could make and taking several side gigs but consistently complained that there wasn’t enough left over. How could that be? We did not live lavishly. We did not take big vacations or drive fancy cars. He took a big vacation every year, though, all by himself. With “the guys.” Within 18 months, I had enough money saved and enough therapy to finally see clearly. I moved out. I had money for my own apartment. I had a security deposit, and I didn’t have to play “pick a card” to get it. I had asked him to come to therapy with me. I had given him an entire year to choose therapy. He refused. So I used that year to save and save and save. In the year following, I saved for an attorney. In the two years after that, I saved for a down payment for a house. When we got divorced, he was furious when he learned that I was entitled to the lion’s share of our mutual assets because I had been a stay at home mother before I went to college. He was baffled to learn that I am entitled to a greater portion of his retirement because I entered the workforce much later than him. He clung to those assets the way he clung to those dollar bills splayed out in front of me, only to learn that his selfishness was misplaced — both then and now. He was angry to learn that, in part, this judgment came because he had not cooperated in paying my student debt, had not contributed to child care while I was getting my college degree, and had used a portion of my student loans for our shared living expenses. As for me, I used that college education, my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees to ambitiously climb the professional ladder. I saw to it that I now out-earn him by a significant margin. That my 401k has grown larger than his. That I am now an executive at a startup poised to see greater growth than a public school teacher could anticipate. Throughout that journey, I never once had to “pick a card.” I will never again in my life, pick a card, any card, under any circumstance. Now, I pick stocks; I pick my team, I pick winning paths, and most important of all — I pick me.