Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Early Years: From Wedding to Waffles

Have you ever wondered why it is traditional to give engaged couples so many presents? Why do they need 12 of those very expensive goblets? Is registering for a drill or a waffle maker really necessary? I can remember registering for my wedding and feeling so horribly guilty when selecting my china set. In the end, I opted for an every day set of dishes instead. I didn't want my friends and my parents friends to have to pay for those dishes. "I can buy them later if I want them," is what I thought to myself at the time.

However, what I didn't realize then, and what I realize now is... no you can't buy them later. Or if you do buy them later, later may be in 10 or 15 or 20 years because shelling out a huge chunk of money for dishes is going to be a very low priority for a very long time. There is a reason that so many businesses take out small business loans when they are starting. It is difficult to begin something from nothing and it is expensive. In many ways, getting married is a lot like starting a small business. You start with very little (or nothing) and out of that attempt to build a life together, and it would be so helpful if there was a loan for that... that you never had to pay back.

Registering for that waffle maker may seem frivolous and greedy to you before you are married, but when you eat nothing but waffles for your first year of marriage, you realize what an amazing gift that waffle maker was. The chances are, if you neglected to register for a waffle maker (which we did), it might take you about 10 years to get around to being able to afford the frivolous, luxury items. (After 9+ years of marriage, we just bought our first real waffles maker a few weeks ago, and we LOVE it.)

Most of the things in my kitchen are from my wedding. Ten years later, I am still so very thankful that my Mom was with me in the process of registering. "Don't just think about now," she would say, "Think about your future." I had no idea what she was talking about then, but I sure do now. She was saying that the start of a marriage is hard work. It is hard times financially, and the baby years are even tougher. She was saying that in ten years time, when I still haven't bought my china, I may be very glad that I registered for a blender, or silverware, or my beautiful goblets, and really wish that I had registered for china. These items don't make your marriage, but trying to figure out how to afford glasses, silverware, and plates so that you can eat can really put stress on your marriage. The cost doesn’t seem like much before you are married, but as the fees for starting electricity at your new apartment, or bills from eating out on your honeymoon, or even moving expenses add up… having to spend another $30 for a waffle maker can feel like an enormous amount.

There is just so much expense to starting a life together. Yes, you may have two salaries, but you also have repairs on two vehicles. You have twice the need for groceries, toiletries, clothing, hobbies, health insurance. And then comes the desire to buy a house, and then furnish a house, and then the infinitely worthwhile, but enormous cost of having a baby. The start up costs for newly weds are definitely daunting.

In my experience, there seems to be two paths to take in the financially landmine-filled newlywed land: either you dig a deep hole of debt, or you live on Ramen noodles (for those of you that have never eaten Ramen noodles, you aren't missing anything at all - especially nutritionally, but you do feel full and they only cost $.25 a package.) The point is, either you learn how to budget and to live within what God has given you to live on, or you run the risk of sabotaging your financial life for years to come. Unfortunately, it isn't very fun to think about your budget when you are in the honeymoon faze of marriage, but it can save you so much hardship.

I think it is also so important during the beginning years to realize that you aren't being deprived and you are not the exception. Virtually everyone who is married (unless they inherited wealth or made their fortune first) has had to go through the lean times of early marriage. You both come from different backgrounds in your approach to money and finances and that takes some adjustment and negotiation. There are also so many startup costs to the early years. Guess what? Everyone around you realizes this and if they are married, they have been through this too. This is actually the real reason why they are so thrilled to be able to bless you with a wedding present. You are not alone and this beginning is just part of the journey.

As part of this beginning, it takes some work to learn to cooperate financially with another person. On the one hand this can be a blessing because you have such a great ally in accountability with spending; however, if you are both prone to spending, cooperation may mean that you end up in a spending spree. The key is to find a system that works for both of you, allows you freedom, helps you to communicate, and keeps you both heading towards the same goal financially.

So, if you are newly married, or engaged, or just considering marriage, determining a budget may be one of the best things that you do for your future together. However, also realize that your budget is going to need lots of adjustment in the first year. Don't write the budget in stone, but rather keep the conversation about your money going. There is so much to learn about each other when you are newly married, but there is also so much to look forward to.

In my opinion, it's not the surprise expenses, or the lack of resources that make the first years hard. It's when communication breaks down that things get tough. As long as you are talking about where you are and coming together in agreement over your finances (even if it's just to agree how disgusting Ramen noodles are), then you are in it together. And as difficult as the circumstances might be, that togetherness will put a rosy glow over every part of the early years. Just ask anyone with a vibrant marriage that has been married a while and they will probably tell you... yea, the first years were hard, but we also wouldn't trade them for the world. Even what is heavy becomes lighter when the burden is shared. The ugly things become beautiful when there is love. And the sweetest moments of your life can happen sitting in an apartment with little furniture, eating waffles because it's all that is left in your pantry and loving every minute of sharing life with your very best friend. Because the truth is, it’s not in the wedding service or even on honeymoon that you discover the incredible gift that God has given you in your spouse, it’s in the early years.