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- I grew up poor, while my husband was raised middle-class. Because of my upbringing, I had a lot of deep-rooted fears about money, and our different experiences sometimes made it difficult to make financial decisions.
- When we started to think about buying a house, I was paralyzed by fear until my husband asked me this question: What’s the worst that could happen?
- By thinking through worst-case scenarios and finding solutions, I’ve been able to overhaul my relationship with money. We now own two properties.
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My husband and I grew up in vastly different financial situations. My family was poor. My parents struggled to pay bills, and extravagances were off the table. My husband’s family was much more secure. As far as he knew, there were never times when his parents were financially stressed.
It turns out, those upbringings affected us well into adulthood. My husband and I had very different approaches to money. In the first few years of our relationship, this caused us to clash over financial decisions – until my husband asked a simple question:
What’s the worst that could happen?
This basic question changed how I thought about money and gave me the confidence to move forward with financial decisions. Here’s how the change unfolded.
Looking at money habits from our families of origin
To get on the same page about finances, my husband and I had to take a look at how our backgrounds affected our outlooks on finances. I don’t just mean the financial education (or lack thereof) that our families provided, but the deep ways that emotions from our childhoods affected the way we viewed money.
When I was growing up, there was never enough money. My parents scraped together what they had to give us a great childhood. But I knew from the time I got my first job that I wanted more financial security than my parents had.
Because of that, I micromanaged money. I saved what I could and was very risk-averse. My type-A personality latched on hard to the belief that if I just controlled my finances tightly enough, I could break the cycle of poverty.
My husband has a much more laid-back approach to money. He grew up in a middle-class family, but he always had enough money to meet his needs.
Because of that, he was more comfortable taking financial risks – life had taught him that money was a renewable resource that could almost always be replaced. Sure, there’s a lot of privilege in that approach, but it allowed my husband a lot of freedom, because what’s the worst that could happen?
Getting on the same page
Our monetary differences came to a head when we started to consider buying a house four years ago. My parents had never owned a home, so this was a huge emotional step for me. The truth is we were just able to squeeze past the underwriting qualifications to get a mortgage. I was worried that we weren’t old enough, weren’t established enough, and weren’t rich enough to own a home.
That’s when my husband sat me down and asked that all-important question: What’s the worst that could happen?
I thought about it. Worst, worst-case scenario: We wouldn’t be able to make our mortgage payments and would be foreclosed on. That means we’d have no home to our name and bad credit.
But at the time, our credit was far from ideal and we didn’t own a home anyway. In a terrible situation, we could bunk up with my mom. In short, we didn’t have much to lose.
More important, I knew we could make payments. In fact, our mortgage would be half what we were paying in rent, and we had never missed a rent payment.
I realized the issue was actually my emotional hang-ups about homeownership and other financial milestones that felt out of reach to me as a person who grew up poor. I knew we could make payments just fine. I just couldn’t believe that I was able to become a homeowner.
Taking the lesson forward
My husband’s question made me realize that my feelings of financial inadequacy – hangovers from the shame I felt growing up poor – were distorting my view of my financial reality. I wasn’t struggling anymore, and I deserved to take advantage of the financial security I had worked hard to achieve.
When I was struggling to make a financial decision I started asking myself, What’s the worst that could happen? Agonizing over the cost of childcare? The worst that could happen is I can’t afford it, so I pull my toddler out. Weighing home improvements? The worst-case scenario is we have a project halfway finished until we can afford to continue.
The question grounds me and helps me focus on reality, while putting emotions aside. Financial decisions can be scary, but in reality there’s usually not much to lose (at least at the financial level we’re at).
Now, it’s important to acknowledge that the worst-case scenario can be much more severe and scary for other people. I’m self-employed and have a variety of clients who give me a lot of security. No one can fire me.
In the worst case, if I were injured and unable to work, we have my husband’s income to fall back on. If things got even more dire and he lost his job, we could sell our rental property. Worst-case scenario, we could sell our home and move in with family.
Other people don’t benefit from this safety net, so I don’t take it for granted. When my husband and I got married, I got to share in some of his middle-class privilege and protection. Since then, we’ve been able to strengthen our safety net so that even the worst isn’t so scary.
It’s been four years since my husband first asked that question. In that time, we’ve faced a lot of financial unknowns: We bought a second house and started renting out our first home, and my husband unexpectedly lost his job and opted to stay home for a year with our second child.
Through it all, I kept myself focused on our long-term goals, including owning rental properties and having a great family-work balance. And when I doubted whether we were making the right decision, I asked myself again, What’s the worst that could happen? It turns out, nothing too scary.