This chapter is about discussing and arranging finance with your partner. It can be hard discussing money with anybody, since it is often taboo or sacred or the source of fear. It can be harder still talking about it with the person that you love most, when all the other triumphs and disasters of the relationship can creep in at the edges of the money.
Let me start by telling you a story. It is the story of the one time in my life when I intentionally sold something.
I was taught to sell. I was never very good at it, that’s why more than half of my 4-6 jobs that ended with redundancy finished up that way, I couldn’t earn enough commission to keep employers happy! But I always wanted to be an “expert”, somebody you asked for advice, not somebody who sold things, even things that people wanted to buy. I never felt comfortable selling. I always gave people advice and waited for them to buy products or more of my advice.
I was due to see a couple about their finances. They were coming in to my office, but we had a big open plan “aeroplane hanger” with paper everywhere. I was wondering about taking them to the nearest coffee bar and saying that the office was being repainted or something. Then the couple turned up with their three children in tow, “sorry, is that OK, my sister was supposed to have the children, but something came up”. Fortunately my boss was out, so I grabbed his office. I sat at the desk with the couple, while the three children slowly but efficiently wrecked everything in the office under two feet high.
It wasn’t actually a requirement then (it definitely is now) but I always liked to get a full picture of what was going on. Even if somebody “just wanted a mortgage” I’d find out what else was going on for them. It was partly because there were often things that they didn’t realise they could use, partly because it is the professional thing to do and mainly because I’m incurably nosy.
So we went through various questions about their finances, what they planned etc. And after about half an hour, several apologies from mother, three admonitions, “George, don’t do that, the man will take it away from you if you do that” and so on, we got to life cover. Father was obviously a bit uneasy.
You’ll remember from earlier that I think you need to work out what income you need to provide if you’re ill or dead, and death is a problem when you have dependents or you have commitments like a house with an outstanding mortgage. The wife didn’t go out to work (three children under five strikes me as being more work and longer hours than a junior doctor anyway) so the sole breadwinner was the husband. They’d got a mortgage. They’d got three dependent children. So I figured they should have life and health insurance on both of the adults, because if something happened to either of them, the survivor was going to be in a lot of trouble.
I asked about life cover on the wife. She looked at the husband. “No, well, she doesn’t work”. I wasn’t a psychologist then, but even I could see the warning lights flashing in her eyes. But he was oblivious.
“Have you got any income protection insurance on either of you?”, I asked. There was a bit of confusion, so I explained that this wasn’t medical fees cover, it was so that they had an income if one of them was ill or in an accident. He said he’d be paid by work if he was ill. I asked, “for how long”. She was obviously very interested in this answer. This time, he realised that she was interested. “For a long time, they’ll look after me, it’s OK”. I asked, all innocence, whether they would pay him until the children were old enough to leave home if he was in a car accident, say, and unable to work.
There was more hesitation. He mumbled the usual lines about being a careful driver, he wouldn’t be injured, “never had a day sick in my life, ha, ha!” She was really taking an interest now, so as one of the brood tried to chew his way through the bookcase, her attention was entirely on her spouse.
“All right” I said, “I think it would be a good idea to check on the period for which you’d get paid, and perhaps arrange something for when your pay would stop.” He agreed, very quickly. He obviously wanted to get out of there, even though his wife’s expression suggested that leaving would be very much out of the frying pan into the fire.
“The other thing”, I said, “is life cover on you. Do you know how much cover you have through work?” Panic flared up in his eyes. “It’s OK”, he said, very slowly, “I’ve taken care of it”. Often, in the past, I’d left things there. But with three children I really thought I’d got to get something sorted out for them. It wasn’t about me being scared of selling, it was about being professional. If he wasn’t going to deal with his own responsibilities over money voluntarily, maybe I’d have to prompt him to do it. “You’ve taken care of it?” I echoed. He nodded. “Fine” I said, poising my pen over my notepad, “how much is it you’ve arranged?”
There was a pause. She shifted in her seat, looking from my face, to his and back again. He looked down. “I’ve got it in hand, you don’t need to worry about it”, then he shouted at the only child who wasn’t currently trying to destroy something and said they’d better be going.
It was decision time. I’d been taught to sell. I knew what I needed to do. I just had to have the courage to do it. I made my decision.
“That’s fine. But could you do me a small favour?” He said yes, grateful that I’d let him off the hook. “Just so that I understand things, I’d like to do a little bit of acting. What I’d like, Mr Client, is for you to be me. And Mrs Client, I’d like you to be your husband, just for a moment, and if it is OK, I’ll be you. Now, I’m afraid, Mrs Client, that you don’t have much to do, because you – that is, Mr Client – have just died. So I’m Mrs Client, and I’ve come to you Mr Client, as my financial advisor, to find out what to do. I’ve got no income, I have three children under five and my husband has just died”, and I indicated Mrs Client, who by this time was a rather more menacing corpse than “The Mummy”. “Now” I said, looking at Mr Client, “as my advisor, what do you suggest I do about feeding and housing the children?”
And, for once in my life, I stopped talking.
This was straight out of the textbook. The secret was, let them speak. Whoever speaks first has lost. I had never seen it as a game of win or lose, but this time, I did. The books said you might have to wait five seconds, it might be as much as a minute. But even if it was an hour, don’t say anything. Don’t say, “well”, clear your throat or anything, just let the silence work on them.
After what was probably five seconds (it seemed like a minute or two) he cleared his throat, started to speak and tailed off.
After another ten seconds or so (this one seemed like at least twenty minutes) his nerve started to crack and he began to say something. At that point, the “corpse” returned from the dead.
“Shut up” she said to him, forcefully enough momentarily to stop the children, even the one attempting to dismember her handbag. “You told me you’d sorted this out”. On the receiving end he tried to dig his way backwards through his chair, “well…” he said. “I trusted you to sort it out, you said you had. How would we be if you had died. What would have happened to me, to your children?”
I wondered about intervening. It seemed quite possible that she would a) kill him before any policy could go into force and b) use her handbag as the handiest blunt instrument with which to do the deed, which would involve projecting the child clinging to it either into its father’s head or the wall behind him.
But he saved the day, “I’m sorry, can we …..” he started. “Shut up”, she said. Turning to me, she said “Mr Stephenson, what should we do?”
We got some details sorted out, I made a couple of phone calls, we arranged a medical, I got the details of his company’s HR department so I could check what cover he’d already got and gave them some literature on “housewife” health insurance policies. Any time it looked like he was going to protest, she gave him a “if you think you’re in trouble now, just you wait until we’re out of earshot of third parties and children and you’ll understand what trouble is,” look and he subsided.
I don’t honestly know whether they ever needed to use the insurance we arranged that day at any time before the children grew up. I hope not, because I hold the family in great affection as the only people with whom I ever used a sales technique. I’d be sad to think that one of them died or was injured before their time. But of course, if they were, the survivor and the children would be upset, but at least they wouldn’t be in financial trouble as well.
There are several useful lessons for couples in that story – and by the way it is true. OK, maybe the children weren’t quite that cutesy, and the dialogue isn’t word for word (I didn’t tape it) but the basic situation, events and outcome are all completely true.