Business

A spreadsheet divided them

Posted March 1, 2018 12:10 p.m. EST

By Michael Taylor

The Smart Money

For Sonia, it felt like her husband Dave was having a separate relationship, one that didn't include her.

With whom, you may ask? With their household finance spreadsheet.

She told me "I felt Dave was having an affair with his spreadsheets, like it was something secret that I couldn't take part in." She said she wanted to be part of it, but it felt like he wouldn't ever include her.

Dave, an electrical engineer in space sciences at a local nonprofit, research and development organization in San Antonio, admits he likes his spreadsheets. But Dave disagrees with Sonia's description.

As he told me, "The truth is, Sonia helped me build the spreadsheet. I got the budget categories from (well-known finance guru) Dave Ramsey. I forwarded it to her, and she'd tweak it a little bit. I think she would agree she was included. She probably didn't want to be included. My perspective is: We both came up with the plan. The problem with it was sticking to the plan. Then later she would say, 'I don't want to talk about the spreadsheet.'"

And that description by Dave is quite different from the way Sonia experienced it. "I did have a part in creating the spreadsheet but once it was created, I felt excluded from maintaining it or suggesting changes to it," she told me.

In my self-appointed role today of pretending to be a financial therapist, these different narratives are troubling.

Now is the time I should mention: Sonia and Dave got divorced. They agreed to speak with me separately about their distinct approaches to shared household finances.

There's no villain here. Just two good people for whom shared financial responsibility couldn't reconcile happily. They both agree that irreconcilable approaches to spreadsheeting did not cause the divorce, but they also both describe it as an unresolved tension in their marriage.

Totally irreconcilable approaches to money are extremely common in couples. Google "top reasons for divorce" and money generally makes the top three of any list.

Dave's engineering mindset couldn't cope with Sonia's approach. He said, "I like to keep everything within a few squares. When I was a kid, I was certainly someone who likes to color within the lines. And Sonia was a person who colored outside the lines. I remember clearly coming home and there were a bunch of Target bags, and I'm like: where is this going to fit on the spreadsheet? We're going over our budget."

Dave described their differences like this: "She came at it from a quality-of-life approach. But the way I see it, you have $10, you can only spend up to $9.99. That thing over there would make my life enjoyable, but we don't have the extra money to do it. I'm an engineer, so numbers explain the world. When I talked to her about money, I used to get a blank stare."

Sonia also remembers being blamed, she felt unfairly, for making Target a favorite, well, target. Sonia, in recalling that same interaction, described it more as a glaring stare, rather than a blank one.

Sonia is an executive for a nonprofit organization in San Antonio. She has a professional life beyond yoga, but I first met her when she taught my daughters sun salutations in a local studio. In her office job she works with spreadsheets to track projects. But at home, rather than representing a shared solution, she felt the spreadsheet tended to limit their collaboration. She resented it.

I myself enjoy spreadsheets, but while listening to Dave I could empathize with Sonia's reaction to his "stay inside the lines" approach.

I'm interested in how couples communicate about their finances. We know that couples stress about, fight about and sometimes even break up about money. I think there's a book in there somewhere.

I've received nice feedback from readers about what works and what doesn't in their own lives. The struggle Dave and Sonia described reminded me of the vast difference between "here is the answer" and "what are the questions?"

Dave, with his engineer mindset, struggled with Sonia's yoga-teacher mindset. Dave remembers their marriage counselor telling him, "Your way is not the right way. Or the only way." So even while Sonia probably needed to work harder to fit inside the boxes, Dave probably needed to work harder to let go of his rigid plan. Sonia's feeling of exclusion was real, even if Dave didn't see that as a big problem, or the main problem.

The two now face financial challenges that come with divorce.

Sonia and I recently chatted about building her financial plan, now that she's single and head of her own financial household. We talked about her mortgage, savings and investments. I asked her if she had any money stranded in retirement plans with previous employers that she should "roll over" into a brokerage account. She looked sheepish.

She said, "I might have some." Sonia wasn't being coy. She just didn't know.

"That's why Dave loved his spreadsheets more than me. Because the spreadsheets always knew where the money was," Sonia told me.

On a positive note, we're coming up with a plan that doesn't involve a spreadsheet. She gave full custody of that to Dave in the divorce.