How to Tell Your Spouse You Lost $70,000
I forgot to claim stock options. They expired. Did I have to tell my husband?
This is a story about the last time I lost $70,000. It’s a hilarious tale: I forgot to claim some stock options. They expired. One day I had $70,000 waiting to be claimed, and then, about a month later, when I realized I had forgotten to click the “exercise trade” button on my computer—poof!—the opportunity was gone. It’s hard to describe the feeling exactly. I imagine you could replicate the effects by lying on the ground and having a friend drop a bowling ball on your abdomen from atop a stepladder. There’s a little shock, some confusion, pain, nausea, and a profound wish that this had happened to somebody else. For a while, it hurts to breathe.
The closest memory I could associate it with was when, as a young girl, I tried to make Jell-O in a mold like the picture on the package. I had told — maybe “boasted to” is the more accurate term — my whole family that I would make dessert that night. I didn’t wait long enough (the irony), and when I turned the Jell-O mold over, my family waiting expectantly at the table, the not-quite-set dessert slithered in a single blob out of the mold, off the plate, down the draining board, into the sink, and down the drain.
I watched. I might have even clawed uselessly at the Jell-O, much the same way that I pathetically called my benefits department to see if there was some way I could get the money back. I had made something; it was there, but through sheer incompetence, it was gone. And it was All. My. Fault. My family, on being informed that dessert had slipped away, enjoyed laughing at me and my dismay more than they ever enjoyed Jell-O.
So, here’s the dilemma facing a person in my position. Do I tell my spouse? Technically, that is also his money, marital property and all that. And it’s not like the amount wouldn’t have made a difference. Like many of our peers in the New York City knowledge industries, we live what a friend described as a high-end hand-to-mouth existence. We make what seems like a decent amount of money and yet, after paying even our regular bills, never have any left over at the end of the month. We probably had $2,000 in the bank at the time. But again, this windfall technically never really existed. I did not take $40-something thousand after tax away from him. I just failed to provide it. Stock options are not a big topic of discussion in our household (obviously), so he probably would never even know. How could it hurt to never mention it?
Complicating matters a little was the fact that this was not the first time I had cost us cash through sheer stupidity. When we were new immigrants to New York City, with no jobs and two friends and just a few months of marriage behind us, I surrendered $60 to a three-card monte game on the streets of Chinatown. At the time, that was probably 20% of our liquid assets. After we — sorry, I — lost it, my husband didn’t say much, but there was an unspoken agreement between us that I was a moron.
Financial battles are different from any other kind of feud, because the loss of money provokes our strongest emotion: fear.
Even worse, my spouse grew up aware of his parents’ money worries. This is a guy who still has issues with his toes because he didn’t want to tell his parents that his school shoes were too small. He requires a taster for any already opened dairy beverage because he consumed too many glasses of spoiled milk in his youth. Economic hardship in childhood has been shown in several studies to have adverse effects, both psychological and physical, well into adulthood, and a money setback can trigger any number of nasty memories. I had no desire to fire off an emotional howitzer in my husband’s vicinity. Plus, according to figures from financial security company Experian, 20% of people who divorce say finances were a major factor. Yikes.
Moreover, studies have found that money is the most commonly reported squabble-starter for couples (followed by kids, although that order is reversed for stepfamilies) and the source of the most heated arguments. And in homes where money is not the most common cause of fights, it’s still the fight that either lasts the longest or in which the same issues just keep coming back without getting resolved. Researchers have also found that money fights, unlike others, often get more heated over time.
Financial battles are different from any other kind of feud, because the loss of money, or even the hint of an absence of money, provokes our strongest emotion: fear. People get depressed if they think their sex lives are going down the drain, but they don’t panic. They get frustrated when they can’t agree on how to discipline the kids or on who’s doing all the childcare, but they don’t start imagining that they’re going to lose everything.
Having somebody else take or control your money, on the other hand, feels existential. It’s threatening. Intimate partners entrust each other with a lot of financial information and power; with a few clicks of a keypad or a forged signature, that person can get it all. Therapists call this kind of monkeying with money “financial infidelity,” because it gets at a lot of the same trust issues as sex. If your spouse uses your joint savings in a way that you find risky, it’s very hard to stop the sirens in your head from sounding the alarm that signifies “this is critical” and “not a drill.”
I didn’t know all of this research as I sat dazed at my desk. (I looked into the subject later for my book, Marriageology, which I may or may not have written partly to try to make up for the lost income.) But I did know that one of marriage’s many roles is a business partnership. Married couples are part of an “Us, Inc.” They’re in a bunch of financial deals together. They co-manage their kids. They’re co-caretakers of a small property, a home. They’re chefs, Uber drivers, entertainment directors, travel agents, and educational consultants. If their family is anything like mine, one poor soul is Head of Cat Litter Disposal, Emergency Stain Removal, and Tedious Form Signing.
In a successful business, partners let each other know what’s going on. They pitch in; they trust each other and are supportive. Transparency is key. In a successful marriage, there’s one crucial other ingredient: vulnerability. Intimacy is almost impossible without it. So, in fact, I didn’t hold out for very long before I picked up the phone and told my husband about the forgone $70,000 — although I emphasized that really, everyone said it was more like $40,000. He laughed, but in a really nice way.