What counts?

25 02 2009

Ladies, I need to get something off my chest. And I hope if you’ve struggled with this one you will give me your ideas about how to deal with it!

I am frustrated with our other household right now, a.k.a the ex, because I can’t figure out what counts and what doesn’t on the financial tally sheet. We do not have a very good system worked out to keep track of who spends what on the kids and who owes whom. My husband has never had a conversation with his ex about what counts and so it is a guessing game. Because we have the kids exactly 50/50 (and I mean to the hour, people), my husband does not pay child support. Each household pays for the upkeep of the children when they are living there, and everything else is split, but only if it counts.

Some things we spend money on count toward this tally sheet in the ex’s head. Some things do not. For instance, any summer camps she sends the kids to count. Any summer camps we send the kids to do not.

If she has the kids for an extra meal at her house, we must pay for it because that counts. The cash we shell out to drive back and forth dropping the kids off at her house does not count.

But shouldn’t she be glad that she now has two more people in her children’s lives who contribute to their financial well-being? My stepchildren have a stepfather and a stepmother who now help support them. But who counts? Only stepdad? How about the dough I’ve forked over for summer camp to help them make friends and keep their butts off the couch all summer long? Why doesn’t that count?

The reason my book for stepmoms has won two awards is because I interviewed wise stepmoms across the country so I could learn how to be a better stepmother myself. I am a writer, a stepmom and stepdaughter, but not a Ph.D. I am stumped on this one, girls. The system we have can not continue into the future with cars, college, and weddings looming. Any advice would be deeply appreciated.

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6 responses

26 02 2009
StepMom Magazine

Jacque –
Wow. No wonder you are stumped. This is an extremely complicated and undefined agreement. If I were you, I’d make a list of all the possible expenses. Let me rephrase, a list of all the significant expenses. Charging back for an “extra” meal is petty and IMO, will lead to frustration – as you confirm. Significant expenses would be things like: activity fees, special events and functions, major purchases that will be utilized by the child in both households (snowboards, expensive clothing items, etc.) Meals, underwear, chapstick – should be considered as a cost of doing business and not be factored in the big picture. The alternative is that you charge back for every little expense as well – which might change the ex’s tune. I think the key is communication – Hubby and the ex need to define what counts and then stick to that. As you state in your (fabulous) book – treat this like a business challenge – it’s a budget matter between two departments within the same company. Spreadsheets, line items, lists and accountability! Keep us posted!

26 02 2009
Carrie

When dealing with this in our lives, I always used the custody agreement as the deciding factor. What does it say? Who is responsible for what? When the ex would behave unfairly, we would quote the custody agreement and follow it to the letter. When she learned that this was a losing battle (for her), we all became more flexible.

26 02 2009
Susan Kuhn Frost

There are two levels here….what counts between your husband and you, and what counts between the two families. And that agreement about “what counts” sounds like it emerged by default, not by design.

How can this situation be strengthened to be more forward-looking for the benefit of the children? The fact that college is looming offers an opportunity to start this conversation. Maybe just seeding this topic with the other family will, over time, start to shift the thinking and create more spaciousness around money issues. That’s the “high side,” cultivating a generous spirit. The solution to the food situation (above) couldn’t have happened without an underlying generosity. So over time, maybe your initiative can breathe some of that spirit into this situation.

I too have put a shocking amount of money toward family expenses (as a formerly single person) so I totally understand how hard this is to sort out. But your post has encouraged me to start talking to my husband about this. Again, I have wanted “rules” but I think the more powerful way to look at this is “goals;” we all have things we want to do in life, how can we start aligning our funds with our goals. There is nothing so powerful as a goal to motivate sacrificial action toward an end. And what would be sacrificed is “going along to get along” which it sounds like has run its course.

What if you drew up a sketch of what you think the expenses will be over the next 10 years (or whatever time frame is relevant) and start in the smallest most unthreatening way possible to talk about what is looming down the pike? Draw others into your way of thinking.

I think the key is to look for a transformative solution, much like the kitchen solution in your other post today, that is responsive to all the needs of all the parties…the need for equity in sharing expenses since there is no child support payment, the need to plan ahead for the children’s future, the need for greater clarity about what counts (especially around your role).

As the refrigerator example so well illustrates — the true solution is at a different level of thinking than the problem. The best ideas will not come if you start with clarifying your role….but I think starting with the children’s needs will do that — much as starting there created that wonderful refrigerator solution! Such thinking will help you get where you want to get, which is to be seen as part of the financial solution to the question of how to best take care of the children as their needs evolve.

26 02 2009
Holly

I agree with StepMom Magazine, I think the key is communication – Hubby and the ex need to define what counts and then stick to that.

I my situation, where Hubby and ex are not able to have a productive conversation, Hubby and I figured out what our family buget was for the girls’ activities (theater, sports teams, choral trips to NY, summer camps), and opened bank accounts for the teenage girls. A few benefits: The girls learn budgeting and set their own prioriites. Any left over money is reserved for college savings. We are not subject to inuendo from the girls’ Mom that we are not contributing.

I think it is working (we started this approach in the fall). Will keep you posted!

26 02 2009
Peggy

Hi Jacque,

I’m in the unique place as a custodial step mom. My husband as full physical and legal custody of his youngest son (the rest of all our kids are 20+ years old and no longer living at home). My husband waived child support – and that decision has proved to be the right one.

I learned a long time ago that a problem isn’t a problem if you can write a check – it’s an expense.

That said, your husband’s ex is pretty petty nickling and diming you down to an extra meal (who does that???)

As with all business relationships (and that’s what this is), it all comes down to a negotiation. The ex’s job is to get as much as she can when it comes to the extras and your husband’s job is to pay as little as possible. She’s keeping up with her end of the de-facto agreement, but your husband isn’t.

I do believe that it’s time to bring this negotiation out in the open. Your husband has to be willing to push back on extra expenses that seem to tilt the scales of balance in her favor.

OR if your husband chooses to not rock the boat (as so many husbands I hear about do), you and he need to have a discussion so that you can express your concerns over the appearence of financial unfairness.

Both my husband and I have 4 girls in their early 20’s. One is pregnant and getting married – and we decided that what we do for one, we do for all (he has 2 girls, I have 2 girls).

5 03 2009
Jacque

Thank you so much everyone for the great suggestions!!!! I will keep you posted on what happens. It’s a challenging issue, especially in the current economic times. First my husband and I need to have a heart to heart about money. We did it a long time ago, but so many things have changed since we did it that it’s time for an update! Plus, as you all know, kids get more expensive the older they get!

Jacque

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