barbie dollWhen I was little, I thought we were very poor. There was this time when Barbie dolls were the hit – hey, their legs can bend! I thought this was so cool.

But Barbies were really expensive when they first came to Bulgaria. There was this girl that we used to play dolls with, *Jane*, and she had two or three Barbies. Her father was working abroad and that’s how they could afford it.

I didn’t have a Barbie doll. They were special. I had two or three other dolls but of the regular kind. They were nothing special.

Then one winter day, as I was coming home from school with my heavy backpack on my shoulders, I saw a measly little garage shop with dolls in the window. One of them looked like a Barbie! I stuck my face to the glass, my breath leaving a little circle of fog on the window. It didn’t say Barbie on the pack, but it definitely looked very similar, and somehow I was sure this doll’s legs could bend just like a Barbie’s. And the price… was just 70 leva! Hey! Even we could afford that!

I rushed to the door, but it was locked. WORKING HOURS 08:00-12:00, it said right above the door handle. So they only worked mornings? Okay! No prob!

Walking as fast as I could back home – I couldn’t run with the heavy backpack and all the snow and ice – I couldn’t stop thinking about the doll. I ran to mom.

“Mom, I found a really cheap Barbie doll!”
“Really?”
“Yes, it’s in this really small garage shop on the way to school. I couldn’t go in because they only work mornings but I saw it on the window and it looks just like a Barbie. I am sure its legs can bend, too, because Jane’s doll looks exactly like this one and hers has bendable legs. It’s 70 leva. That’s really cheap for a Barbie doll, isn’t it, momma?”
“I guess so. Sounds a little too cheap, even.”
“I know, isn’t that great?”

My mom looked at me, and as young as I’ve been back then, I remember that one look and what it said. It lasted only a second, and it showed my mom was trying to decide – what are the odds that this cheap doll would have bendable legs, but if I say no my daughter will be really disappointed, and what if the doll does have bendable legs, then my daughter will be really happy, and I have a little money stashed away, but I was saving them for something important, and is it worth spending them on a cheap doll for the off chance that it will have bendable legs?

But this was just for a second. Then mom got up and went in the other room, to retrieve her hidden stash. 70 leva was about all there was in a small, hand-made thing that loosely resembled a wallet. She handed them to me.

“If your father asks, I gave you the money, but the doll only costs 15 leva. Do you understand me?”
“Okay!” I said and grabbed the money. “I’m gonna go check if they are open now. Maybe for some reason they will be open today in the afternoon?”
“Are you crazy? You said they only work mornings, why would they be open now?”
“I don’t know, but I’m gonna go check again, just in case.”
“Okay, but we’ll eat lunch first.”

I didn’t mind – I loved to eat (I was a fat kid), and all during lunch I talked about this doll that was soon to be mine. I think mom knew that my desire to go to the store again was partly because I was so excited that I really believed it might be open, and partly because I couldn’t wait to see my doll again, but this time knowing that it will be mine.

The store was closed, but I spent a good half hour looking at it, at the wrapping, at its hair, at the dress. I played with it. It was almost as if I had it in my hands.

The next day I bought the doll, and it turned out it didn’t have bendable legs. “Disappointed” didn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I knew my mom will be disappointed for me, and I knew she had spent her stash wanting to see me happy. So I tried to act as if it wasn’t a big deal and that I loved the doll, but I actually hated it. I hated it for making me a fool, and I especially hated it for hurting mom.

* * *

My mom always had some money hidden away that nobody knew about.

Last year I found a twenty in a dusty Balsac book. It was from the 1990’s, so no longer in circulation. “Hey mooooom,” I yelled out to the other room. “Come over here!”

I showed her the bill on page 23 in the book. “That must be yours?”
She laughed. “I guess it was. I always used to keep a little bit of money hidden here and there, you know?”
“Do I!”

My mom was 24 when she married my dad, and she had me at 25. I don’t have memories from that time, of course, but I’m pretty sure she was doing the money-stash thing from day one. I think she was doing it in her teen years, too.

Now I’m 28, married, and expecting a baby. And I hide money from my husband.

* * *

In that same Balsac book, I read something to the issue of joint vs. separate finances:

…You’ll ask me how a woman can take money from a man. Oh, God, isn’t it natural to share everything with the one we owe all our happiness to? When one has given everything, how can one quibble about a mere portion of it? […] When a man swears eternal love–how can there be any separate concerns in that case?

I thought that with true love, the borders where one person ends and the other begins gradually disappear, and the two are in one. My idea of marriage and money – reinforced by Balsac – was that if two people really love each other, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have joined finances.

(Obviously, I wasn’t married back then.)

* * *

So I wanted us to have shared finances. We even opened a joint account the day after he proposed. I knew merging our finances wouldn’t happen overnight, but I was definitely eager to get there.

Six months later, we’re still not “there”.

See, when I first moved in with my husband, the money situation was very complicated. We shared a 3-bedroom apartment with his parents, so the everyday financial decisions they made affected us and vice versa. My husband had bought a car with a loan – I was against this but it happened right after we started dating so I didn’t really have a say – and half the loan was in his father’s name. Then, while we were still living with his parents, I quit my job and stopped bringing money in. I still pitched in for everything thanks to my savings, but I was freaking out over what would happen if my savings ran out before I found a job. Complicated!

I thought we should only merge our finances when it’s fair. If one of us had debt or other money problems, it wasn’t fair for the other person to take part in paying down debt. I wanted us to start with a clean slate.

But then we got engaged and everything changed. I helped him pay his car loan – our car loan – and he supported me while I was unemployed. We didn’t split monthly bills – we just paid them with whichever card was more convenient. If we had to travel, the one who had money on hand paid the expences. And whatever money was left at the end of the month was put in our joint account.

This worked okay for a while.

Then I noticed that my husband has a tough time saving. He was exactly like I was a couple of years back – spending all the easy-access cash. It’s not that he spent an awful lot, but if he had a twenty on him, he’d spend a twenty. If he had a fifty on him, he’d spend a fifty.

Like many people out there, the problem was not that he didn’t know what to do. He knew money management was important. He wanted us to build savings. But when it came to actually doing it, somehow it didn’t work out. When I would talk to him and say, “Honey, we only have a hundred left till payday”, he understood that we would have to watch our spending. But at the same time, if that hundred was in his pocket, the idea of all the days which were going to come before payday somehow faded away.

* * *

We agreed that we would first spend his paycheck (guess whose idea that was!) and try to save all of mine.

Our monthly bills vary between 50-100€, and we try to stay within 150€ a month for grocery shopping. That’s not only food but also beverages, toiletries and other small expenses. We’ve been trying to stay within 25€ for gas, but with all the trips we’ve been having it’s more like 50€. His cigarettes are another 50€ (thank God I quit smoking). Whatever’s left we use as spending money for other things. And I use whatever money I get from the dance class I teach to fill out holes in the budget or give us a small treat. Last week the treat was dinner out. Like I said – small treat.

Generally, we feel guilt-free as long as we don’t dip into my paycheck. This month we have, thanks to the remodeling we’re doing, but soon all the unexpected expenses will stop. Once we’re done with the remodel and once we’re back from my best friend’s wedding, there will be no more surprise costs our way. (That is, until January when we’ll have our baby.)

This system is the best so far. Even though we have no debts and we both have stable jobs now, it’s tough for us to adjust to managing money as a couple. I know I’ve said he has a problem with savings, it’s not easy for me, either. I’m actually just like him – if I have cash on hand, I’ll spend it.

So that is why we have agreed to spend his paycheck and save mine (although sometimes my husband says he never signed such a deal). And I also hide a twenty here and there…

I just try not to put it inside Balsac books.

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