Going it alone
By Roz Wrottesley
While her peers are just getting established financially, 32-year-old Grace (not her real name) is struggling to make ends meet after a 16-year relationship with a compulsive spender. Not only is she determined to provide for herself and her children, but she is practicing what she will preach in future as a qualified financial planner.
“I has to grow up very fast: my mother was an alcoholic who left me and my younger brother when I was 16 and in standard 10. My father was a drug addict, so it was just the two of us. We were offered foster care, but we didn’t want that, so we stayed in the family home, and I waitressed on weekends to put food on the table.
“I met my future husband, Daniel, at that stage. He was a few years older, and he was absolutely my knight in shining armour. There were already signs that he had no control over his finances, but I had so much going on that it was not an issue for me. My focus was making sure my brother and I could eat and finish school.
“I had started working for an accountant during the school holidays, and he gave me my first job straight after matric. So at 18, I moved in with Daniel. The money issues started immediately. He was racking up debt in an Edgars account, and I would help him, thinking, ‘It’s fine: he doesn’t earn much, he’s young I’m just helping him out’.
“I should have seen the indebtedness slowly but surely building up. He’s an emotional spender, and his idea of struggling was not having DStv, whereas mine was not having a plate of food.
“He would take his salary and buy a whole lot of nonsense and not worry about next week - that was a problem for another day. He started buying me gifts on his account, and I’d say, ‘Please don’t - I don’t want anything’. But he would buy them anyway. When I fell pregnant, I told him we were struggling already now we were going to have a baby to feed he had to get the spending under control.
“Despite the anxiety, it was me who suggested we get married. I thought it was the right thing to do. As the years went by, I got a better job, and my earnings and financial knowledge increased. But my salary was covering more and more of the household expenses. When he still had no money, I thought it was because he was paying off his accounts.
“Then, while I was pregnant with our second child, Daniel started asking me for money. I was shocked; I was paying for everything - where was his salary? He always had a story, but I knew something was badly wrong. I begged him to come clean, so we could deal with it, but in the end I had to pull his credit report. And that told me he had debts of hundreds of thousands of rand. I still don’t know where all the money went.
“There I was, pregnant and realising we were in serious trouble. So I told him I had to have complete control over our finances if he wanted this marriage to work. He made all the right noises, but it was a continuous downward spiral. I’ll never forget the day our daughter was born: I had put money aside to pay the gynaecologist, but it turned out that he had ‘borrowed’ it and had no money to give me. I sold all the gold jewellery I had to pay that bill.
“A few months later, he said he’d had enough of me managing his money - he was a grown man and would do what he liked. He also stopped participating in the family; it was always just me and the children - a baby and a six-year-old. I wasn’t sleeping, and I was exhausted. But people would tell me, ‘Money isn’t everything; he isn’t a bad man; marriage is hard; you need to work on it’.
“But I knew it was over. Daniel begged me to give him a chance, said he was sorry and he’d do better but it had gone beyond “sorry”. I couldn’t see him on the street, so I found a tiny two-bedroom flat and said he could move into the other room as long as he paid R2500 a month. If he didn’t pay, he would have to move out. In the very first year, he bought himself a giant 55-inch smart TV and gave the children and me a DVD player for Christmas. He would pay me the R2500, but ask me for money when he ran out. The breaking point came when he demanded R1000. I told him he had to go.
“We are divorced now, but I’m not sure he believes it; he still cannot support himself and pleads poverty. I told him he could eat with us whenever he wanted to, but I have had to withdraw that because he is not paying me the R2500 he agreed to in the divorce. He is an adult man who has convinced himself that I am responsible for him. I am his financial plan. He cannot compute that he has to look after himself.
“So I am back to waitressing on Saturdays; I have to. My car battery packed up, I need new tyres and * have to have my wisdom teeth out this week where is the money going to come from? I could use my credit card, but then what happens next month if we need something else? I had to find another way.
“I have a great job at a company that looks after me, provides me with group life and disability cover, and pays for my studies, but I’m just not making it. I spend R150 on a haircut every three or four months and have it cut as short as possible; I don’t ever buy clothes; I’ve sacrificed entertainment; I shop once a month wherever I can find the best discounts, even if it means going to five stores. I skimp and scrape. The only luxury I pay for is my daughter’s dancing classes, which she loves.
“Waitressing is what I did when I first started my career: I worked for the accounting firm and waitressed on the weekends. So that’s what I’m doing now, for a few months even a year. And Daniel has to help me with the children.”
There’s no time to lose when it comes to financial planning, so Grace did the right thing by asserting her independence when she did, says Gareth Leonard, a Certified Financial Planner at Netto Invest in Cape Town. By avoiding credit card debt and taking a Saturday job, she has ensured she’ll be able to put money aside much sooner than she’d have been able to do otherwise.
As soon as she does have some discretionary income, she could target the following for peace of mind:
- Emergency savings (say, the equivalent of six months’ salary), accumulated in a unit trust money market fund.
- Growth-orientated investments for her children’s education and her own retirement.
- A deposit on a home, so she is paying her own bond rather than someone else’s.
- Last but not least, she should have a valid will, which could set up a testamentary trust, administered by trustees of her choice, for the benefit of her children.