Welcome to the first edition of Dear Mitch, an advice column. I tried to start it in the spring but then time got away from me. But I think it’ll be nice to chat with you… and who knows? Maybe it’ll be helpful?! (Though probably not. 😉) Click here to submit questions… you know, if you’re in need of advice from the husband of a stranger you kind of know on the internet. 😜
If you have a problem that needs solving or a question that needs answering, I’d love to try my hand at it. Dear Mitch is always anonymous—though we encourage including a nickname like Sleepless in Seattle, for example. You can submit your questions and topics here.
I should mention that I forgot to leave a space for names on the first Dear Mitch question form, so I had to make up names for today’s questions. Sorry; first-time advice columnist here.
I’m married and my husband struggles to share his feelings, and when I can tell he’s going through something he doesn’t give me a ton of info. Is this a guy thing? I have like 20 thoughts and I’ll ask what he’s thinking about and he’ll be like nothing really. The male brain is tough to understand! – Worried in Wyoming
Welcome to the world of the millennial male brain. It’s an absolute mess in here.
This is a big topic and it’s worth stepping back to consider just how confusing it is to be a dude in 2021. Many of us were brought up to value strength and masculinity. And it could be argued that we’re biologically engineered to solve problems and compete. Most importantly, a lot of us feel like we’re expected to “act like men.” If we’re in a tough spot, for example, we should be a man about it, whatever that means.
A favorite comedian of mine, Michael Ian Black, put it thusly:
To be a girl today is to be the beneficiary of decades of conversation about the complexities of womanhood, its many forms and expressions. Boys, though, have been left behind. No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. It’s no longer enough to “be a man” — we no longer even know what that means.
I’m not arguing that women have it easier than men. Not at all. But it’s possible your husband’s unwillingness to share his feelings is actually an inability. Some might argue that he’s behaving exactly as he’s been expected to behave for most of his life. Maybe this is why so many women nodded their heads while reading your question: because they have similar issues with their husbands. And perhaps many of their mothers did too.
I have a working theory that men—in all their stunted emotional glory—seek out “safe spaces.” Maybe this is why a lot of us get so obsessive about sports, money, politics or cars or whatever, and join communities that spring up around those subjects, whether it’s an athletic league, Reddit thread or fantasy team. The limited nature of those groups provides just enough room to talk (which feels good) but it doesn’t require personal vulnerability or fragility (which feels uncomfortable).
So what can you do about it? How can you encourage your husband to open up and share his innermost thoughts and feelings, as he’d clearly benefit from doing so?
I think a good first step to getting him to open up is being honest with him. Tell him how you feel. That you want to talk more. That that you really want to share things with him, and you really want him to share things with you.
And then help him understand that he has the space and freedom to do so without expectation or judgment. Volunteering to be vulnerable yourself can assist with this. If you feel that something’s been weighing on him, for example, try sharing something that’s been weighing on you first. It might not work the first time… or even the second time. But the idea is that slowly, he’ll open up and start sharing more—because you’ve trusted him with your innermost thoughts again and again.
And I can’t stress the importance of “dating each other while married” enough. Sure, you might be physically together very often—taking care of your home, running errands, seeing friends, relaxing, etc. But carve out time for QT with each other. Take walks alone. Go to dinner alone. Book a long weekend away alone. Do things that encourage conversation. Hang in the living room and talk for an hour over popcorn and/or wine a couple of times per week. No TV. Just talking! Your husband might feel uncomfortable at first, but then you’ll likely laugh about it together, and the convo will get going. There are even conservation starters that can get the laughing part started!
Remember that while he is learning how to communicate with you, and he’s also learning to understand the new freedoms you’re making for him. Sounds like you’re a wonderful wife, and he’s lucky to have you!
What’s your advice about how to best save for retirement and college while also living your life now? From what I’ve heard, no one ever felt they saved too much for retirement. But what about vacations and home upgrades and luxuries now? This might be more of a long post than a quick advice column, but I’d love to know your financial strategies now, since you have good tips on lots of other things. Thank you! – Frugal in Florida
I appreciate your question because often, talking about money is off-limits. My personal finances used to fill me with anxiety. I hated thinking about them and ignored doing so whenever possible. That all changed when we got pregnant and I was forced to take my finances a little more seriously.
I grew up in an extremely financially conservative family where the topic of money was kind of taboo. When I graduated from college and the full weight of financial responsibility sat on my shoulders, I found myself totally unable to deal with even basic financial decisions. In my eyes, a dollar spent was a dollar wasted. And despite making a somewhat decent living, I only owned one pair of pants. (Actually.) I also lived in a fourth-floor walkup, mouse-infested apartment with chickens in the hallway and intermittent water service. I didn’t even have my own computer. I use this as an example of what not to do. Looking back on that time, am I thankful that I lived in total austerity for the sake of some extra savings in my checking account? Absolutely not. If I had a time machine, I’d go back and tell myself to loosen up a bit. Find some balance.
What we’re talking about here is what economists call the time preference of money. Is a dollar more valuable to you today than it would be in a year or 10 years or 20 years? There’s a famous experiment where children are given a choice between a single marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. The children who were willing to wait apparently had more success in life. But what about happiness? And, I mean, that’s just kids and marshmallows. Life is a little bit more complicated than that. ;)
To cut to the chase, I’ll say that the best financial decision I ever made was to take the time to educate myself on some finance fundamentals. It wasn’t easy to get started, but now that I have the basics under my belt, I’m proud to say that I approach the topic without anxiety, which was a huge step for me. And this is going to sound a little dweeby, but I read about finance for fun now. It’s not nearly as scary as it seems.
I also recommend visiting my favorite finance resource on the internet: /r/personalfinance. It’s a great place to start. The people there are friendly, intelligent, accommodating and knowledgeable. They’ve even put together this flow chart for people who are just starting to organize their finances:
0. Budget and reduce expenses, set realistic goals
1. Build an emergency fund
2. Employer-sponsored matching funds
3. Pay down high interest debts
4. Contribute to an IRA
5. Save more for retirement
6. Save for other goals
Following this list will help you to make an assessment of your current financial situation and how it is working to help you achieve your goals.
The second best financial decision I ever made was hiring a qualified financial advisor. (Through a friend, in case you’re wondering! Seriously ask around. There will definitely be someone in your social circle who has and loves an advisor.) Each person approaches their finances with unique goals, and a financial advisor will help you nail down what your goals truly are. He or she will help you determine how much you’d actually like to put away every month/year for retirement, for example, and allocate realistic budgets for things like home upgrades, travel and luxuries. They can also help you get started with investing, and manage those investments for you.
If you think about it simply, finances are like an interest rate horse race. To win the race, you need to shuffle around your debts, savings and investments to optimize the rate of return on your money. I’ll offer two examples:
- If you have a $100,000 mortgage on your home with a 3% interest rate, it would make sense to make only the minimum mortgage payment and invest your extra money anywhere that can earn you more than 3% instead.
- The money you have in your savings account (typically earning a close to 0% interest rate) is losing purchasing power at the rate of 4.2% due to inflation. So instead of “saving” it, you should find a way to have it make a return of greater than 4.2%. Otherwise you’re actually losing money.
Hope that helps!
My husband and I just bought our first home and I’m a little overwhelmed about maintaining a whole house. What are your tips for keeping it clean/maintained without losing your marbles? – Overwhelmed in Omaha
Congrats on your new home! Owning a place truly is the American Dream, and it’s not easy to do in today’s economy. You two should be incredibly proud of yourselves.
I’d say that if you’re just “a little overwhelmed” at this point, you’re doing great. I grew up in a Do it Yourself house and I expected to be able to just know how to do stuff whenever stuff needed doing. It turns out handiness isn’t passed down genetically. I went to Home Depot five times this past weekend. FIVE TIMES! And I didn’t even fix the thing I’d hoped to fix. I’d be lying if I said weekends like this are uncommon. Home ownership is a lot of work, especially right after you move in. I recently wrote a post on all the stuff I’ve broken in my house.
I’ve found that an easy way to prioritize maintenance/everyday cleaning and alleviate some of the bone-crushing homeownership stress is to create a master list of all the tasks and tape it on the inside of a kitchen cabinet that you open often. (A good idea is making columns: This Week / This Month / This Year)
Have some fun with it. Maybe there’s a fun little project—like giving your outside space some TLC—you’re dreaming of, put it on the list! But make that project a reward for keeping up with the functionality stuff. That shower that needs re-caulking and that piece of siding needs to be repaired, after all, and these are the types of tasks that if ignored can result in a home falling into disrepair. Commit to tackling a reasonable number of tasks every week, month and year. Divvy them up between you and your husband, and cross them off that list when you complete them. It feels so good, and slowly, your home begins to function the way you want it to!
One budgeting tip for maintenance/cleaning is to categorize each task on the list as either a Do it Yourself or a Hire a Professional job. I try to determine whether I have the expertise to actually do the job myself. If so, I assign myself an hourly cost, and weigh whether it makes more sense to do it myself or hire a professional. For example, installing a $20 light switch to replace a non-functioning one doesn’t only cost $20 if it takes me SIX HOURS to install. (Yep. Took me six hours. Told you I wasn’t handy.) If I assume my weekend time is worth $50/hour, that job just cost me $320, and hiring somebody to do it for me may have been the better choice. Also, my wife isn’t happy that there’s a hole in the wall and that I was occupied for six whole hours on a Saturday. (Fair.)
The general rule for home budgeting is to expect maintenance costs equivalent to 1% the home’s purchase price. For example, the owner of a $300,000 home can expect a $3k per year maintenance budget. We use the 1% rule to help in making decisions on which projects should take priority and which should be pushed to the following year.
Okay, that was a super serious response. I can say that the chaos of homeownership does eventually die down, though, and you will enjoy the fruits of your labor! It happened for us sometime between year one and year two! It’s a journey… but one totally worth taking.