Eton Mess - The best kind of (money) mess
Mess isn’t usually a word we associate with money, is it? Or at least when we do, it’s not usually in a positive sense! When we say “my finances are a mess”, that usually indicates to the person listening that we have no control over our money, no concept of where it should be going, and definitely no idea of where it is going.
But what if that wasn’t the only interpretation? What if by saying your finances were a mess, you actually meant that they were flexible, that your money management had several individual elements which came together to create something extra-special. What if your financial plan, just like a great pudding; was something that didn’t go out-of-date, what if it was always a crowd-pleaser on the menu?
You know an Eton Mess, we all do. That fruity, creamy, “just put Wimbledon on and tell me it’s summer” kind of pudding. When you go to a restaurant and order the Eton Mess no one looks at you like you’ve lost control, or like you have no idea what you’re doing. They don’t think you’ve lost the concept of what a great pudding really is. So why not apply the same logic to your post-baby finances?
What if you made an Eton Money Mess.
The main three ingredients in Eton Mess are strawberries, meringue and cream. I want you to imagine your relationship (pre baby) is like a beautiful meringue. From the outside it’s visually appealing. It is sweet enough to provide that joyful feeling in your tummy, structurally sound enough to survive both the heat of the oven and the gradual cooling down afterwards. But thing with meringue is that, for all those positives, it’s also delicate. It needs careful handling otherwise it will shatter into crumbs.
That’s exactly what having a baby can do to your financial planning. There was a saying, penned by the late great Nora Ephron, that having a baby is like throwing a hand grenade into a marriage (https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a14656/nora-ephron-quotes-10087441/). For all that sentence is to the point and brutal, it’s also honest. It describes that feeling of the foundations of your relationship being “rocked” by your new arrival, aptly capturing the fact that a baby forces you to re-evaluate every single thing that you thought you knew and throw it out!
So if having a baby forces you to throw out your old ways of managing your money, what should you do instead?
Returning to our Eton Mess ingredients, we still have two other “main players” to think about. I now want you to imagine that you and your partner are the strawberries and the cream (I’ll let you decide who’s who!) The great thing about strawberries and cream is that they’re adaptable. They can stand alone, they can go into numerous other dishes, they can be cooked in immeasurable ways to delight the diner.
You and your partner are the same. You are adaptable, you can adopt new ways, different ways, of discussing and managing your finances so that they work for, and complement, you as a whole family, not just as individuals.
The thing with finances in a couple is that, in the vast majority of cases, we don’t HAVE to put too much effort into planning our finances for the long term. Quite often, prior to having children, both partners are working or running businesses. That means that for a lot of couples; they will each have their own income and be able to make financial choices independent of their partner (even if you don’t choose to do so). Having those choices (and that flexibility) over how to spend, what to spend on, how to save and invest means not just having options, but also having the option to “put off” having financial discussions as often as you might otherwise do. It’s having the option to “let sleeping dogs lie” when it comes to your money, because, although you might be travelling towards the same financial “destination”, you can still do so in two “separate cars”.
When you have a baby, lots of things change, and many of those changes happen overnight. Where you might both have been working prior to the arrival of your new family member, one partner might decide to take a period of leave, which affects the finances. You might both take leave through the Shared Parental Leave scheme, which will affect the finances. You might want (or need) to bring in professional services to help you, like a Doula, a nanny, or a cleaner.
You might want to utilise professional childcare, or you might decide that you need a car, or to upgrade your current car. You might even go so far as to think you need to change your living arrangements, perhaps moving from a flat to a house, or consider buying where you were previously renting. Heck, you might think about marriage where it hadn’t come up before (as happened to my brother-in-law), or even decide that you want to send your child through the private education system.
All of these things are just a sprinkling of the kinds of thoughts that I have had, seen my friends and family have, and heard my clients say. All of these things are natural questions that we start asking ourselves when we have children, as our ultimate priority is, of course, to provide the best life that we can for our children. The problem is that all of these “options” cost. And they cost money at a time when new parents are already feeling the pinch.
So what’s the solution?
The solution is to take your perfect “pre-baby” relationship meringue. Then smash it up. Mix in your respective strawberries and cream adaptability and “start over”.
That sounds extreme, doesn’t it?
But it’s not as extreme as it initially sounds. The thing with “post-baby” financial planning is that it “can” work in a very similar way to your “pre-baby” finances. You don’t “have” to take 4 years off for one of you to become a stay at home parent. You don’t “have” to pay for professional childcare or a doula. You don’t “need” a bigger car, or to move into a house just to fit a cot into a spare bedroom. You CAN do all those things. You CAN do none of them. The key to planning your new baby budget isn’t in the spreadsheets – it’s in the communication. In figuring out which of those options work for YOU and your family.
The beauty of an Eton Mess isn’t in its “picture perfect” appearance. It’s in the flavour. It’s in the fact that for all it’s “messy” appearance, it’s structurally solid – it fills you up. All of the separate ingredients come together to create a great “blended” dish – and when you’re eating it, you’re certainly not thinking about how it looks. You’re thinking about how great it tastes – you’re enjoying the experience of eating it.
The same is true of your family finances. Sure, having a baby is going to create change in your relationship, because it’s going to force you to collaborate and communicate in a way that you may not have been challenged to do before. But you are adaptable. Finding a new way of making your finances “family-friendly” is about communicating – and not just at a surface “it looks good so we’ll leave it there” level.
Many of my clients worry about communicating openly with their partner around their financial vision for the future, because they are nervous. They are concerned that they will say “the wrong thing” or that their partner won’t “get what [they] mean”. Perhaps they are anxious that they are experiencing feelings or worries about the future, and they think that they are the only ones having those feelings. They aren’t. YOU aren’t.
I have yet to work with a couple who aren’t nervous or anxious about what life will look like “post-baby”, about what their relationship will look like. About what the MONEY will look like post-baby.
I’ve also yet to work with a couple who don’t experience a sigh of relief after the baby arrives, and they realise that life doesn’t need to LOOK perfect. The money doesn’t need to LOOK perfect. Life changes regularly, we all get “surprised” by things. Financially planning for baby isn’t about having a “steadfast” financial plan, or having savings targets that can’t be deviated from (because, although it would be lovely if life were that simple, it isn’t. Things will get in the way).
It’s about having the foundations right. Having open communication, empathy and understanding for each other, and having sufficient flexibility and adaptability in your pudding bowl that you can make changes to the plan as and when you need to.
I completely understand and appreciate the nerves around planning financially for a baby – the desire to want to provide the best life that you can afford. I even get the element of needing to “fit in” with the other parents, to not feel like you’re the “odd ones out” because you don’t have the same travel system or nursery furniture. But trust me, those nerves and anxieties are natural, and they’re also being experienced by everyone else. Everyone else that you know, through NCT classes, your midwife, baby groups and prenatal yoga is having the same thoughts and worries as you.
No other parents are looking in your pudding bowl and thinking “their meringue doesn’t LOOK great – no wonder they had to smash it up and cover it in cream and fruit”. They aren’t judging your pudding choices, they are busy making their own Eton (money) Mess. Everyone is just trying to do the best that they can, for THEIR family. So next time you are feeling a little bit nervous about your financial pudding, just remember, when it comes to an Eton Mess, no one cares what it looks like – only that they enjoy the eating, and that it fills THEIR family up.