Independence with a Side of Meatballs

I’m sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor in Spain, bent over a jar of spaghetti sauce.

For the life of me, I can’t get it to open. I twist until my fingers hurt. I try to use a tool with a rubber grip. I run the lid under warm water.

My roommates are out of the house, and the thought of trying to explain my dilemma in garbled, apologetic Spanish to my neighbors is too embarrassing to consider. The pasta is drained and waiting in the sink, steam rising.

I bang the jar against the floor, against the countertops. I move between rooms. I squeeze the jar between my knees. I grit my teeth and strain with everything I’ve got, and… nothing.

The Importance of Independence

This incident encapsulates one of my main missions: to be independent. Even when it’s difficult, or I’m on the verge of giving up. Whether in my job, my travels, or in my relationships, I try to tackle difficult situations on my own terms. Independence is critical for developing life skills, decreasing reliance, and increasing personal safety.

For example, at home I do my best to avoid dependency on ritual habits. I avoid using a noisemaker to go to sleep (a contentious point in our household), and I randomly give up coffee for weeks at a time to ensure that I don’t develop a caffeine addiction.

Last month, I shared a hotel room with a coworker and was glad that I didn’t need to pack the bulky noise machine or wire up headphones to my ears in order to sleep. When we stayed in an Airbnb that didn’t provide coffee, I wasn’t distracted trying to mitigate a migraine after missing my morning mug. (But were you distracted by that alliteration? Whew!)

Independence and Money

One of the most important aspects of independence is that of money. Too many people take a backseat when it comes to their money management, even though it drives the choices we make in our daily lives. 

There are four stages of financial independence:

The consequences of small dependencies, like that on a noisemaker to sleep or a cup of joe to wake up, are minor. But the consequences of being dependent on others for something big, like your financial wellbeing, can be dire. 

For couples, it might be tempting to delegate one person to handle their finances. Having a single, merged account might simplify accounting, and it might be easier to hit a high net worth with two incomes and shared expenses. However, tying your finances too tightly to another person spells disaster if everything unravels.

The reality is that disasters happen. As optimistic humans, we don’t plan enough for them. According to a Merrill Lynch study, only 14% of widows were making financial decisions by themselves before their spouse died. That means that over 80% were left trying to figure out their financial future in the wake of tragedy. In some relationships, dependence can innocuously spiral out of control, sometimes leading to grim consequences. 

The Reality of Financial Abuse

People don’t plan for their relationships to fall apart or for their partner to turn on them, but 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men experience severe violence by an intimate partner. In one study, 99% of the survivors of domestic abuse were also abused financially. It’s a serious issue with serious consequences– and at the core of the abuse is the removal of independence. 

A mural with the words Can you spot financial abuse
A mural I spotted in Seattle-- Can You Spot Financial Abuse?

In abusive situations, the victim’s independence is slowly stripped away, until they are entirely dependent on their abuser. All four stages of financial independence are made impossible as the victim is forced to rely on their abuser for money, give up stability in order to appease, and doubt their own skills and abilities. 

The seriousness of abuse underscores the importance of independence. Without it, we become vulnerable in many different ways. It is a prevalent problem (1 in 4 women? 1 in 7 men? Chances are that many people we know are in this situation). If you feel like you are losing your independence, or someone is taking it from you, it’s important to get the help you need to get it back.

Independence is a Skill

Even in healthy relationships with healthy partners, it is imperative to maintain personal independence. 

From being able to manage your own money to make informed choices based on your budget, money management is a critical life skill. Ultimately, you can:

You Are Not Excused

People object with a variety of reasons. They say things like:

  1. My spouse just isn’t interested. They won’t pay attention if I try to talk to them about money.
  2. It’s simply easier if somebody else handles the money.
  3. We avoid the topic altogether to avoid fighting. 

I get it. We are busy. Money is a loaded topic. We can’t afford to fight more, to have this conversation again. We don’t like thinking about money, or what to do if something goes wrong. Do we have to make things harder on ourselves? The truth is that we can’t afford not to.

The Downsides of Dependence

Yes, dependence is easier. It avoids confrontation, delegates responsibility, and often implies a certain amount of romantic trust.

Yet dependence decreases our self-reliance and self-efficacy. It leaves us vulnerable in emergencies and unable to leave toxic situations, whether in a relationship or a job.

If you or your spouse is uncomfortable talking about money, consider the importance of  independence. Meet with a counselor or a money professional. Set up weekly money dates so you can sort through information with your partner. Make the time to get out of the backseat and into the driver’s seat of your financial life.

Dependence is easy, but independence is essential.

You Are Strong Enough

There are four steps to realize full financial independence, but every rung of the ladder is important. From self-sufficiency, to stability, to self-confidence, to complete financial independence, assess your status. Where are you standing on the ladder? Do you control your money, or does it control you?

I had to believe that I could get that sauce jar open. That it was designed to be opened. That I was strong enough to do it. And finally, as I sat in the middle of the kitchen floor in Spain, with an extra forceful twist and a satisfying pop, the lid came free. 

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  1. This is so important. I insist on a wide margin for our FI number for this very reason. I’m not getting a divorce any time soon, but why risk it? Should things go south, I want to be independent all on my own.

    1. Yes, I think couples who FIRE together should hit a number where if they were to part ways they would both still be FI, or at least be ready to take on a different lifestyle. I think it’s a great goal that you have!

  2. Great post! But…did you get the jar open?
    Quick tip for future reference, use the handle end of a butter knife to bang on the top of the lid around the edge of the jar in several spots. Eventually you’ll disrupt the seal enough for air to seep in and then the jar will open easily since you’re not fighting vacuum. ??

    1. Thanks Marsha! I’ll keep that in mind for the next time. And yes, I did eventually get it open!

  3. I’m solidly on step 3 of the ladder, wanting desperately to jump to the top rung. Like fighting the crabs in the bucket that are trying to drag me back down, gravity, or the vacuum of your sauce jar, it’s difficult to accomplish without sustained, focused effort.

    1. The gap between step 3 and step 4 is enormous, but I think if you are on the ladder at all you are already succeeding 🙂

  4. i was lucky to marry an independent woman. she bought the house without me and was doing just fine. it comes in handy knowing that if i bit the dust or flew the coop she would be just fine. independence was also handy when we were working a lot of opposite hours years ago. we each had our own interests and “stuff to do” so there was no whining.

    1. Having your own interests and things to do is so important! Mr. Mechanic and I were long distance for 7 years so we definitely had that as well. It brings a lot of peace of mind to know that we are together because we choose to be and not out of necessity.

    1. The answer is hidden in the very last sentence 😉

      I completely agree. I think there is a pattern of just one person handling everything.

    1. Thanks lady 🙂 I admit I felt like the one article following the nominations couldn’t be a bad one!

  5. I do some similar things – the moment I find myself “needing” something, I make sure to stop it just to prove I can. This is both a need for independence and a recognition that I have an addictive personality that I need to consciously resist.

    The financial interdependence in a long relationship is an interesting puzzle. My in-laws have one of those marriages where one knows everything about the money and where it is, while the other knows nothing at all. It makes my wife and I both very uncomfortable. Even though our money is completely mixed, we make sure to review it all together regularly and our retirement allocations are designed that in the (unlikely) event of a split we both take diversified assets out with us. It’s our best way to protect independence while knowing we are highly interdependent.

    Echoing Angela – a strong article from the deserving nominee!

    1. It’s really cool that you take stock and make the effort to cut out addictive behaviors as you realize they are happening. I think that shows a lot of self-awareness.

      I’m glad that you and your wife have it all set up in the (unlikely) even of a split. I’m hoping this article might inspire more people to be sure that they will be okay even in unlikely situations.

      Wow you and Angela flatter me! Thank you so much 🙂

  6. This is a wonderful post on money and independence! I don’t think people realize their vulnerability in assuming someone else will handle the finances.

    BTW I was cheering for you against that jar!

    1. Thanks! It was a real struggle I tell you. I agree, I think it’s easy to have a “I’ll figure it out mentality,” but the problem is that if you never end up getting around to figuring it out, you’re often in real trouble down the line.

  7. Well now you have me feeling some parent guilt because both of my kids use sound machines when sleeping. 😉

    One of the reasons why my wife and I keep separate accounts is to have some level of independence. It keeps us sharp in managing our own money and probably prevents a bunch of flights over trivial things. I know this can also be achieved with joint accounts, but what can I say, it works for us.

    Great post on an important topic.

    1. Don’t worry, your kids are “dependents” afterall 🙂

      It’s good to hear from another couple that keeps their accounts separate. I definitely think there are lots of upsides doing it this way, even though I don’t think it is the norm. I’m glad it works for you!

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