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Experts Solve Major Love Disasters (Their Own)

Sometimes, professionals struggle with the very things they're hired to fix - and that's when they learn the most. Three of them drop the thera-speak and get honest.

"I'm a financial expert married to a chronic spender"

In her mid-20s, Ellie Kay had a newly minted business degree, was debt-free, and was already a successful financial broker. Then she met Bob. An Air Force fighter pilot, he had "the confidence of a Top Gun and the kindness of a Jimmy Stewart," she says. Oh, and $40,000 in debt. "I didn't realize what a mess his finances were until we were already in love," she says. "He was on a modest military salary and had to help support two children from his previous marriage, so our ability to dig out of that debt was very limited." Things got even trickier when Ellie quit her job to have kids (five in the first seven years they were married) and prioritize Bob's military career, which had them moving 11 times in 13 years.

Although Ellie had always been frugal ("I'll wear underwear with holes in it!"), she soon realized that Bob was anything but. "He would go out to buy batteries and come home with a VCR -- and we didn't even own a TV!" she says. Her low point came six months into their marriage, when she was pregnant with their first child. "We had maxed out all of our credit cards and didn't have money to buy groceries," she recalls. Unsure how they were going to eat, the couple went to pick up Bob's daughters from his former mother-in-law's house and, as luck would have it, found that she was cleaning out her pantry and had bags of groceries to give away. Ellie stretched the handout for six weeks.

That rock-bottom moment inspired Ellie to get serious about fixing their finances, and to get an equally humiliated Bob to sign on to doing it her way: "We made a commitment to stop the madness of spending and put every extra dollar to paying down the debt." Their extreme scrimping and saving meant secondhand clothes and no eating out, not even fast food. In two years, the couple eliminated every last dollar of that $40K debt, but rather than treat themselves, Ellie insisted that they build their savings instead. Occasional trips to McDonald's were now in the budget, but "I was adamant that we only go on Tuesdays, because that was Happy Meal night, and I'd eat one along with the kids," she says.

They couldn't have done it without communication. "We would sit down for an hour every Monday night after the kids were in bed and talk through our finances," she says. "And I made it a rule to always start out saying something positive, even if we were angry." After taking a hard look at the numbers and working through their issues of the moment, they'd agree not to talk about them again for a week. "This was crucial, because it kept us from being obsessed about money all of the time," she says. They also set some basic ground rules. They adopted what Ellie calls the "envelope system": placing all of their budgeted cash for the week in envelopes designated for groceries, gas, and other expenses. "That gave us a visual reminder of how much we were spending," she says. Any purchase of $100 or more had to be cleared with the other spouse. Ellie clipped coupons like crazy, and called up their credit card companies to ask for lower APRs.

Two decades later, Ellie travels the world for speaking engagements and has authored 14 books on personal finance. She says that the struggles of those newlywed years have inspired everything that followed. But that's not to say that her money issues are all resolved. "We bought an HD television a few years ago that works great, but now Bob really wants a flat-screen LED," she says. "I teach people that there's always going to be a newer TV, computer, or car, and you have to compartmentalize the urge to spend and be content with what you have. I call it 'choosing contentment' -- and we'll always have to work hard on that."

Originally published on October 24, 2010

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