Money is messy business.
We Shedders are sometimes asked how we manage our joint finances, by people who astutely recognise the complexity of the issues. How do we deal with the differing opinions, beliefs and idiosyncrasies of six people about money, when navigating those waters with even one partner can be a challenge?
Take my husband Rick, for example. I have 34 years of practice dealing with him, but I’m still surprised about how he can be so willing to invest in computer gear. Rick on the other hand raises his eyebrows at my readiness to spend on a nifty little shirt. So given these innate differences, he and I’ve developed a few policies. For example, either of us can spend up to $100 without reporting in. Beyond that, we consult with one another, either before or after the fact (sometimes getting forgiveness is more fun than getting permission).
Allow me to swing for a moment to the other end of a long spectrum. Consider the relationship I have with my government, where I have very little direct influence (compared to what I have with Rick). I pay my taxes and have practically no connection to how that money is spent. If a pothole is fixed on our street, I notice. If a new missile is developed for use in Afghanistan, I don’t. I’m pretty isolated from all that messy business.
Closer to home, I spent a lively evening recently with a good friend who lives in a Gold Coast condo, dining with three of her close friends who are co-residents and are on the committee that manages the hundred or more units in the complex. They were pulling their hair out because people don’t show up for the body corporate meetings where proposals and decisions are made – and then afterward are willing enough to complain about the results. They pressed Rick and me with “how do you deal with…” type questions, as if there were something to learn from our small but relatively happy Shedders community. It was an impassioned conversation.
You could say that those no-show residents just don’t care, or feel they don’t have influence – but I think it’s more that they don’t want to get their hands dirty. For example, they don’t want to have to grumble face-to-face about their sinking funds being spent on improvements to someone else’s block of units. They’d rather be removed from the messy business of the money.
Here in our Shedders community, we don’t give ourselves that option. We have monthly meetings, and the rule is, we’re all there. Otherwise, the meeting gets rescheduled. We know that every decision affects every one of us in some way.
Let me illustrate.
We had one of our regular meetings yesterday, and as usual a number of financial issues came up.
First of all, we reviewed the financial report. We have a joint bank account, into which each of us puts a monthly sum. The bank balance ebbs and flows, and gives us (a) funds to spend, and (b) a brake on how much we can buy.
Then we revisited the renovation to our Shed guest quarters and yoga studio. We have different priorities and different views, but over the previous weeks we’ve aligned and are now on the same page, as they say. The builder arrives before long and when he leaves, we’ll have a new rain catchment system, a front portico, sheltered windows and better access. We’re all happy about that.
Next item on the agenda was about acquiring a small trailer to tow behind our ride-on mower. It’s not a big expense and we could all see value in it. I envisioned filling the trailer with mulch and cruising around on the little tractor rather than pushing heavy wheelbarrows. Daniel could see bringing wood up from the lower part of the property. We agreed that when the bank account climbs into surplus again, we’ll likely buy it.
Then we hit some new territory. We’ve recently had a huge painting that hangs in the stairwell tumble off the wall from great height, damaging its frame during the journey. Judy, the painting’s owner, explained that it had cost $500 to repair, and wondered if the amount could be reimbursed by the Shed account.
For the first time in the living history of this group, there was a long silence – not a negative or judgemental one, I would assert, but profoundly reflective. I tried to tease out my own thoughts which wandered along something like this:
- Hmmm. That’s a fair bit of money.
- Worth talking about.
- But it’s not my painting.
- And I haven’t had much choice about it getting fixed.
- But if it were my painting, what would I think is fair?
- And where on earth are the lines between private and group ownership in this case?
- Any chance we have a policy or a precedent we can lean upon?
I reflected on the sociocracy principle that good decision-making depends on being able to separate out your personal agenda from what’s good for the group. So I reviewed the above list and mentally labelled my thoughts accordingly.
When we finally launched into discussion, we had a frank conversation about our own reactions AND an open exploration about how we want incidents like this to work in our community. Like all of us, Judy was clearly looking beyond her own vested interest, to the good of the group. We recognised that it won’t be the last time that something like this happens; that it would be useful to have some guidelines; that no amount of guidelines will cover every tricky situation that comes up. We worked through it, but not without some discomfort.
But ask any midwife – or gardener, or educator, for that matter – and I’ll bet they’ll tell you: messy business is the best kind. The rawness, the intimacy that comes from those moments is the fuel for a luxuriant life.
Meantime, the painting will be back up on the wall soon – repair paid for out of Shed funds. Although the painting isn’t mine, and isn’t one I might have chosen myself, I’m missing its bright colours, its quirkiness, and the vibrant way it lives on our wall.
You see, I’ve now got some skin in the game – and that makes all the difference.