Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues. Recently, I learned she is equally savvy about personal finances. She could write a column, perhaps even a book, on money. Here’s why… she is debt free after years of penny-pinching. She doesn’t owe a dime, dollar or cent to anyone. This is an amazing accomplishment and I was so impressed by this news I had to ask ten questions to learn more. Enjoy!
1. You mentioned in a column that you recently paid off your house. Did you throw a mortgage-burning party?
Actually, the moment my spouse Joyce and I paid EVERYTHING off, we were in a Starbucks near the Assateague National Seashore in Maryland where we were tent camping. We checked our online bank account from my work laptop and found to our glee that the final bit of money we needed from a check had cleared. With just a few keystrokes — poof, poof, poof — we suddenly owed NOTHING. It had taken years and lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to reach that goal. We looked at each other in a state of shock that our long financial struggle was over. We knew that from that moment forward, if we played wisely, we’d be earning interest, instead of paying interest.
Completely owning our house was simply part of our overriding goal of owing nothing. As out lesbians in a turbulent field (print journalism), we yearned for the psychological luxury of never having to truly fear losing a steady paycheck. And we’d sensed for a long time that one of the most important first steps toward embarking on a truly exceptional retirement (which in our case means one featuring a lot of travel) is doing to Houdini trick of slipping out of the chains of debt, including credit card debt.
2. What is your most significant memory about money?
About four years ago, I inherited a relatively small gift from a distant aunt – a $1,000 savings bond (purchased at my birth) that had matured to just over $5,000. Joyce and I were well into our plan to pay off all our debts, item by item by item, until we were totally debt free. So we took the $5,000, added a bit, and paid off the last six months of one of our car’s payments. We were astounded by how much money that freed up monthly, money we then shifted entirely to paying off our other car. Once that second car was paid off – more than a year earlier than originally scheduled – we took the combined freed-up money and put it on our monthly mortgage. So, the seemingly small inheritance from my aunt had a huge, cascading impact that would have been impossible for us to grasp without actually seeing it play out firsthand.
3. What is your worst habit around finances?
At this point, our financial “garden” is laid out and, at least for the next 10 years, it’s now really all about weeding and pruning. Probably the biggest avoidable mistake we could make right now is to move to a house and garden with a more prestigious address. That would mean lots of new expenses – mortgage interest (and principle payments tied up that instead could be drawing interest), new furniture, higher property taxes, bigger light and heating/cooling bills, etc. I have to watch myself on the little stuff that I know adds up over the weeks and months. I don’t let myself have coffee at home, so I go ahead and grab a Starbucks in the morning. When it’s two – or even three – Starbucks a day, then I need to get out the clippers. We delayed many needed house improvements in order to get totally out of debt. Now we need to attend to those slowly, item by item, over coming years so we don’t fall into owing and don’t cut into savings that could be compounding.
4. A writer typically struggles with earning a living at some point during his or her career. Did you ever feel like a starving artist? How did you cope during this period?
Joyce and I are both journalists. At one point, Joyce took an unpaid leave of absence from her job at The Washington Post to be the lead writer of our two books—a venture that turned out to take seven and a half years. We were young, idealistic and financial babes in the woods. Not only had we given up one huge income plus benefits, but over that time period, we paid out $17,000 for Joyce’s health insurance. At one point, we sat down and really projected out what would happen to our finances if we kept our habits of the time: It wasn’t a pretty picture.
That was a priceless light bulb moment when we realized we had to teach ourselves to be smarter in handling money. That moment brought with it many gifts. For example, we began “Two Did” lists at the start of each season: We would list 10 cheap or free experiences we wanted to have together, like star gazing and tent camping. One of the best moments was my $4 Christmas present: Joyce had saved enough frequent flier points that she got us free plane tickets to St. John in the Virgin Islands, where we camped, snorkeled and played Canasta for a week on the Caribbean. (The $4 was some sort of transfer fee.).
During our lean, “writing books” years, we learned a lot of tricks. We took up what might seem like a bizarre hobby but it became quite fun and challenging: We live in an area with a lot of old trees that, for one reason or another, come down and get chopped up. Any time we find free wood, whether bundles of sticks or large rounds, we would fill up our SUV and take it home to chop later. We haven’t bought fire wood in 15 years, regularly enjoy blazing fires, chop up extra to give to my mom, and have a wood-in-waiting pile that lines our driveway. I could go on and on about similar seemingly tiny habits that add up to huge amounts of savings. The other big one was on a trip to a souk – an open-air market – in Cairo, where Joyce learned the art of bargaining. The portable skill – Joyce learned that the worst thing that could happen is someone would say, No — paid for that trip many times over. I marveled later when Joyce actually bargained in a Cole Hahn shoe store in Manhattan. She didn’t get a break in the price on my new shoes, but the clerk threw in a $12 pair of socks and nifty red cotton shoe bags. It’s endlessly amusing, especially since Joyce by nature is shy.
5. I understand that awhile back you swapped golf for tennis because it’s a cheaper sport. What other ways have you cut back to live within your means?
The “tennis lesson” is incredibly valuable. We’ve played tennis for 22 years, the length of our relationship, and now play on a gay doubles team in Washington, D.C., which throws in the priceless gift gay friends as well. We always travel with our tennis rackets, and we’ve played everywhere from the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris to the Old Cataract Hotel in Egypt that Agatha Christie fans will remember. Tennis has brought us incredible joy, but at a teeny fraction of what golf would have cost. Our rackets are easily five years old at a combined cost of about $400, and we usually play on (free) public courts. All that saved money – added with taking lunch to work, buying gas on the cheaper side of town, abandoning “retail therapy” and rarely buying new clothes — is then freed up to have the splurge vacation, which is something we both really value.
We don’t have a personal cell phone or wireless Internet (we use what is provided at work). We have limited phone service. We, or I should say Joyce, make a pleasure-filled hobby out of getting deals off frequent flier miles, hotel programs, coupons. And that last one is actually how best to sum up the “tennis lesson.” We made saving money into a game. Then the occasional splurge feels great. As the old Wall Street adage goes: Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.
6. Name three economic reasons why gays and lesbians should push for the luxury of marriage?
Well, first, as someone lucky enough to have found the perfect woman for me and then having had the opportunity to marry her in Canada three years ago, I’ll start by saying I don’t see marriage as a “luxury.” Legal marriage strengthens a couple, helps you get through hard times, pulls you together to help you see your past, present and future as a team. Marriage is a blessing, pure and simple, and it goes to the heart of what our founders were talking about in the line, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We who are gay should push for marriage because we’re American citizens and we deserve the same rights as everybody else, period. Economics has nothing to do with it.
Marriage binds you legally to another person. That can just as likely be financially costly as beneficial. It all depends on the strength of the marriage and on the ability of the couple to build financially together.
I’ll sound like a politician here and answer a slightly different question. How does it financially benefit a strong couple that has a good shot at lifelong commitment to pool their money? That’s an easy one. Without a shared vision, a shared financial plan, your relationship is a leaky boat. But rather than leaking water, the couple is leaking dollars – lots of them.
7. You wrote, “Shared dreams help build strong couples.” How did you and your partner get on the same page with money?
Now this question gets back to your marriage question. Joyce and I would be much farther ahead had we had the option – or in this culture, the pressure — to marry early in our relationship. We delayed pooling our money, which contributed to the mindset of accumulating “single” debt rather than building shared assets.
The turning point came when Joyce put the house that she had bought into both of our names. Once she did that, she stopped operating from the position of a possible single person who needed to protect herself in the event of a breakup. Her decision to put me on as the co-owner of the house got us thinking financially as a team. But it also was essential to us really being able to think and plan as a lifelong “married” couple.
Now we love to tweak our retirement dreams. And our financial decisions – whether large or small – are pretty much made for us because they automatically get examined through our “what would this decision mean for living in Paris and Hawaii?” financial calculator.
8. What leads to wealth: how much you make, how you spend it or where you live?
Well, we would live very few places, and they are very expensive. We make what we make, so we have to figure out tricks to make that money “worth” much more, a sort of Deb and Joyce currency revaluation.
Our lesson is to find meaningful work that pays reasonably well. Do it in a town that’s stimulating. Max out on work contributions to 401ks. Pay off all debt. In the 50s pre-retirement homestretch, SAVE, SAVE, SAVE. But, also, travel to get a hint of the pleasure of not working five days a week.
9. You’re out at work. Why do you think so many gays and lesbians continue to stay in the closet at work?
It’s always very easy to judge other people. I came out when it was right for me. Overall, it has been an incredibly joyful decision that has a built-it compounding effect. Being closeted is a joy zapper, and poisons a love relationship. The greatest gift any of us fortunate enough to have gotten out of that coffin is to lovingly help somebody else take those first baby steps that can be so scary, whether you are 18 or 88.
As for work, I don’t want to contribute to a business or project where I don’t feel comfortable to be myself. We have lots of options in this world of ours. Being closeted at work isn’t a choice I would make today. There is no salary big enough for that.
10. What is the most important lesson that your parents taught you about money?
Books have always been among my most important mentors. In the financial area, I’ve been blessed to have been “parented” by many, many insightful writers. Here are just a few:
“How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci” by Michael J. Gelb: This book helped us envision our ideal retirement. Then we worked backward to figure out the financial road map needed to get there.
“The Millionaire Next Door” by Thomas J. Stanley: It taught me that not having rich parents wasn’t what would keep me from having enough.
“The Number” by Lee Eisenberg: Another “Wow!” book. This one got me to come up with my “number” – the ideal amount of money I need before retiring. Everybody’s number is different. But everybody needs a number.
More about Deb Price
Since 1992, Deb Price of The Detroit News has written the first nationally syndicated column on gay and lesbian issues in mainstream newspapers.
With her wife, journalist Joyce Murdoch, she authored two award-winning books: “And Say Hi to Joyce: America’s First Gay Column Comes Out” and “Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court.” “Courting Justice,” a behind-the-scenes look at the 50-year history of how the nation’s highest court has dealt with gay rights, was named one of The Washington Post’s “Raves and Faves” of 2001.
On June 27, 2003, after 18 years together, Deb and Joyce were among the first same-sex couples to marry in Toronto, Canada. Their wedding announcement was the first ever to be published on The Washington Post’s “Engagements, Weddings & Anniversaries” page, a journalism breakthrough that made headlines literally around the globe and opened up the page for other gay couples who want to share their joyful news. Continuing her column’s tradition of giving readers a unique window on this incredible moment in American history, Deb also wrote about how she and Joyce honeymooned in Hawaii.
Avid tennis players, world travelers and certified scuba divers, the Price-Murdoch family lives by the motto “No rain, no rainbows.” Deb’s weekly column can be read at detnews.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.