A Timely Warning to Young Couples
“So, my dear Katie you’re going to be married soon? Well, I hope that you have made a wise choice.”
“O yes, uncle,” I answered light-heartedly, “I certainly have made a wise choice, for Henry will make me perfectly happy.’
‘Oh,” Uncle Joe smiled pleasantly and mischievously asked, “What has he got?”
It was typical of Uncle Joe to set me an unexpected question that would make my face redden with embarrassment, and in my most calm voice, I answered, “What has he got, Uncle? Sure, I have no idea about what you mean.”
“I just want to be sure that he has sufficient income to look after you, and what sort of position will you occupy in local society?”
“Henry has his business, and a good one it is!” my mother interrupted abruptly and emphatically.
“And he is so clever, he’s sure to get on fabulously,” I boasted, for I was eager to assure Uncle Joe that as far as my future was concerned everything was looking good.
“Of course, Katie, that success will also depend on you a great deal,” Uncle Joe replied rather gravely. “A man’s wife has a great deal of responsibility in ensuring the success or failure of her husband than you would suspect. It is often said that ‘a careless, extravagant, and bad wife is the greatest curse a man can have in his life, while a good wife is a great blessing.'”
“Yes, uncle; O yes,” I agreed while I glanced towards my mother, who I saw was smiling at his opinions with a little expression of scorn.
‘You make sure you take care of his pennies, and you’ll find his pounds will take care of themselves,” Uncle Joe smiled. “Beware, Katie, that you never get into debt, for its the easiest thing to do and the devil of a job to get out of. Just you take my advice, lady, and live well within your means, and always pay ready-money for things.”
“Yes, of course, Uncle,” I assured him. “I know you are right in what you say, and Henry is so careful with money, I am sure he has the very same ideas.”
“Well, just you keep it in mind, yourself. Don’t despise an old man’s advice, buy nothing that you can’t afford, and always pay ready-money.”
I can recall that conversation with my Uncle Joe so clearly, for it took place just a few weeks before my marriage. But I will admit that, at the time, his words did not strike home so forcibly as they did afterwards for, at that time in my life, my mind was totally filled with other matters that were of more interest to me. After all, Uncle Joe was an old man, and the amount of his wealth had always been kept under wraps. Nevertheless, Uncle Joe lived quite comfortably, owning a small property on the outskirts of Belfast, upon which he had built for himself a pretty, yet grand, house where I had often spent many happy childhood days. It must be said that he did show me special affection, possibly because I was the only child of his much loved, only brother, who had died when I was still a child, leaving me to the sole guardianship of my mother. Unfortunately, there had never been much love lost between my mother and Uncle Joe and, over the years, the division between them deepened. As a result, when invitations to Uncle Joe’s home, known as ‘Knocknaree’, were sent to us my mother invariably refused to go and only allowed me to attend after the greatest efforts of persuasion. But these visits provided me with some of the most enjoyable memories of my childhood. I would run through the hay-fields and the clover-scented meadows, and I would explore the marble-slabbed dairy, with its rows of basins that brimmed with frothy golden cream. Many afternoons I would sit with Uncle Joe beneath the shady old cedar-tree that stood in his fragrant garden and listened to his stories. He would also accompany me on the long garden walks, listening attentively to my childish conversation about things that were meaningless to anyone but me. Those were happy days, on which the sun always seemed to shine and banish all signs of gloom, protecting me from the world and its cares.
Sadly, I had not seen so much of Uncle Joe since I had grown up. This was due in part to the deep dislike my mother bore for him, and partly because my life had begun to rotate around a young man called Henry Allinson, who was aged twenty-six and five years older than myself. He was well situated financially, having an interest in a first-rate city business, and he was a popular young man with an irreproachable character. As for my situation, I was a penniless person until my mother died and, therefore, I was quite taken aback by my good fortune. Henry, being well-liked by the other partners in the business, would undoubtedly do well for himself and our start in married life appeared to be fairly promising. When we were married, Henry and I took a short honeymoon that, I was to learn afterwards, was not cheap and for which Henry had taken no opportunity to save some of his income. This news had made me feel a little uneasy but it was too early in our wedded life to argue about it and I comforted myself in the belief that we would live a quiet life once we were settled, which would allow us to make up for this little extravagance shown at the beginning of our lives together. We had already decided that we should live in Belfast and have a house of our own, which excited me with visions of being fully employed furnishing and adorning it just as we wished. The house, however, had yet to be chosen and this became our first main objective, followed closely by a desire to occupy it as soon as possible.
Over the following weeks, we must have spent a small fortune in hiring transport to view various prospective homes until we finally found the one we wanted. It was well situated in relation to the city centre, had suitable privacy from the main road, and was an excellent size of a building. It was, however, unfurnished and the rent required was very high, which frightened us. This was, by no means, a grandiose building though it was commanding the rent of one. The size was, thankfully, an advantage since it would not require much furniture and we decided that we would only require two maids, all of which would help reduce expenditure. Delighted with our choice we enthusiastically agreed with the house-agent to undertake a seven-year lease. Yes, we were young, inexperienced and innocent in these matters and were also beguiled by the tempting offer of having no security deposit to pay. But we also consented to make any repairs that were necessary and signed the agreement that very same day.
Neither Henry nor I had any knowledge about furnishing a home, nor did we have any experience of the problems that might occur by investing in cheap materials. Thinking ourselves to be clever we drew up two lists of furnishings to make price comparisons and sitting down with paper and pencil in hand we made an effort to calculate how much we would have to spend. During our calculations, I remembered Uncle Joe’s advice and suggested that we should not go beyond an agreed amount. Buying only what was necessary, and pricing these from the books, we agreed on an amount, and Henry decided to borrow a little more than this amount on monthly terms until it was all repaid. Overjoyed with our own prudence we set out to purchase what we needed. But when we got to the shop we had decided to do business with, we discovered that the things we had chosen appeared to be less than what we thought they would. By adding a little more money here and there we decided the overall cost would not be much higher than that which he had calculated, but the furniture we bought would be much prettier and suit our home much better. Adding this, adding that, and unwisely listening to the shop assistant’s advice our purchases had grown and we were not fully aware of what we had got until it was in the house with our newly employed domestics. But, even as the furnishings arrived there arose new needs, and hardly a day passed without some new demand being made with which it was impossible to do without. Eventually, all purchases were made and put in place, leaving us only the bill to be sent to us for payment. As I looked at all that we had got I was frightened to think about the bill, while Henry comforted himself in the belief that the total would not go over the amount we had calculated. You can imagine how we felt when the bill finally arrived and showed that we owed twice as much as we had calculated. We were totally taken aback at the amount of money required for delivery charges, for which we had made no calculation and were quite unprepared for.
After the first shock of receiving the bill, we immediately thrust it aside, comforting ourselves that it would all be paid in good time, and continued with our lives. We were newly married and friends were calling upon us, and we were also obliged to return these visits. It was a busy time and engrossed in the life that lay before us it was easy for us to banish disagreeable things from our minds. However, although I believed my own house to be perfectly furnished, I realised just how imperfect it was when I saw the homes of new friends and acquaintances. I began to see deficiencies that did not truly exist and went to different shops to purchase new items on account. But the problem of furnishings was not all there was. Henry’s position in business obliged us to entertain customers, contacts and partners of his business. Such entertainment was not cheap and neither were the clothes and accessories required to maintain an aura of wealth and fashion among such guests. This was the way things continued and after two years of married life we found ourselves hopelessly encumbered in debt, and recovery appeared impossible. It was almost impossible to put a finger on the cause of the extravagance, but it was certainly obvious that we were living far beyond our income. The bills seemed to arrive in a never-ending stream, and every day we were sinking deeper and deeper into the mire of debt. Then, to add to our on-going difficulties our child arrived and we set up a nursery, which cost us a considerable amount of money. As a mother it was would have been impossible for me to accept my child being badly dressed, and could never have taken the child into public unless it was in the sweetest and freshest of clothes. So we endeavoured to ensure that the child got only the best in clothes and accessories. Yet, despite the growing bills we mysteriously managed to keep ourselves afloat, and as a strange, careworn expression grew across Henry’s face it became obvious to me that he was harassed and worried. Although his business was fine, there were bills that needed to be paid and difficulties arising that he could not quite see the end of.
To all outward appearances, Henry and I seemed to be a very prosperous couple and living in a house as elegant as any other in the area. There were countless small trifles scattered throughout the house, which I had bought here and there but never paid for them. Some of the shopkeepers had not held back in their efforts to persuade me to buy many of these and, therefore, I didn’t think I had a real duty to pay for them. Yes, my conscience troubled me and from time to time a sharp pang of guilt would shoot through me, and many times I wished that when we first set up a home that I had had the sense to insist Henry to keep within our income. By this time, however, it was too late and all my hopes and prayers rested on some good fortune coming to us. Henry had high hopes of his partners promoting him to a position with an income that would see us much better off than we were. It was this hope of promotion that kept our spirits up and we felt particularly hopeful when Mr Torrens, the senior partner, decided that he would come to our home for dinner. Mr Torrens was a peculiar sort of man, who rarely left his own home, except to go to the office, and we knew that something important was afoot. We wanted to impress the man favourably, of course, and this caused us to launch ourselves into further debt. So much depended on the success of his visit that we decided no expense would be spared in entertaining him and I planned an exquisite meal served in the Russian style with each course brought to the table sequentially. The large dining table was set under my close supervision and when everything was completed I had the utmost confidence that Mr Torrens would be suitably impressed. Unfortunately for Henry and the meal I had prepared, Mr Torrens came to the house, ate very little and in silence, leaving the house without saying one word on the subject upon which our hopes were pinned.
Just over a week after the dinner, we heard that the promotion had, in fact, been given to one of Henry’s juniors, whose name had never before been mentioned. We were terribly disappointed, having counted on the real possibility of our situation being improved. Then, when our anger had reached its highest point, Uncle Joe suddenly walked in. The man had never been in our house since the day we were married, but it was a great surprise for him to leave his beloved ‘Knocknaree’. He made a point of telling me that he had a sudden urge to see his favourite niece and his new grand-niece, and that alone was the reason for his journey. He was only going to stay for the day and intended to return to his own home that very evening. I loved my Uncle Joe deeply and under normal circumstances would have been greatly pleased to welcome him to our home, but his visit had been badly timed. Despite his presence, my mind was only filled with great disappointment for Henry, and our troubles were now becoming too serious to ignore.
“You have a beautiful house, Katie,” said Joe. “Sure, I had no idea that Henry was such a rich man.”
“Did you not?” I replied with a nervous laugh.
“Aye, Katie, I am really pleased to see you so comfortably settled,” smiled Uncle Joe. “This room here must have cost you both a pretty penny, but I am sure you have a wee nest-egg put away somewhere.”
“Oh, it isn’t very much,” I answered him, referring to the room though I knew he would think I was referring to the nest-egg.
“It doesn’t matter how small it is, Kate. There is still plenty of time to add to it.”
It was at this moment that the door to the room opened and the maid delivered an ominous-looking plain manilla envelope into my hands and told me that the person was waiting for an answer. Quick as a flash I answered in the usual way under these circumstances and said. “Tell them Mr Allinson is out, but he would call with them in a day or two.”
Despite my best efforts to look indifferent, I could feel Uncle Joe’s eyes on me and I could feel my face begin to redden. I was almost certain that he had realised the truth of my current situation, but lunch was announced and we all went into the dining room. As we entered I was horrified to see that the maid had set the table with some of our best china, and though I knew she had done so with the best of intentions, I knew that Uncle Joe would not be impressed by such a show of grandeur. Nevertheless, he noticed the setting and politely expressed his admiration. “Where did you get that figure?” he asked as he pointed toward a particularly ornate china centre-piece. “It must have been very expensive.”
“What?” I replied unemotionally, “It was not very expensive. At least I don’t think it was.” But even as I answered him I felt a painful throb in my heart, reminding me that the figure was not even paid for at that moment. After this I found the entire visit by my uncle to be both stressful and unpleasant, and it was with great relief when I bade him goodbye and was, once again, alone in my home. I had deceived him into thinking that our life was good when all the while I only wanted to put my arms around him and confess the financial mess we had made of our life. As I watched him leave my home to return to ‘Knocknaree’ my heart yearned to be going with him to the peace, quiet and happiness I had always experienced in that place. But, little did I realise that our struggle was just beginning and we just seemed to sink deeper and deeper into the quicksand of debt. The deeper we struggled the deeper we got and all our efforts to drag ourselves out of the quagmire were in vain because we had ignored the ‘golden rule’ at the very beginning of our life together – to live within our means and pay ready cash. We had a lovely house, fine clothes, jewels, and plenty of ‘friends’. But we were totally miserable and overwhelming debt stared us in the face in whatever direction we turned. Moreover, we became increasingly anxious as to how long we could keep our creditors at bay and avoid being shamed. Henry’s position in his business depended solely upon the pleasure of the senior partners, and if they discovered his financial embarrassments, it would undoubtedly have serious consequences to him. Such a thing might make the senior partners consider that they would be justified in taking steps to remove him from the business, rather than just warn him of the danger of his position. Every waking moment of the day I prayed that we could begin again so that we could act differently and avoid our current experience.
There were times when I wanted to confide my troubles to my mother but did not dare to. Henry was a great favourite with her because she regarded him as being prosperous, but if she discovered his misfortunes she would not think of him in the same light. I could not bear that to happen because I knew that I was equally, if not actually more to blame than Henry for our predicament. It suddenly became clear to me what the meaning of Uncle Joe’s words were, as well as his warning that a wife can make or hinder her husband’s success. If only I had insisted at the beginning on living within our means all would have been good, but now every day brought another disturbing and threatening letter. Every ring of the doorbell would make me jump, and the sound of a man’s voice talking to the maid made me tremble with fear. Then, one summer’s evening, Henry and I were sitting, planning all sorts of wildly impossible schemes to get out of our predicament when Henry finally said, “We have held off the final reckoning for a long time now, but I think the day is just around the corner, Katie. And I don’t know what we are going to do.”
We worried about what our friends might think when our financial difficulties would be exposed. But, not for one minute, did we contemplate that they were already contemplating our fall and had been for many months. They wondered how we could afford to entertain so well and privately condemned us for wasting money, despite the fact that they were the beneficiaries of that spending. Neither did we even imagine that Mr. Torrens had not been impressed by our surroundings as much as hoped he would. He had left our home, knowing Henry’s income and disappointed that his valued employee had married a woman with so little sense and judgement. Mr. Torrens was completely aware of the embarrassment that would occur if Henry had been promoted and, therefore, the senior partners decided to promote and increase the wages of an employee whom they thought had a better understanding of money matters. It was clear, then, that it would only be my mother and Uncle Joe who would be surprised about our fall from grace, but we sat on in our lovely room knowing that we would have to sell off everything we had, leave our beautiful home, and begin again from scratch. Henry’s position, we were aware, was seriously damaged and that we could never hope to regain the same position in society that our own stupidity had caused us to lose, and we could not avoid that reality.
Great anxiety continued in the days that followed as I wrote to my mother and told her how hopelessly and desperately we were overcome by our financial difficulties. I still worried over what she would say, and what Uncle Joe might say. In my grief and embarrassment, I locked myself away from the world and never thought that I could face the world again. then, a knock came to the door and, after a subdued call from me to come in, I was surprised to see that beautiful, friendly face of Uncle Joe. He immediately enfolded me in his arms and said softly, “My poor wee Katie. I only heard your news this morning and I came straight away. Cheer up, Katie. Things can’t be past mending, and I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t come to help.”
Sitting with Henry and me, he listened attentively to our story, which we told truthfully and did not try to justify our conduct. Then, when all was confessed, Uncle Joe wrote a cheque for the full amount of our debts, which were quite substantial when everything was taken into consideration. It saved us from any disgrace, and it prevented Henry’s dismissal from a job that would eventually bring us an income that we could only have dreamed about. On the advice of Uncle Joe, we sublet our home and moved to a less expensive house in a less fashionable locality. At the same time we sold all those useless things that had cost us so much and had become so hateful to me. Now we started again with a small but certain income and armed with a lot more wisdom. We still visit him in his home, but mere words cannot describe how thankful we were for his kind and generous help and we have never forgotten his wise words – “Never buy what you can’t afford, and always pay with ready cash.”
To all young people who are about to marry, you may be doing so with the best intentions to be frugal. But how many young couples do we hear about who fall into bad times rather than the happy times due to them? Too frequently these hard times are caused by their developing of a heedless disregard for the future consequences that await them for ‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’. The need to show-off can lead to an extravagance that might cost a young couple years of misery to redeem, and there will not always be an ‘Uncle Joe’ to help. It is much better to begin ‘house-keeping’ by showing a modesty that is in proportion to your means; to furnish if need be, gradually; and from time to time add what can be reasonably afforded..