What Getting Hustled Taught Me About Financial Intimacy

Feb 16, 2024
A shovel and a wheelbarrow full of mulch

It was a beautiful winter Friday afternoon when I heard the doorbell ring at my house — a welcome break before I started my next meeting. As I went to the door, I wondered who it was. I wasn’t expecting anyone.

I opened my door and saw a beat-up white truck with a trailer full of pine needles. This is a common occurrence in South Charlotte, as pine needles are a preferred way of covering flower beds and natural areas.

A guy stood a few feet away from my door, and a couple more guys stood further away, clearly all part of the crew.

In an instant, I had a flood of thoughts and feelings. “We need a fresh layer of pine needles. Great! Let’s get this done. I want my wife to be excited and surprised that the yard looks good.”

My excitement bypassed a deeper knowledge that this could go sideways, but I didn’t want my biases to cause me to miss this opportunity.

Quickly, the negotiation for the job started. The guy with the truck offered $7 a bale, to which I paused, trying to think what I was willing to pay. He then offered $6. I said, “Great.” Next, he asked how many bales I thought I needed.

I responded, “I think 40 or so.” I couldn’t remember how many we got the previous time. The pine needle guy gave me a look that said, “You are going to need more than that.” I acknowledged that it may be a little bit more.

I told him I had a meeting to get to, so he could go ahead and start the job.

As I walked back into the house, I felt excited that the front yard would be freshened up and looking great and that I had negotiated a great deal.

Verbal Contracts

I came back out an hour and a half later to check on the crew’s progress. The yard was looking great, and they were close to finishing up. My excitement and pride continued to build. I felt great and thought that my wife would be happy to see the improvements on our property.

The time came to settle up for the work, and then my ignored neuroception became conscious. I quickly realized that I was in trouble; these guys were not honest or trustworthy.

The crew leader said they used 350 bales of pine needles.

Immediately I was thrust from the high of feeling proud about getting the yard freshened up to fear and anger about how much he expected me to pay. It was nowhere close to what I had in mind.

As I write about this experience, I feel my body still responding to the memory of it. I breathe deeply to calm myself and look around to see that I am safe. I am not in this memory; I am reflecting and writing about this memory. This is differentiating traumatic experiences in my brain.

The pine needle guy and I stood there in what felt to me like a life-or-death situation and negotiation. (This was my internal experience.) His two other crew members were just down the driveway as this unfolded. They knew I was not happy. I tried not to show my fear and anger.

I tried to reassure myself internally that we could work something out; I had little success. I knew these guys were not going to be reasonable.

They expected me to pay nearly 10 times what we agreed to verbally. He had his points in his argument, and I had mine. We were miles apart. Privately, all I could think was, “I don’t want to get hurt — and my kids are going to be home soon. I want these guys gone. I am terrified, and I want out of this conflict.”

I was also contending with what my wife would say when she found out what happened.

As the negotiation continued, the other two guys came up the driveway. Now it was three versus one. The sense of physical threat was heightened. Did they do any specific actions to imply they would hurt me physically? No, but I could not see this at the time. The fear center of my brain (the amygdala) was hijacked.

The negotiation was not going my way. We settled on a price that was still high but lower than what they asked for.

I wrote out the check with a shaking hand. I could not believe what was happening. I was getting hustled, and I felt trapped.

Calling My Wife for Support and Honesty

The guys drove away, and I breathed out just a bit. I was still far outside of my window of tolerance. I felt like I had violated the unspoken rules of being a man: stand up for yourself and don’t get scared. I do not consciously hold these views of masculinity, yet they are still part of my psyche.

I knew I needed to call my wife both for comfort and confession. I knew she would be furious. I had just spent way more money than either of us would be comfortable with for the yard without planning for it.

I called, and immediately she could tell something was wrong. It was all a bit of a blur, but I was eventually able to tell her what happened. She had her own understandable mix of emotions.

I am fortunate that we have spent years learning how to support each other in difficult situations, allowing space for the full range of emotions and the expectation of support. We each take responsibility for our part in a problem. That doesn’t mean the conversations are fun, but it does mean we can get through them still connected and loving each other.

I wish the story ended there, but it does not.

The guys came back because the bank would not cash the check. When I wrote the check, I was so scared and nervous that my penmanship was not legible. When they came back to have me write another check, I was right back to feeling completely overwhelmed.

The guys left with their new check, and I thought we were done. But we weren’t. They came back again.

At this point, I was mortified. What were they doing back at my house? By this time, my wife had come home. I told her how intimidated I felt by these guys.

We met them in the driveway. My wife was not happy and started to tell them so. In my own fear response, I told her to just pay the guys and get them out of here. She got her phone out to pay them by Zelle. It was the longest and most awkward three minutes I can recall.

My conflict avoidance did not serve us well. My wife was upset that I had shut her down. She did not read these guys as threatening as I did.

Getting Paranoid

A very enjoyable Friday had become a nightmare. My mind and brain were spiraling. I started to imagine all kinds of worst-case scenarios.

For instance, we had everything in our garage on our back porch because we had just repainted the garage.

I told my wife that we had to get everything back in the garage because I didn’t trust these guys. They saw all our stuff on the back porch, and they could back and take it.

I was imagining that they were pissed about how things had gone for them. I was imagining retaliation. I just wanted to be safe. I could not see things clearly.

I got to such a bad place in my mind that I imagined they would come once dark fell. I had never done this before, but I put baseball bats by the front and back doors.

My wife didn’t know how to help me get back to calm, safety, and reflectivity. I knew I was probably going too far down the rabbit hole, but I had a hard time getting the brakes of my brain to work. My nervous system was shot.

In Reflection — Experiencing Financial Intimacy

This whole experience is about money and relationships.

Was it about the money? Absolutely.

Was it about relational safety and connection? Absolutely.

I started off wanting to do something nice and thoughtful. My wife and I enjoy seeing our yard freshened up with pine needles, and we had the money to pay for it.

This experience was about threat. It was about misrepresentation. It was about violations of trust.

When we enter into decisions, there is often an unspoken assumption of trust, especially when it comes to money. There is an expectation that if there is a difference of understanding, we can find a mutually satisfying solution. All of this happens in verbal agreements.

My wife expects me to use our household finances wisely and thoughtfully. When I make a decision that violates that, I have a responsibility to own that error.

In hindsight, I could have done several things differently. First and foremost, I could have listened to my gut. Something in my gut told me this could go badly, and I overrode that feeling.

But what happened between my wife and me is most important. She sought to understand and provide care, and I tried to give her space to express her anger and disappointment about the situation. Instead of expressing disappointment in me, she framed it as being about the situation, which helped hold back some of the shame I was already feeling.

When our partners meet us with empathy in times of distress, it can help us move through the pain of a decision gone wrong. I also had a responsibility not to minimize her feelings about the situation and to own up to the role I played in how it all went down.

Financial intimacy is what carried us through this difficult scenario — knowing that we both wanted the best for our household finances. We realized that while this was a loss of money we did not plan on, we still had our emergency fund and were on track with our retirement plans. We could put this experience in perspective. As a single experience, it felt huge. In the larger context of our lives, it was a small blip. We would be fine and move on.

Practically, we also agreed that going forward we will not hire people who knock on the door and offer services. We would also get a written estimate and business card before doing any business with new individuals or companies. (Yes, I know this is good practice, and I bypassed it in this scenario in the name of efficiency and excitement. To err is human.)

Questions For Reflection:

How would you navigate this situation with your spouse?
What would you want the outcome to be for the two of you?
Talk with your loved one about this scenario, and discuss how you want to navigate these types of experiences.

Wishing You Financial Intimacy,
Ed Coambs

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