Haley Messner and Tanner Cemper do not disagree that 2020 has been a difficult year. But for them, it’s a tossup on whether 2019 might have been worse.
Ms. Messner said she was “pretty homeless” for a while that year. Mr. Cemper, too, spent a solid part of it feeling he had skidded off the rails both financially and personally. Relief from what they call “the dark ages” would find them by Dec. 31, 2019, though not before they vowed to climb out of debt together.
Ms. Messner, 29, and Mr. Cemper, 30, met on June 9, 2013 over beers with mutual friends at Bangkok Poco, a San Diego Thai restaurant. She had just graduated from San Diego State University and had a few weeks to kill before starting an internship in public relations. He graduated from San Diego State the year before and was settling into a career with Cemper Contracting, his family’s construction business in Cardiff, Calif.
“We instantly had this sarcastic back and forth,” Ms. Messner said. It extended past the last sip of beer and into that summer, something that surprised them both.
“I thought he was nice when we met, but I didn’t expect much to come of it,” Ms. Messner said.
“Likewise, I just thought we had a fun day and I was ready to move on,” Mr. Cemper said.
Instead, Ms. Messner uncharacteristically texted Mr. Cemper a few days later. “It wasn’t like me,” she said. “To this day I ask myself why I did it.”
Whatever unknown forces were at work, Mr. Cemper had hoped they would continue. But he didn’t let Ms. Messner know that until a few months later, when she moved out of one house and into another within San Diego. Mr. Cemper used his construction van to move her and the needle of their relationship: After she was settled into her new place, he asked her to be his girlfriend. “It was kind of old-fashioned and great,” Ms. Messner said.
That fall, their twosome became a regular foursome. Ms. Messner’s best friend and roommate, Kelsey Cecil, was dating her now-husband, Matthew Cecil; he and Mr. Cemper became close. The couples spent weekends at area wine tastings and restaurants, with occasional road trips to visit Ms. Messner’s parents, David and Tracey Messner, in Santa Barbara, Calif. Ms. Messner grew up there with a younger sister, Shelby. Her father is an aerospace engineer who moonlights as an Orange Theory exercise instructor; her mother is a bookkeeper and real estate agent.
Mr. Cemper remembers his first visit to the Messners, in 2013, as “very much normal.” Ms. Messner’s introduction to Mr. Cemper’s parents, Michael and Ramona Cemper of Cardiff, also wasn’t unusual, except for the opera singer who made a practice of inserting Mr. Cemper’s name into love songs at Cicciotti’s, the local Italian restaurant where the family were regulars. “It was a way of teasing Tanner for bringing a girlfriend,” Ms. Messner said.
By late 2015, though, her relationship with the Cempers had intensified. “I was spending so much time with them it was weird,” she said. Most of that time was spent in the hospital. Mrs. Cemper has congenital heart disease. From October 2015 to April 2016, she was hospitalized after complications from an open-heart procedure. “We almost lost her,” Mr. Cemper said.
Every day, even over the holidays, she joined Mr. Cemper and his father to keep vigil at the hospital. Her devotion made Mr. Cemper, an only child, feel loved. In the spring, when Mrs. Cemper’s health was improving, the couple found an apartment together in San Diego. “We had gotten a lot closer,” Mr. Cemper said.
Not close enough, though, to be transparent about their finances. “In my family, money is a private thing you don’t talk about,” Mr. Cemper said. For Ms. Messner, it was more a matter of avoiding a subject she had long considered an abstraction.
“Because she’s a bookkeeper, my mom put me in money camp as a kid,” she said. “I hated it. I didn’t want to go back the second day.” Beyond the basics of bill paying, finances felt like a foreign language she didn’t want to learn. “I was a publicist. I thought I didn’t need to know about money.”
When Mr. Cemper proposed on a February 2018 trip to the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand with their best friends the Cecils, they still hadn’t talked openly about money. Ms. Messner’s stunned but ecstatic yes to Mr. Cemper’s sunrise proposal was premature, something they would not realize until they started planning an Aug. 24, 2019, wedding for 100 in Santa Barbara.
“It was really just an average wedding, nothing lavish,” she said, adding that her parents were contributing toward the wedding costs, estimated to run around $35,000.
But by the time they were ready to hire a photographer, cracks in the foundation of their relationship were starting to show.
“At first I didn’t put together that behind the scenes Tanner was really stressed about money,” Ms. Messner said. “Then he was working double and triple time to manage things, and it became a conversation.” What emerged in that conversation was that Mr. Cemper had maxed out a credit card, and that both were paying off multiple student loans. Together, they owed more than $30,000.
“One day I was like, ‘How much debt do you actually have?,’” Ms. Messner said. “Then he started opening up, and it was like, wow, we’re about to go into this wedding with a lot of financial issues. It went from this happy thing to freak-out mode.”
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That summer, Ms. Messner and Mr. Cemper moved from their San Diego apartment into a spare room in Mr. Cemper’s parents’ house, a money-saving strategy. “It was not the most comfortable situation, but I felt it needed to be done,” Ms. Messner said. Their fights over finances escalated, and led to a reckoning that maybe they shouldn’t get married the following summer. Two months in, they broke up and called off their wedding. Late in 2018, Ms. Messner moved out.
Her co-workers at Fast Forward, an events company where she was by then a public relations manager, came to her rescue with more than just moral support. “They were like family,” she said. “One of my bosses was like, ‘Come live in our extra room,’ so I moved in with him and his wife for eight weeks,” she said. Other colleagues and friends took her in afterward.
Mr. Cemper, home with his parents, was a wreck. “It was a life-changing experience,” he said. But it brought them both clarity. “When Tanner’s mom was sick I didn’t realize he wasn’t working much and basically living off a credit card,” Ms. Messner said.
After several months of tentative text exchanges, they started talking again. But instead of rushing to get back together, they researched the money habits of healthy couples. “We were learning about all the conversations you were supposed to have, all the things we didn’t talk about.” In March, she moved back in with the Cempers. In July, they enrolled in Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University, a financial planning workshop. Both left work early every Wednesday to attend.
“It was a game changer,” Mr. Cemper said. Ms. Messner recalled a class in which Mr. Cemper scissored his credit cards on the spot. “I still get teary thinking about it,” she said. “It was the first time we were on the same page, moneywise.”
The day of their originally planned wedding, on Aug. 24, 2019, was difficult. But both had by then adopted a belt-tightening strategy. They confided in friends about the struggles that led to their called-off wedding and asked for support. “We turned down a lot of invitations for things that cost a lot, like vacations,” Ms. Messner said. “That’s hard to do when you’re in your 20s.” But friends, including the Cecils, had their backs.
“Instead of going out to restaurants, they were cooking at home and having wine at home, so we’d join them,” Ms. Cecil said. “Their plans were just as fun.” By the end of 2019, they were closing in on eliminating all their debt.
At the Cecils’ New Year’s Eve party in Las Vegas, to which the couple drove instead of flew to save money, Mr. Cemper proposed again with the ring Ms. Messner had given back when they broke up. At the stroke of midnight, “I pulled her aside and said, ‘I’m ready to do this if you are,’” Mr. Cemper said. With a smile as bright as the Vegas skyline, she said yes. “We were especially ready to put 2019 behind us,” she said.
The new year, of course, would come with its own challenges. A budget-conscious wedding they had planned for 100 guests on June 27 had to be canceled in late April because of the coronavirus. But an even more budget-friendly wedding emerged — this one on Sept. 26 for only 20 close friends and family members in the Santa Barbara back yard of Susan Millhollan, Ms. Messner’s grandmother.
Ms. Messner, in an ivory mermaid-style gown with a plunging neckline, walked down a grassy aisle with her father to two bridesmaids holding lush bouquets. Mr. Cemper, in a tan suit, escorted his mother down the aisle before joining two groomsmen. The Cecils, who led the ceremony, awaited them.
“We’re here to celebrate one of the best things that’s going to happen in 2020,” Mr. Cecil said. “You have already worked so hard on your relationship,” Ms. Cecil said. “We are in awe of you two.” After Ms. Messner and Mr. Cemper took turns promising to fill each other’s hearts and feed each other’s souls, they read handwritten vows.
“Back in 2015 when my mom was in critical care, you never left my side,” Mr. Cemper said. “You’re the most caring person I’ve met in my life. I promise to show you for the rest of my life how much I love you.”
Ms. Messner said she never expected to fall in love with Mr. Cemper. “And I certainly didn’t expect three wedding dates and a global pandemic to be thrown into the mix,” she said.
Just before Ms. Cecil, a deputized as a marriage commissioner by Santa Barbara for the event, pronounced them married, Ms. Messner promised to always encourage Mr. Cemper and to help him find the positive. “I promise to love you from this day forward. You will never walk alone.”
On This Day
When Sept. 26, 2020
Where Santa Barbara, Calif.
Virtual Celebrating After the ceremony, Ms. Messner and Mr. Cemper joined 133 guests on Zoom for a champagne toast featuring virtual hugs and blown kisses. Later, they gathered with their in-person guests for a reception in the backyard of Ms. Messner’s parents, also in Santa Barbara.
Looking Ahead Before they read their vows, Ms. Messner and Mr. Cemper placed sealed love letters to each other in a locked box to be opened on their 10th anniversary. They plan to write each other new letters in 2030, to be opened on their 20th.
Fiscally Fine In June, Ms. Messner said a reluctant goodbye to her colleagues at Fast Forward to accept a new position at You Need a Budget, a company that teaches budgeting skills. “Something about the job description resonated with me,” she said.