What To Do With Your Broke-But-Wonderful Boyfriend

Ask Chelsea Anything_Graphic_title card_v2

In this week’s Ask Chelsea Anything, we’re talking about something that is a taboo subject for many a self-identified feminist: the anxieties, guilt, and guilt about anxieties that can come with a low-or-no-earning male partner. Yes, we are imperfect creatures, yes, it is maybe a bit hypocritical, but it is human. These dynamics don’t exist in a vacuum, and even the most #unproblematic feminists may feel a sense of stigma when with a guy who simply isn’t bringing home any kind of bacon. So before I continue to spoil the question (and the answer!), let’s get into the reader’s specific situation so we can discuss how to deal with us, and cleanse ourselves of our #problematic thoughts.

And as always, don’t forget to send your questions to askchelseaanything@thefinancialdiet.com.

Dear Chelsea

I find myself at a crossroads in my relationship today, where I am silly in love with the man I’ve been with since I was a sophomore in college (we’re both 27 now), but I don’t know if he makes sense for me as a partner. The truth is, he is an extremely low earner — he tutors music freelance and barely made $21,000 last year — and he doesn’t see himself ever earning much more than that. He loves his job, he loves music, he loves being his own boss and choosing his students and projects carefully, and he knows full well this means he’ll cap out at about $40,000 on the best year of earnings. This is all fine for him, because he prioritizes freedom and balance way over anything material, and is perfectly happy to live an extremely Spartan lifestyle and save religiously over the course of his life so he won’t have to earn more. He’s obsessed with those life hack-y websites about living on barely any money.

And he grew up essentially on a hippie commune, so for him, this lifestyle has always been the norm and the expectation. And this of course intoxicated my college-self, and his indomitable spirit and joy for life are what keep me so in love with him. 

But I’m an adult now, and as someone who grew up in a financially-unstable household, it’s extremely important for me that I earn a comfortable and solid living, and that I do things like own property, travel frequently, and am able to save for my future children’s education. Right now I earn about $70,000 per year but I’ve started a side project that will hopefully grow my career and earnings into about twice what it is today. But this would mean that I would have to support my husband, more or less, and would have to cut out a lot of my financial plans.

As an adult, I want a partner who is committed to the same things financially, and wants to be a high earner as well so that we could both share the responsibilites of our professional and personal lives. For example, I would like to change my schedule to part-time or work from home while my children are young, and that would not be an option with my boyfriend’s lifestyle. I know that with him I will have the sole, unerring pressure of being the breadwinner forever. And that’s terrifying.

Part of this makes me feel un-feminist, but part of me knows that it’s just a fundamental incompatibility that I’m only reaching now that I’ve become a mature adult with more fleshed-out aspirations for my future. But I love him, madly. What do I do?

Annie

Hey Annie. This is a super-tough question, and one I know I’m not equipped to answer alone, so I spoke to a friend who has been married for some time and is much more knowledgeable on the topic — but more from her later. In the meantime, if I could say one thing up-front, it would be: forget about the feminist part. You are making a “feminist” choice if you are making a choice that respects you as an equal and worthy partner in the equation, whatever choice that may be. Feminism is not about living some perfect life dictated by a Gender Studies professor, according to outdated or reversed gender roles. It’s about holding women as equal, adult, independent actors and arbiters of their own lives, whatever those lives may be. Sometimes the choices that are right for you may not align perfectly with the “perfect” option according to The Feminist Playbook, but that’s not your responsibility. So the sooner you can stop beating yourself about that part of the question, the better.

Now, onto the meat of the issue. You’ve identified something that millions of people (I assume) experience each day, but avoid thinking about, because it seems so tragic and un-romantic. You are in love with someone who, emotionally and personally, is an ideal match, but who has some fundamental misalignment on the logistical end. And in the real world, where two people must live and build a life together over decades, sometimes the latter trumps the former, no matter how much we want to not admit that because we’re afraid of how callous it might make us look. As my friend, Carole*, who has been married for nearly 20 years told me on the subject,

“I have seen a lot of divorces in the time I’ve been married, and I’m one of the few people I know who has never even had a brush with divorce. And I can almost certainly say it’s because we were aligned, first and foremost, as partners in life, before even as lovers. We agreed on all of the fundamental questions and goals of life, and asked ourselves the painful questions of where we stood on absolutely everything. We talked money heavily when that was not a thing people did, we went through every possible What If that was unpleasant to think about it, and we had a contract in place for our assets (at a time when that was basically never done unless you were a millionaire).

When I look at the divorces that have happened around me, with people who seemed “made to be,” I see the same things over and over again: there was something they didn’t align on, they either knew and ignored it or never addressed it in the first place, and it became a dealbreaker over time. Sometimes this is money, sometimes it’s career, sometimes it’s even something like “I don’t think I can have sex with just one person for the rest of my life.” But in any case, it’s rarely an issue of “I just don’t love this person anymore.” It’s a crack that starts small and grows into something irreparable. You are lucky enough to see the crack now in a big, big way. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can change something so fundamental about the other person, because that isn’t fair to either of you. You either marry this person knowing exactly what you’re getting, or you don’t marry them for that exact reason. But this isn’t going to change.”

Obviously, I’m not married myself, but I have seen similar stories play out around me, and have become the most pragmatic person possible for these reasons. I want my eyes to be Clockwork Orange-level open when I go into this kind of commitment, and that’s knowing I’m with someone I align with as much as practically possible on all the Big Life Questions. If I had a misalignment this huge with my boyfriend, and I saw it this early on, I can assure you that would be a dealbreaker for me. And it’s tragic, and it’s not a conversation anyone wants to have (particularly in our culture of Love Conquers All). But it’s particularly that culture that teaches us that any “non-romantic” reason for calling something off is just because we aren’t romantic or believing enough that leads us into these messes.

Happily ever afters are constructed out of mutually compatible, pragmatic, adult decisions. And that means accepting that love is not enough for a lot of very good reasons, and that it doesn’t mean any less of us (the least of which that we’re somehow unfeminist for accepting these truths). Ultimately, only you can decide what is the right way to handle this kind of thing in your own life, but if the question you are looking to be answered is “Should I break up with this guy?” — and I suspect it is — the answer is “Realistically, yes.” And I think you know that, too, or you wouldn’t be writing in.

I wish you the best of luck, and I’m sorry that you’re in such a terrible situation to begin with, but good on you for being honest. That’s more than so many people are willing to do, until it’s way too late.

Image via Pexels

  • Emily

    As someone who recently broke up with her wonderful-as-a-person, nightmarish-as-a-partner boyfriend, this hit me directly in the feels bone. Thank you for writing this and tackling a very difficult and heartrending question that many of us end up having to answer.

  • Mj D’Arco

    why couldn’t he be the stay at home dad who cooks and cleans? and what if a man had written an article about how his ideal woman was a 50s housewife… i see a bit of double standard here

    • Summer

      What makes it a double standard? Just because he would be able to stay home with children doesn’t mean that’s the arrangement she (nor perhaps he) wants. There’s nothing double standard about a man or a woman wanting his or her partner to earn enough money to live a particular lifestyle. The problem in this case seems to be that they do not seem to share lifestyle goals. He’s happy with a minimalist, “life-hack” way of living, she isn’t. The basic fundamentals of this incompatibility go beyond who is or isn’t making the most money.

    • My guess is that the lifestyle she wants (where they can afford to send their kids to college, etc.) requires more than a dual-income of $91,000…indeed, in most places, you would need far more than that. No double standard, she wants a partner who works (& earns) as much as she does. She’s not disparaging him for his lifestyle choices, she’s just acknowledging that she doesn’t want to live like that herself.

      Same issue as with your man who wants the 50s housewife…if he’s not dating a girl that wants to be a 50’s housewife, we’d all be telling him to break up and find someone who does. It’s not fair to either party in a relationship when you know something is fundamentally wrong and don’t do anything about it.

  • Emily Battle

    I am 5 1/2 years married into this situation and not regretting my choice. It has been hard, but the wonderful yet-unexpected life with my husband has made up for the financial “dream” that didn’t become my reality.

  • This was great advice. Romantic partnerships ultimately need to work on an utterly practical level, and sharing the same long-term goals (and a plan for how to get there) is critical.

  • As someone who has actually been in your almost exact same situation, I have to disagree strongly with Chelsea’s advice. I actually wrote about this for TDF awhile back and my situation is very analogous to yours (my partner made less than $40,000 and I made between $70,000 and $80,000). We have had lots of struggles but they have never really been about money. There is being a mature adult with money and there is making alot of money and the two things are not the same. Nor is being a high earner analogous to financial security or comfort; just read some stories on TFD about how people went from riches to rags or Mr. Money Moustache to see how a DIY/hippie lifestyle can provide much more security than a traditional high earning one.
    I also think that you’re naive to think that two high earners can share professional and family responsibilities equally. They can’t, unless they outsource the childcare part of it or are independently wealthy. For most people, it’s often more affordable (and allows you to save up more for the college fund) if one partner has a more flexible job and the other person stays on a more intense career path. As a woman, it will hurt your career and earning potential if you go part time or put your career on the back burner to be a SAHM. If you’ve found a partner you love who is willing to look after your children and home to free you up to be a high-earner, that’s the ultimate division of labor. If what you want is to maintain a certain lifestyle, which includes the travel and having someone else subsidize you not working, then maybe you’re not as grown up as you think. Life is full of hard choices surrounding career/lifestyle/family and you are lucky that you get this choice; most Americans have to work and cannot take time off to care for their children or rely on their partner or travel and be financially secure. But I think Chelsea is right that the fact that you’ve framed this as “fundamental incompatability” suggests there is something more there.

    • Anon

      I don’t know; it seems a little unkind to call her immature because she’d like to stay home with her children, have financial security, and travel. Why is it the ultimate division of labor for him to take care of the kids but immature for her to want to be the one who stays home with them? And, sure, financial security and earning potential aren’t the same thing but no matter how thrifty you are, it’s much easier to feel financially secure if you have a partner who can carry all of your financial obligations if one of you gets laid off.

      • I don’t think it’s immature and I never used that word. I do take issue with her framing her need to break up with someone as “I’ve become a mature adult with more fleshed-out aspirations for my future” when those aspirations are a demographic unicorn. Right now we are talking about a woman who is part of a childless household with a median income of $90k (that’s more than twice the average for a household with children in most parts of the US). That is plenty of money to live on and do some moderate travel and build modest college funds for in-state school. She expects to double her income, meaning that their joint income would be close to $200k; my parents sent two children to the most expensive college in the country on less than that, we had a house in a very expensive school district, in a very expensive part of the USA, and we went on 1 nice vacation each year. If she manages her money wisely, she’ll be fine financially.
        I think it’s great if both partners are cool with making different contributions, but I got the sense from this comment (“I would have to support my husband, more or less, and would have to cut out a lot of my financial plans”) that she feels resentful financially supporting her partner but expects him to do the same for her so she can stay at home. To me that’s not so much a division of labor as it is is a one-sided or simply unrealistic.
        That’s why I said I think something else is going on here: either she just cares more about having a shit ton of money than she loves this guy or it’s something else about the dude that’s making the money such a big deal. I don’t mean to be unkind. Like I said, I’ve been there (for almost 5 years), but (based on the numbers and my own similar experience) I don’t think the money thing is the real issue. It might be her own issues from childhood, it might be that he’s not as ambitious, it might be that they met in college. Trust me, it’s not the money and I think pretending that it is avoids the much harder questions she needs to ask herself about how she really perceives adulthood and relationships.

        • Anon

          Right, I’m with you that it’s clear there are bigger issues but I guess the part I don’t get is this: “she feels resentful financially supporting her partner but expects him to do the same for her so she can stay at home. To me that’s not so much a division of labor as it is is a one-sided or simply unrealistic.”
          there’s an argument that she’s being a hypocrite or lacks self-awareness because she wants to put the sort of financial obligations on a partner she herself resents. I buy that argument. But if her demands are one-sided or unrealistic, aren’t her boyfriend’s? Isn’t he being just as selfish (if we want to use that word) by having her subsidize his freedom to do a job that pays poorly as she would by having a partner subsidize her freedom to work part-time? Remember, she doesn’t want to stay home for the sake of staying home; she wants to stay home to raise her kids. That doesn’t seem one-sided to me. If raising kids is a financial contribution when her boyfriend hypothetically does it, it should be a financial contribution when she does it. It’s just not a contribution she can make in this relationship.
          Your stronger argument, I think, is that she’s not taking into account the dangers of scaling back a career for motherhood. If she’s really worried about financial stability above everything else, she should focus on her career so she’s safe in case there’s ever a divorce or death.

          • We don’t know if he’s asked her for anything, let alone to subsidize his life. In fact, it seems like the opposite is true; he is happy to live a more modest lifestyle with more freedom and he is making sacrifices to support that lifestyle (by life-hacking or saving). She is not happy living that lifestyle (no judgment) but she is also unwilling to be mostly financially responsible (remember she is not solely responsible, he still pays his share) for earning the money to support the lifestyle she wants. So yea that seems selfish and one-sided to me; she’s asking him to live a lifestyle he is not interested in so that she can live a lifestyle she wants. If that’s a deal breaker for her, then fine. But the idea that she’ll struggle on $90k, or be financially secure if he makes more money are all just red herrings for her unwillingness/inability to compromise on lifestyle aspirations which may be unrealistic. Her dealbreakers are her own but, like I said, they are not about the money here.

        • D. Broussard

          Hi Emma! I think that your explanation in this comment came off better than your initial one. Based on this comment I agree with you wholeheartedly. Living life in a relationship with two disproportionate incomes IS doable. Especially considering she could very well end this relationship and end up in one with a much worse dynamic. I’m wondering has she tried to openly discuss her concerns with him? I believe she should start there because there are a lot of details missing from her story. She describes her SO as hippie so one assumes he would be open and “chill” about having this discussion.

  • TLK

    Just a few days ago I broke up with a live-in boyfriend of nearly 3 years for this reason (among many others). He was content to make half of what I do and is not accustomed nor does he feel obligated to make the practical (less fun) decision for financial security and comfort. Your point about coming from a financially unstable background really resonates with me. I come from a working class background and I want to do everything I can to be more financially stable than my family was growing up. He comes from relative privilege and prioritizes freedom and fun over comfort.

    There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with this but I thought about my future and how I would be busting my ass while he sat back and enjoyed the fruits of my efforts. This is a dynamic I observed in my parents’ marriage and I don’t want to be another generation of strong women hustling while laidback men ride their coattails. I want someone who shows up with equal drive and desire to contribute to the household. I want someone who is a partner in making ourselves better. Also, I work in nonprofit so it’s not even like I chase money but I want to get to making at least 65k, 70k (I’m 25k and make 40k) eventually. That’s not even that much – I live pretty modestly. But my partner couldn’t even stand with me in having a similar goal.

    anyways, TLDR: get yours girl, and find someone who can stand with you

  • nicolacash

    100% agree with Chelsea and her friend’s advice. spot-on.

    • LDKRN

      Sure if you love money above all.

  • Rose

    I wouldn’t discount the possibility that both his and your priorities can potentially change in the future; maybe, if you decide you’d like to get married and have kids, he’ll decide he’d like to pursue a higher-paying job (or maybe he won’t). It’s possible things won’t change, but if you’re able to be open and honest and communicate with each other about it you may be able to find a solution that works for both of you while keeping you together.

  • Oh wow, I could talk about this all day. I’ve been blogging a lot about this stuff lately (nzmuse.com).

    My two cents as a saver from a middle class immigrant family with a low-earning, spendy partner from a family background with a blue collar/welfare dynamic (and I think this is where our experiences diverge from the common paradigm here, because I grew up with enough and stability is paramount to me and he grew up with not much and thus doesn’t consider financial solvency a priority as it just wasn’t a thing for them )…

    We’ve been together over 10 years and he has spent a significant chunk of that unemployed or underemployed. Those periods were unbelievably stressful and all tied up with other factors, like his champagne taste on a beer budget, drive/ambition, willingness/ability to play the game of the working world, a run of bad luck, depression/ego.

    The most recent stint nearly broke us, and it still might. I left because I knew if things continued the way they were (and I saw no likelihood of it changing) I would be seriously hurting myself financially, now and in the future. I was not willing to carry all the weight on my own. I got clear about my own priorities (owning a home, being financially stable, saving, saving for retirement) and basically said I’m focusing on me and what I need. If you can and want to come along, great.

    True, it’s not all about how MUCH you make but it does take a certain income level just to live, let alone live comfortably. Inflation is a thing, life only gets more expensive and we need to be able to keep up.

    I am concerned about our long term financial viability and now that he’s employed again this will be something we need to work through and determine in the near future. We share similar goals and he is more materialistic than me but he needs to play his part in working towards those targets.

    I don’t need him to earn lots but I need him to pull his weight and be self supporting. I would LOVE the option to take time off for kids in the future (even though I’m not sure I’d want to do that for very long) and it sucks that I won’t really have a choice in that matter either way at this stage. The system does not seem to work very well for female breadwinners (unless they’re 1% CEO types, maybe).

  • Winterlight

    I don’t think either you or your boyfriend are wrong to want what you want. But your wants are not compatible, and neither are your lifestyles. I think ending things is the kindest choice for you both long term.

  • ZSW

    I am a father of two 0-5 year old children, co-parenting with my wife. I’m a social worker by trade. In my line of work, I have met many women and mothers with boyfriends who do not contribute to their households in significant ways. This does not, on the face of it, appear to be that situation (ie my un/under employed bf won’t get off the couch and do his own dishes). While the dynamic described in this situation sounds challenging–it certainly does not sound toxic. Finances are, of course, one of the pillars of developing a strong and healthy family. However, I would encourage Annie to think a bit broader about her life goals as well. What kind of father do you want of your child/children? Does your bf want to be a father? Would the qualities that inspire your love for him make him an awesome stay at home dad? Maybe him being a kick butt stay at home dad could actually enable you to work from home, breast feeding during work breaks while not having to worry about find the right childcare (even if you can’t work less). Maybe he would even take a few less desirable students for a few years so you can cut to 80-90% time. At the very least, it’s worth exploring with him. Does he make up for lack of wage contributions to the household with holding his own on the communal front (ie cleaning the house, cooking, grocery shopping). I highly recommend considering: 1) childcare costs can range from $850 per kid per month to $2000 per kid per month or more. For example, we pay for childcare for 3 days per week for both kids and it costs us about $2,200 a month(!). Of course, there are cheaper options than nanny shares (our younger) and preschool (our older) but my wife and I are very picky about the environments we leave them in. Pickiness often = $$$. 2) I would think long and hard about wanting a partner who also makes 70-140k (and possibly working 2 jobs, as yourself). Yes, you’d be on the same page about the importance of work and financial stability, but you may not get to see each other all that much (a fact that is often exacerbated, not mitigated, by children). There may be plenty of reasons why staying with this person does not make sense that you did not include in this question, but if this is it alone I’m unconvinced. Good luck either way!

  • Harris Naseem

    Her partner is a cuck if he can’t get off his ass and work to make enough to show his wife that he cares about the relationship.

    • LDKRN

      I would not have you one second in my life.

  • LDKRN

    What garbage. What’s unfeminist is how money obsessed this culture is. Enjoy your high living lifestyle with the guy who works 90 hours a week and misses your kids’ upbringing, gives you vacations and jewels but is too sacked to have sex for months at a time. You love him? Get over your Madonna-level materialism and be with him.