In this week’s ACA, I decided to just tackle one question, one that’s been sitting in my inbox (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a while now. I didn’t answer it initially because it is a bit of a doozy, but also because, as someone who has been with someone for five years, I feel somewhat knowledgeable about the basics of long-term relationships, but I certainly don’t kid myself into feeling like any kind of expert on the subject. So to help myself answer this, I spoke to a trusted confidante (we’ll call her Emily) who has been married for years, after being divorced once in her 20s (from what she voluntarily admits was a very dumb, very brief marriage). She’s always got some good, honest advice when it comes to love and marriage, and this is no exception.
Together, we’ve come up with something of an answer. But first, the question, in its entirety:
I need some serious advice on how to financially navigate my relationship. I am in a serious relationship with the most amazing man. We live together and his 16-year-old daughter also lives with us full time.
I have never dated anyone with kids and I have never lived with a significant other before. I am finding it extremely difficult for it “to feel fair” with splitting expenses. We’ve been together too long for it to still be a problem.
Problem #1: Food
It seems juvenile, but it has been a constant struggle since I moved into his house with his daughter. I pay half the household expenses and I buy my own food. His daughter eats my food and I will spend hours meal planning to look in the refrigerator finding my weeks-worth of meal prep demolished after a couple days. Not to mention I am pretty snobby about food, I’m vegetarian and have significant allergies, so I purchase certain foods based on these restrictions, so “sharing” isn’t exactly an option. My s/o makes the effort to stock the house with snacks she likes, but I still find my food going first. And yes, it has been talked about multiple times and keeps happening. It’s come to the point where I have to hide food in my nightstand and keep perishable items in my office fridge.
I want us the “mesh” well because I love this man and I love his daughter. Whenever I bring up the food issue, he says I am treating our house like a “roommate situation and not a family” and it makes me feel ridiculous.
Problem #2: Spending Habits
My financial reality shock hit when I graduated in the middle of a depression and was then faced with crippling student loan debt. Making $15 an hour at an entry level marketing gig barely cut it. Since then, I have been EXTREMELY tight with money. Now, I am at a slightly “better paying” gig, but still do not spend like I am. I budget every dollar, pay off my credit card each month and merge the meager leftovers into my savings or toward my student loans.
My boyfriend is the exact opposite. His spending habits are out of control.
He makes about $1,000 more a month than I do. He has been asking me to help him with creating a budget for weeks, and when we finally sat down to do it, I realized he has about 10 credit cards that are all maxed out and he pays only the minimum payments every month. When we were going through the budget, I found he doesn’t make enough money to even cover his expenses, let alone any “fun” things. And let me tell you, “fun” things have been frequent in our relationship.
This was a huge shock to me, but I acted like everything was ok to his face. I found that he is spending about 40% more than he is bringing in! I can’t help but wonder what he did when he didn’t have me paying for half of everything?
On top of all this he told his daughter he would buy her a car. So add in that expense plus car insurance. He receives no child support or any income from her mother.
I always kind of knew he was spending a little too freely. We would go out to dinners a few times a week and have nights out with friends frequently. But I had no idea his debt-to-income ratio. I would pay every once in a while, but I’ve made it clear to him I can’t and won’t keep up with his spending habits.
Prior to us making a budget and before I knew his actual debt, he asked me to go ring shopping with him and it took me weeks to find the perfect, reasonably-priced engagement setting. This made me so excited that we were finally going to take the next step in our relationship. Then we made his budget…
I have a diamond to go in the center from my grandmother and I asked him one day if we could go down to the jeweler and see how it looked in the setting. His response was that he can’t afford it… Needless to say, it made me cry for two days and I fear this is a foreshadowing of the rest of our relationship.
I love him but I fear money issues will be on the radar for the rest of my life with him. One day his debt will be our debt. The last thing I want is to fight with him about affording a $5 Starbucks.
How do I approach this?
So, my first thought when reading this is that the food issue wouldn’t be a big problem (other than an “ugh, teenagers” problem) if everything else were going well. That issue probably only seems significant because of everything else it’s coupled with and because, as you mention later, these food items are not something you can just run to the store and replace willy-nilly. Obviously, if money were a bit more flexible (and he were a little bit more diplomatic about the issue), you could easily find a way to let her share in your pantry without anyone feeling like they’re stealing/being stolen from.
It’s an asshole teenager move on her part, yes, but that’s just sort of what asshole teenagers do. I certainly stole crap from my mom, and her Weight Watchers ice creams were on the gentler end of my teenaged kleptomania. Sometimes, it was a 20 out of her wallet. I think, and Emily agrees with me, that this is just kind of an obnoxious little cherry on top of the Relationship Problem Sundae, but it’s not the sundae. If everything else manages to be worked through, I’m sure a fair and crowd-pleasing solution to the vegetarian food stealing can be found.
Now, onto the hard part of this answer. Emily’s first reaction, on reading this email, was that this relationship probably won’t work out and that, above all, any kind of potential engagement or marriage needs to be at the very least heavily delayed. Her exact words: “She is not allowed to even utter the word ring until there has been a complete 180 on all things financial.” So there’s that. I got the same vibe from the letter, but wasn’t sure if it was just my naïveté, so I’m glad to see that it’s not just me.
The point, though, is that bad habits in themselves are not a deal breaker. I was horrendous with money when I met my current partner, and shared many of the same habits and lifestyle choices that your partner is putting you through right now. I spent too much, I didn’t keep track, I hated even thinking about a budget, particularly because it got in the way of doing nice, fabulous things I felt made life worth living. (I also loved giving extravagant gifts, not unlike that car you mentioned.)
But the difference is that I was always up-front about my having been bad with money, and my attempts to get better. I told him right away that my credit was badly damaged, and I told him as soon as I paid off all my defaulted credit card debt. I told him how much I was earning, how much I was spending, and where I needed help — even if it didn’t look good. Your current guy let this go for a long time, creating habits and damage that would jeopardize both of you in a huge way, not telling you anything when all of those nice, “fun” things you were doing were at the expense of your financial future. The deception and the obfuscation are much, much worse than the bad habits. And though he came to you to change, from what you say, it doesn’t really sound like that’s created some enormous change in his desires and instincts.
Set goals and boundaries for him and yourself about money. Tell him you can take over certain things for now if he wants, to show him how, but that they have to be done a certain way, and that he has to have concrete objectives. Tell him “no” to all things engagement until certain things have changed, and be firm on it. I don’t think you should plan on reassessing your future any sooner than a year from now, because that’s how long it will take someone to start making serious, sustained money changes. You can’t just take over everything. You can help him at first, but he has to understand what is important and why, and do it himself in the long run.
If you think it’s bad now, imagine when all your finances are linked, or you share children. His current money habits would be devastating for you, and undo all of your years of hard work and sacrifice. You don’t need to run away from him completely, but don’t you dare run towards an altar. Back away from the heirloom engagement ring.
Ultimately, you love this guy and only you can decide how much you are willing to compromise on for him. But make no mistake that unless you demand he change, and prove long-term that he’s changed, these habits will probably not improve. It’s only by having a partner who holds me accountable and pushes me that I’ve been able to really change — if I were dating someone who didn’t care, or was a pushover when I wanted to fall back into bad patterns, I would be back to 22-year-old Chelsea’s wreckage.
You have worked too hard and been too smart to let someone else send you into that life with them. You need to set your standards and stick to them, even if it means going it alone. Because if I were still behaving as my old self, I wouldn’t deserve my partner. And if your partner doesn’t change, he doesn’t deserve you. It’s that simple.