Welcome to Ask the Bills, where every two weeks Helaine Olen answers readers’ questions about their most nagging personal finance and financial etiquette dilemmas. Seeking advice on a money issue? Email email@example.com.
My boyfriend and I moved in together four months ago, plan to get married, and see a future with children. We’re very compatible in the emotional and social aspects of life, but combining our financial lives has become a bit of a nightmare. I construct my finances to suit my income: I have no consumer debt aside from a car loan; my student loans are fully paid off. My boyfriend, meanwhile, is a financial disaster. He was laid off two years ago from a job paying $45,000 a year. He now earns $30,000 and can’t keep up with his bills. He makes enough to cover his expenses yet regularly incurs overdraft fees because he spends every penny as soon as he gets his paycheck. He has no savings and a bad credit rating. I knew this before we moved in together. We broke everything down on paper, detailing how we would divide shared expenses. I assumed he would then buckle down and get his finances in order. The reality is I am fronting all our shared costs. He now owes me $3,000 in back rent, cellphone bills, car payments, and more. He’s working long hours but still goes out with his buddies after work (often buying rounds) and plays on two different sports teams (with membership fees) but never has money to contribute to the rent or the groceries. I admit that I had thought I could swoop in and “save” him from himself. I see now that was a mistake. It’s not like I can’t afford to support him, but I resent it. I don’t go out. I now conserve as much as I can just in case one of us loses a job. I don’t want him to give up on everything he loves, but I do want him to pay his fair share. Is there any way we reach a compromise that leaves us both feeling satisfied and secure, or is this relationship doomed? I really do love him. He’s caring, attentive, does his share of the housework, and really does work his ass off to earn as much as he can. He’s just terrible with money.
I wouldn’t describe your boyfriend and “caring” or “attentive.” If he were, he wouldn’t simply assume his girlfriend would carry his financial burden for him. You’re saving while he takes his limited funds and hangs out with the guys, leaving you with the bills. He could easily admit his money-management skills aren’t the best, ask you to handle the day-to-day logistics, and arrange to pay you before putting money toward leisure. He chooses not to do that. Which means he either thinks he can get away with it or doesn’t value you enough to try to change his habits.
I see two ways forward. The first is that you sit down with your boyfriend and explain why you’re so upset. Then you’d work out a compromise that allows him to enjoy some of what he likes to do for relaxation but places you in charge of the money. He makes your joint bills his top responsibility, putting money aside for them (not to mention paying you back!) before he can spend even a dime on drinks with the boys.
Could this work? Anything is possible. But I suspect he’s more likely to promise reform but find himself unable to make a permanent change. Doing so is hard. Actually making someone alter his ways is all but impossible. And entering a relationship thinking you’ll somehow transform your beloved is all but a guarantee of disappointment.
Which brings me to the other way forward: ending things right now. I know that’s tough to hear. But you’re the one doing the majority of the giving in this relationship. I doubt that will change. Your intended’s lack of financial responsibility at your expense tells me he doesn’t value you as much as you deserve. You should find someone who will.
I’m in my 40s, and my family is fairly well-off. Because my wife and I started out with essentially nothing, had kids relatively early, and lived a sort of aspirational lifestyle, we don’t have much in the way of savings or wealth. But at this point our combined annual income is in the middle six figures. We have sizable student loans to pay back on top of a mortgage, so the income doesn’t feel as big as it sounds. My question: Since my future income is likely to be even larger than it is now (assuming nothing cataclysmic happens to the world economy) and continue well after my children are out of the house, how important is saving now? My kids are in their early teens, and I am starting to think about them leaving home. I want to do things like travel and take vacations away from our busy lives so I can enjoy our children while they are living with me. Doing that with four people isn’t cheap. And then there’s paying for college. And if I’m going focus on saving, is there anything other than maxing my 401(k) contribution and stowing any additional savings into cheap index funds? I have a financial adviser who provides me with life and disability insurance and who keeps trying to sell me on other stuff (that he’d take a cut of). He says his services really become valuable if I can ever put together a half a million or more of savings. Are financial advisers ever worth it? Should I just dump him and get insurance through the web and keep throwing savings into index funds?
Ah, tomorrow—that’s always the perfect day, isn’t it? Yes, you think, I’m living up to the limits of my not-insubstantial means now, but that will soon change. My earnings will go up, my expenses will go down. I’ll finally put some money aside when that day comes. In the meantime, it’s cold; I’d sure like to take the kids to Florida over the February break. OK, that last sentence was me, not you. I’ve got teens, too, and I get it.
It sure sounds good. But forgive me some skepticism for doubting that someone who admits to living an “aspirational” lifestyle will suddenly acquire the savings bug when more money comes in. For all too many of us, our needs expand to meet our increased inflow. That’s human nature, but it’s also a mistake. And it’s not your only one. As many of us unfortunately learn, life is not a series of forever greater peaks and triumphs. Things go wrong. Jobs are lost. Marriages end. People get ill, and their earnings suffer. Just because you expect your household income to increase doesn’t mean it actually will.
And depending on salary to keep you among the economic elite is risky bet. When we talk about the divide between the haves and the have-nots, many of us use the term income inequality. That means the discrepancy in earnings between the top-earning tier of the population and everyone else. But what’s even worse? Wealth inequality—that is, the amount of assets one has at one’s disposal. According to one recent analysis, the richest 10 percent of households control more than three-quarters of the nation’s wealth. This, in turn, exacerbates income inequality even further, because those assets produce income, exacerbating the original divide.
We need both wealth and income. So how do you begin to build it up? Well, duh. You need to save and invest a decent proportion of your considerable earnings. The longer you own an asset the more time it has to increase in value. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take getaways with your children. If you truly can’t do that and still save money with a mid–six-figure household income, I would suggest sitting down with a financial coach or other budget expert and getting a handle on your day-to-day spending. One person I would most certainly avoid: the insurance broker. Based on your description, he sounds like the type who would tell you to skip the trip with your children to take a gander at an investment that will pay him a nice commission—no matter how it performs for you.
I’m 26, living in New York City, and at a bit of a professional crossroads. I’m transitioning from a $45,000 salary to a $66,000 salary, and that’s not counting the $9,000 extra I make annually in freelance work. I have no student loan or credit card debt and have managed to squirrel away $10,000 in savings each year. I want to adjust my savings strategy and personal finance goals in accordance with this new job but I’m not sure where to start. I’d like to save another $10,000 in personal savings but I’m not sure this is the best option. I have a pittance—maybe $2,000—in a Roth individual retirement account. My fiancé and I are planning our wedding, and while our parents are taking care of the bulk of the budget (I know, we are lucky) I’m hoping to save around $5,000 to $10,000 extra to help pay for it. Should I continue to save as much as I was in my personal savings to grow the emergency fund, or should I keep my emergency fund as is and max out the Roth IRA and make retirement a priority? I’m also planning to purchase life and disability insurance this year, because I am getting married and, you know, #adulting, but not sure of what these costs are like and if they’ll significantly impact my ability to save.
Your letter sent me straight down memory lane. I also married at 26 and gave about as much thought to our joint finances as you seem to be doing. It took us some time to understand our personal finances were actually our mutual finances. So I can’t give you much guidance on how to proceed, because you’re thinking about your situation from an individual perspective. Instead, I would suggest sitting down with your fiancé and discussing how much you both earn, how much you both save for retirement and other needs, and how much you both owe—and begin your future financial planning with all that in mind. And hey, congratulations!