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My partner and I have been together for five years and are engaged, I love her very much and we have a genuinely great relationship. The one thing that distresses me is money. My partner is earning more money than me and has always been better at saving and managing finances. She likes to spend this money on holidays, nice food, and memorable experiences. I can rarely afford to keep up with this lifestyle without accumulating credit card debt and have no savings to fall back on.
This has always been a pattern in our relationship and I have brought it up numerous times as problematic, not because I don’t want her to spend her money on nice things, but because when I say that I can’t afford to go on holiday with her or book a fancy hotel for her birthday, she always frames this as me not wanting to be romantic or adventurous. This is despite me wanting to save money for things like a house, where some delayed gratification is necessary, and despite the fact that she even wants a house more than me!
Recently she has moved to a different city for work and while we plan to live together again in the next few months, managing the rent on my own has made finances even tighter, while I’m also expected to travel to see her regularly. When I can’t afford to travel to visit her, she gets upset about missing me and questions whether I want to see her if I’m being reluctant to book travel.
Obviously this is frustrating, especially when I’ve asked her not to make me feel guilty for wanting to not get into (more) debt and trying to save money for our future together. She does get it when I bring it up and apologises, but her solution is then to spend the money herself on a fancy hotel room for her birthday, my travel, and so on, which makes me feel guilty about not being able to do nice things for her. I’m not particularly romantic either, so find it hard to figure out how to make it up to her with smaller gestures.
I don’t know what to do to make her see things from my point of view because it’s justifiable that she wants to make the most out of life while she can. She thrives on new experiences and it boosts her mental health to have these things. She’s said on more than one occasion that not going on holiday for a year would exacerbate her depression, which also makes me feel like refusing to spend money is contributing to her poor mental health. It also makes her sad to go away by herself though, as she would much rather be making those nice memories with me around.
How can I support the way she wants to live and not drown in debt?
I am so glad you wrote in to ask this! Firstly because money issues and sex issues are the main issues all couples face, and I want to reassure you that you’re not alone in having these worries and frustrations. Secondly because I make less money than my partner so I have a little bit of experience I can share with you. And thirdly because the way you wrote about this conundrum is so level-headed and full of a real sense of urgency to make sure both you and your partner have what you need and want for your mental health. That’s a great leaping-off point for addressing any relationship riddle and I feel confident y’all can come to a better understanding around money that will make both of you less stressed out.
Let me pull out the two things that jumped out most to me from your question. Neither of them are really about money.
When you say you can’t afford something, your fiancée frames it as you not wanting to be adventurous or romantic; or when you say you can’t afford to come visit her, she frames that as you not wanting to see her. That’s a thing that’s going to need some work, and I think it would be best if that work came proactively. By which I mean: Don’t wait until the next time she asks you to do something that’s out of your financial comfort zone to talk about this. It feels very necessary for you to say to your fiancée, “Hey, babe! I think there’s a better way for us to talk about money, and I would love it if we could find a good safe time to sit down and really hear each other about our financial realities and goals so we can make sure we’re supporting each other’s individual needs and empowering ourselves to have the best future possible!” (If you initiate that conversation over email, I would advise not making the subject a smiley face. My research suggests that comes off as sarcastic.) (Just a little side tip, you’re welcome!)
Of course, when you’re having a tough conversation it’s best to use “I feel” statements and avoid saying things like “always” and “never.” Just for one example, “You always make me feel like a broke bitch.” That is not a good way to say the thing you want to say. “I want you to have everything you need to be happy and mentally healthy, and I want to contribute to that happiness and mental healthiness, but sometimes when I tell you I can’t afford to do the things you want to do, I feel like you don’t hear the real reason, which is that it will cause me to go deeper in debt and that stresses me out and makes me feel like future me isn’t going to be in a good position to give us both the big things we want, like a house!” That is a good way to say the thing you want to say.
The other thing that jumped out at me is that you feel guilty when your girlfriend offers to pay for both of you to do the fun things she wants you to do. That’s some work you’re going to have to do internally, and oh, I understand how hard that is. Why does it make you feel guilty? Is it the way she offers? Because if so, that’s something to bring up in the conversation I mentioned above. If not, though, really: why do you feel that way? Is it because you grew up in a supremely patriarchal religious institution where you were expected to stay at home and have babies while your husband provided for you, and thinking about anyone “taking care of you” financially taps into that trauma? Is it because you’re afraid to rely on her financially because what if she leaves and you’ve lost the ability to take care of yourself? Is it because you’re afraid that she’ll grow to resent you for not being able to pay for half of everything? Is it because you believe you’ll be indebted to her in ways that aren’t financial if she pays more for things than you do? That it will shift the balance of power in your relationship? That it will mean you’re expected to do more housework because of internalized ideas you have about gender roles and money? That it will cause you to lose any sense of personal control over your life?
I’m just tossing out all the reasons I struggled for years to just accept the fact that my partner makes more money than me and that it’s totally okay. In fact, it’s very normal for one person in a couple to make more money than the other person!
Once you unpack why you feel guilty, talk to your fiancée about it. It’ll probably help her to understand more of where you’re coming from, and allow her to ease some of your anxieties, and permit you to begin working to let go of the guilt so you can just go to a nice hotel for her birthday and enjoy it!
On a practical, actual money level, it’d be good for y’all to sit down and talk numbers. How much money do you each make, what do your individual monthly budgets look like, how much money do you both want to be saving for your house, and then how much disposable income do you both have left, at the end of the day? If you have a hundred dollars left and she has a thousand dollars left, maybe you agree to pay ten percent for fun things and she pays 90 percent. It’s proportional! And fair! You each have the money you have and you’re a team and when you combine that funtime money together — no matter who put in how much — you get to spend it as a team!
I’ll leave you with Mr. Rogers: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’ To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” Be honest and compassionate with each other about who and where you are at this moment in time on your long and winding and ever-evolving relationship path; you’re gonna be great!
Yours most humbly,