How can I prevent my history of money from hurting my marriage?
October 29, 2012 4:41 PM   Subscribe

My history with money, coupled with recent life challenges, is affecting my marriage. I am stressed and angry; my partner is (probably) depressed and overwhelmed. How can we grow together, not apart?

Here are the snowflakes: when we met I was insolvent (credit card debt); partner had some money tucked away. I dedicated myself to becoming debt free; partner supported this in many ways when we were dating (treating me to dinners out, adjusting their lifestyle to my means, etc).

Fast forward five years: Partner's job was slowly draining the life force from them; I had a job with a long commute that I enjoyed, but a limited term contract. We agreed that our situation was not a long term option, and moved across the country to a more promising position for partner. I am now out of work.

This was a good move in some ways, but a few ugly truths reared their heads. First, being unemployed is hard for me and I am devoting a lot of energy to searching for a job. I am relatively isolated in the new place. I am usually pretty even keel, but this is wearing.

Second, partner's last job took an enormous toll on their mental and physical health (including significant weight gain). Partner has stated they are aware of this and would like to make changes, but generally seems exhausted and unable to cope. The new job promises to be better but right now is also very demanding (the transition itself is hard). I am not sure partner remembers what it is like to not be totally consumed by work.

Finally, we are struggling to live on one income. I know how to live frugally, but in the new place we are slowly eating away our savings (most of which is the nest egg my partner had when we met). To my surprise, my partner has a very hard time managing money. I am starting to realize my previous view of my partner as the more fiscally responsible of us (since they saved, and I was in debt) was in large part due to luck and generous parents.

I want to be supportive of my partner in this transition, but I am having a hard time avoiding resentment. I am tracking our spending (I manage our finances, including paying all bills and doing taxes). It is easy enough to see that a lot of our money is going to eating out and treats at starbucks. Partner occasionally has asked for my help in "making more healthy choices" as they are sensitive about their weight gain. I would like to support this because healthier often is cheaper. But very often my suggestions are met with strong resistance (partner's good intentions are often overruled by job-related stress). Sometimes we are good at shopping and cooking and filling the freezer. Partner agrees that this is a great idea, but I also find plenty of bakery/coffee shop receipts that indicate our home cooked meals are being supplemented daily.

I feel my partner should be able to make their own choices about what to eat, although I like to have a rough budget. I don't like this role of gatekeeper. Also, I strongly suspect my partner is dealing with an untreated case of depression, which they are treating with snacks. So far my suggestion they seek therapy has been ignored. I don't know how to change this.

Sometimes I feel my partner as a very irresponsible person, totally lacking self-discipline. Other times I think I have an unnecessarily harsh stance on this issue of spending (I am sure my partner would agree). After all, we are not in debt, and if I were working I would likely not care, or even notice. The savings will (hopefully) be used for a house down payment one day, but it is not clear when that will be. A little part of me thinks that it's their money anyway, so I have no right to object. Another part is angry that they aren't protecting our little cushion. The weight issue is less of a problem for me (so far), except that my partner feels bad about it (which I don't like to see), and I am concerned about their long term health.

I realize that this topic surfaces very frequently on mefi. I am sure that therapy would benefit one or both of us. I will work on that. I am wondering if there are ways I could change my perspective so that we are more of a team, instead of my gatekeeper role. Any suggestions on how to achieve this shift will be humbly welcomed.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think a very helpful thing for both of you would be a proactive budget. Agree what you'll spend on necessities, on joint activities/luxuries, on savings, and on individual treats.

That way, the judgement about what your partner is spending their money on lessens, so long as they can stick within the budget.

Of course, the very best thing for both of you, I think, would be for you to start bringing in income to the household as quickly as possible. You say you're looking for a job, so I think that the pressure will lessen once you're both gainfully employed.
posted by xingcat at 4:48 PM on October 29, 2012

You two are partners; at a certain point it is "our" money, not "their" money. Have you discussed this with them not as a weight issue but a financial problem? Yes, spending it on treats ties in with the weight gain--but if they were spending it on drinks, lottery tickets, or tchotchkes the money problem would be the same. The weight issue is sensitive, but it's not necessary to mention that or eating healthfully. Simply point out that both of you really need to work on restricting your restaurant spending, including coffee/bakery/whatever stuff.

You guys need to work together on what is an acceptable budget and level of extraneous spending and stick to that. What they spend that money on is a different matter provided they stay within the budget.
posted by schroedinger at 4:50 PM on October 29, 2012

It sounds like it might be helpful if you were not the sole person managing the budget. If your partner was the one adding up the Starbucks receipts and inputting them into your spreadsheet or software, and watching the total add up, it might have more of a psychological impact than it does to simply be shown or told about the final result each month.

Can you take turns to be the money manager?
posted by lollusc at 4:52 PM on October 29, 2012

If you agree on a budget for discretionary spending (it can be different for you and your partner, since your partner works and you do not), make sure you stick to it. If your partner spends a lot at Starbucks, periodically load up a Starbucks card with that amount so they can't overspend. Otherwise, use cash.
posted by ethidda at 5:01 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

It was never complicated by stress-related purchases like your partner's snacks, but I used to find it very uncomfortable when I was doing all the bookkeeping and limit setting for both my wife and myself. What really helped was when I started sending her a monthly email using numbers pulled from our accounting software to summarize where all the money had gone, and tracking the amount of liquid cash we had in our checking/savings accounts. I'd also mention upcoming non-monthly bills like homeowner's insurance, car registrations, etc. This would trigger a brief monthly financial chat, and prepare her to make responsible decisions without my having to answer elusive questions like 'can we afford X indulgence?' Helped a lot.
posted by jon1270 at 5:05 PM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I eat out more when I'm depressed, and it's not even about the food — not even in a stress-eating sort of way, since actually I get less hungry when the depression gets really bad. It's honestly just about letting someone else take care of me in an uncomplicated way.

You go to a diner or a coffee shop and you get a smile and a little bit of conversation and someone offers you nice things and tells you to have a good day. When you're depressed, reaching out to a real friend or to your partner for support is exhausting. It makes you feel weak and pathetic and unworthy and blah blah blah, all this low-self-esteem garbage, and you have to worry whether you're being too much of a burden on your loved ones and whether that's unfair and... well, sometimes it's easier to just buy a meal you don't really want.

Which doesn't mean you have to be thrilled with all the money he's spending at Starbucks. It just seems like both of you are approaching this in a very austere and practical way, all Bargain Shopping and Making Healthy Choices and so on, and like you're thinking about his behavior as Irresponsibly Bad Behavior triggered by stress. If you're trying to be less resentful it might be helpful to reframe it, and think of it instead as a way he's found of being kind to himself and helping keep himself going without just collapsing on you.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:22 PM on October 29, 2012 [8 favorites]

If you are at home, have you considered sending him to work with healthy, cheaper snacks? Is there something about a walk or a break that these bakery runs are satisfying? I know that when I am working I spend a lot more money on food out because I am out all day and grabbing something is much easier. When I am working at home, I am less likely to go out because eating leftovers is easier. So maybe helping him with lunch/snacks packing as well as addressing other needs bakery runs are solving will help.
posted by dame at 5:26 PM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Can you get an outside party involved? Go to a financial planner/counselor for external help with a budget where your partner is accountable to that 3rd party idea instead of just you?

I feel for you greatly. I know what it's like to be out of work, but the more "responsible" one, and yet uneasy about a perceived imbalances of power/freedom/contribution.

By going to an outside authority, you'll both be on the same "level" of partnership, and will be able to see yourselves on the same team.

Prioritize date nights, and find new ways to do it at home without spending much money. During these quality time nights, commit to it being a "stress free" zone.
1) tell yourself that you will be relaxed and carefree during the date.
2) set a time when the date will start.
3) before that time, express all the things you are stressing about to get them off your mind.
4) if possible, get the venting out of the way fast enough so you can get to "next steps, plan for moving forward" before the date.
5) have your date and don't talk about the crap. Talk about proactive ways to relax/take care of yourselves and each other. Do them :)

It's important to keep in a mindset of teamwork in times like these. Look for ways to create in common experiences so your relationship remains cooperative rather than antagonistic.

Good luck. I think you have a good attitude about it and have a good shot to pull through this rough time.
posted by itesser at 7:40 PM on October 29, 2012

My husband, who works long hours and therefore eats out a lot more often than I do, recently started putting himself on a strict food-outside-the-home budget by withdrawing a certain amount of cash each week and using only that cash for food. He never puts non-grocery food on a card anymore unless it's an unexpected work lunch meeting at some fancy place or an actual unforeseen food emergency (like, he has an unexpected late night at work at the end of the week and has to buy himself dinner or something).

Maybe you could suggest this? You could go over your budget and agree on the weekly amount together, and then your partner would have total control over how to spend the amount from day to day.
posted by BlueJae at 7:47 PM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Before we got married, my husband and I went to a financial planner. This continues to be a lifesaver because it gave us a language to talk about money - I'm a saver and my parents were savers. He's mostly a saver but was raised by people who made really short-sighted financial decisions (and suffered during retirement). Even though we both defined ourselves as savers we didn't know how to have a rational conversation about money.

A third party is going to help a lot - how much should you have as a nest egg? What is your budget? How are financial decisions made? Having someone there to help you sort that out makes the process much easier and less likely to wander off into other sticky topics (what he weights, if the move was a good thing, is he depressed....).

Marriage is as much about money as it is about love, romance, parenting, or sex. Learning to converse about money as equals is a really big step toward having a strong marriage. If you can't do it now, then get a financial planner to help.
posted by 26.2 at 8:24 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like your partner has issues with emotional eating. The significant weight gain during their previous stresses at work and evidence of eating out when they have healthier food options and a limited budget are the red flags to me. It seems like that's what you suspect, too.

A lot of the suggestions upthread are thoughtful and would probably be helpful if someone was just having trouble reigning in their spending, or didn't know that what they were eating is unhealthy, but they're not appropriate if your partner is trying to fill an emotional need with food.

Having healthy snacks around is a good idea in any case, but someone who's compulsively eating unhealthy food will continue to do that even if there's a bowl of fruit at home. Your partner has that choice right now and they're not taking it--it's probably just as easy (or only slightly more difficult) for them to buy fresh fruit or make healthy choices at Starbucks instead of going to a bakery. As someone with an emotional eating problem who has been around lots of other compulsive eaters, I can tell you that we never binge on apples. Having healthy options around will make it easier for them to succeed at their weight loss, but it unfortunately won't solve the underlying problem.

I think your desire to limit the food expenses is completely reasonable, but I would tread carefully. I would imagine your partner probably knows or at least suspects that they're spending way too much on food. Their self-consciousness about their weight tells me that they know that what they're doing is a problem. If my partner called attention to my eating problem and also told me that they'd be restricting and monitoring what I spent (and therefore how much I ate), I would feel deeply ashamed and anxious. It would probably make the problem worse, not better, and I would maybe start hiding the extent of my eating if I wasn't already.

I think you may need to push a little harder for your partner to see a therapist. I would approach both interrelated issues--the money and the food--with compassion and caring. Let your partner know that you've noticed that they've been spending a lot of money on food lately. Tell them that you're worried that maybe they're dealing with stress by compulsively eating. Make sure they know that you love them and you just want to be there for them, but you think that they may need to get help to deal with the stress in healthier ways. Ask them how you can help. If they seem open to it, offer to help them set up and manage a food budget.

In a separate conversation, maybe tell them that you're feeling sort of stressed about money. Ask them if you two can sit down once or twice a month and review the finances together. At that time, you can have a line item in there for food expenses and present it neutrally. If your partner is in denial about how much they're spending on food, this might be a non-confrontational way for them to be made aware of the reality while also providing some support for you in handling the finances.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 8:29 PM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

My husband, who works long hours and therefore eats out a lot more often than I do, recently started putting himself on a strict food-outside-the-home budget by withdrawing a certain amount of cash each week and using only that cash for food.

This is essentially the same system my spouse and I use, except that we get cash monthly and it applies to all our individual discretionary spending -- eating out, coffeeshops, clothes, grooming, gifts, library fines, etc. I save some money back out of mine for periodic and unexpected expenses.

I think there's actually psychological data showing that the act of paying cash makes spending money more "real" for people. I'm a lot more responsible about remembering not just to bring lunch, but to bring snacks for when I'm hungry in the afternoon and tea bags for when I need a boost.

This also divorces the act of spending from the choice of how much to spend overall, and the act of eating from the choice of what to eat. So I make healthier choices about food, because I'm making them at home in the morning, not in front of the vending machine at 3pm with low blood sugar.

This message brought to you by the cartoon moths fluttering out of my wallet, as I've used up my discretionary spending for the month.
posted by endless_forms at 6:56 AM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Husbunny and I each get some cash on payday. This is our "blow" money. It can be spent on meals out during the work day, magazines, or whatever. It's not a lot. Husbunny gets $50 per week, this includes his daily McDonald's breakfast. I get about $20, because I bring breakfast and lunch from home.

That's it, the rest of the money is discussed before it's spent. A new game for the computer, discussed. Haircuts, part of the monthly budget.

That's how we do it.

Clearly, things will relax for you when you get a job. Have you considered temping, just to get out of the house and getting a couple of bucks in?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:26 AM on October 30, 2012

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