What does it look like for financial values to fundamentally change?
April 1, 2015 11:59 AM   Subscribe

My SO & I are in our 30’s, have been dating over a year and have been talking about marriage. We are having a crisis over our differing financial values.

Both of us grew up middle/middle-lower class. That background was a big motivator for me to make education and career choices that I felt would make it easier for me to live a comfortable life within my means, and I’ve been lucky enough to manage that. I’m generally conservative in my spending, have always been consumer debt free (no credit card or car debt), pay all my bills on time, have retirement savings that I contribute to monthly, have an emergency fund, etc.

My SO has made a lot of different choices in the past that have had negative financial effects, and basically lives beyond their means. Their parents have provided significant financial support (the exact form of this support changed over the years but continues to the present, including paying various regular bills). They took on student loan debt after their undergrad to work into a field that generally pays poorly. They don’t have any savings (emergency or retirement) and live paycheck to paycheck.

They’ve attempted several times in the past to get on a budget and rein in the spending, but we live in an expensive metro area and to really get on track would require some huge sacrifices, so those attempts haven’t worked and been quite discouraging. Money discussions within their family are also historically fraught.

Because I have better finances, I usually pay/treat more when we go out or take a holiday. While in general I am comfortable with splitting expenses based on ability to pay, recently I started feeling like I’ve been “enabling” bad behavior by constantly stepping up to helping us have fun together rather than forcing them to make changes in order to be more financially sustainable. This triggered a huge fight, and they’ve promised to try (again) to fix things.

My question is: what sorts of indicators should I look for that would indicate genuine, lasting change in this area? I feel this will make or break our relationship and it seems so deeply ingrained that I fear it’s not ever going to really change.. but to conclude that that seems so harsh and unloving, especially when they’ve just started to make an effort.

Stories from those of you who have experienced this yourself (on either side.. as someone who changed their financial habits, and as someone who was in a relationship with such) would be especially welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I think they would cut financial ties with their parents and actually work to make it on their own, within their means.

I have dated all around the financial spectrum, and has been beyond relaxing to be with someone who has a similar salary and (more importantly) spending outlook as me. They say spending habits is one of the top causes for arguments in a couple. I don't think you're being harsh and unloving in considering this as a factor in future happiness.

They are in their 30s, more than enough time to make an effort to be independent.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:12 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Given that the number one thing couples fight about is money I hope you consider this a MAJOR red flag. You are different enough stylistically that you are very likely to struggle terribly with this issue. From my point of view it is a dealbreaker unless you or they can genuinely change to become more of a match. Your spouses view on money will likely have an extreme influence on the shape of the rest of your life.
posted by jcworth at 12:16 PM on April 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


They’ve attempted several times in the past to get on a budget and rein in the spending, but we live in an expensive metro area and to really get on track would require some huge sacrifices, so those attempts haven’t worked and been quite discouraging.

Does not jibe with "trying" in any sort of good faith way.

As someone who got better (both from just kind of being money-dumb, but also from some fairly heavy-duty magical thinking/avoidance issues related to depression), I think what you want to see is *understanding* the concepts, not just saying what you want to hear or "attempts" that fail because they aren't well thought-out. They have to recognize that something has to give, and that they need to break free of their parental assistance.

In short, they have to want to want to improve.

You need to accept this person as they are. It's likely easier to split up now than in 5 years, and you will split up if you're not willing to carry them for life.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:19 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is an excellent thing to head to couple's counseling for. I'm not sure there's going to be one single answer here, and a lot will depend on what you're comfortable with. A therapist can help mediate that discussion and help you guys put together a plan that feels right for you. Some things to consider: Would you be ok with your SO continuing to get help from parents from time to time? If so what would it look like? How do you feel about joint accounts? What would feel like a fair percentage to pay for household expenses for each of you? What is a comfortable figure for a savings cushion? What do you think about a prenup that would outline a division of assets? What does an actual budget look like for each of you? Will it look the same once you pool your finances more in marriage? How are you going to treat debts that were there before you met?
posted by goggie at 12:20 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

You asked for signs of lasting change. Maybe look for 2-3 months of living within their means? And they don't have to necessarily be "perfect" for those months, but just displaying that they understand their budget and can mostly stay within it? Be careful to not take on a parental role, but to help them look at this stuff regularly with an eye to making it work for you guys together as a team.

This is one of those things that works best in stages. Once they've shown they can live within their means for a few months, maybe they can work on paying down debt and/or saving for fun stuff.
posted by ldthomps at 12:37 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Married 11 years here and can say without hesitation that finances are the biggest reason to fight in a marriage. Think about it: all you're spending money on right now is fun stuff, and they can't even do that right. What about when you want to make substantial investment-ish purchases such as a home, raising and educating children, planning for retirement, etc.?

Your partner's in his/her thirties, for goodness' sake. They should already be showing concrete steps on the path to financial independence or, if not that, at least rationality. This person will likely never be financially secure enough to mesh with you in the long-run. Unless you're willing to drag this person kicking and screaming into financial sanity, I say DTMFA.
posted by resurrexit at 12:40 PM on April 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

This stuff is just hard. My financial management skills didn't get better until my income more than doubled. In other words, they didn't really get better. I mean, they did, now I budget and save, but I don't know that I ever would have when my income was lower and I was also reliant on parental bailouts and support.

Probably some combination of being clear with your partner, making boundaries, and then letting go is needed to survive this.

So I personally think it's OK to say, "Baby, this is a dealbreaker level issue for me. I need to see you stop being in constant crisis about this if we're going to be together. I have some suggestions for how to change if you want but whatever way you choose, I need this to change", and also to set some specific boundaries like no longer paying for certain things. You could decide that it's worth it to you to pay for one nice date a month for example, because it's worth it to you to have that experience, but then that's all you are going to help with that month (or whatever your limit is).

In the end, you are not going to change this person and some level of acceptance is probably necessary. Many (most) relationships where there is shared money, one person really ends up taking over the responsibility for it. It may be that if you two stay together in the long term, you end up being the money czar. You may end up paying a higher portion of shared expenses. These are the kinds of questions that I guess you can explore with yourself as you’re thinking about this.

I know it’s really, really hard to love someone deeply and at the same time feel like you’re hitting a wall on a specific behavior. I am not in the DTMFA camp at all, nor do I think it’s realistic that you will totally release any investment in this. But also, there is no easy answer for this one and you probably need to continue to explore your own values about this – as your ability to change your partner is limited.
posted by latkes at 12:58 PM on April 1, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oh, and buy your partner You Need a Budget (and use it yourself). My partner and I now sit on the couch together every week or two updating our seperate YNABs and it shows a joint commitment to saving and being financially responsible. It changed our lives!
posted by latkes at 1:02 PM on April 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

See if your SO can commit to an automatic savings coming out of their account every month. And not touch it. It would be best if it went to an entirely different financial institution. I'd say something small is just fine, like $20. Even $10. There will probably be resistance whether they express it to you or not - in my spendy days I would have hated doing this. Which is precisely what I think makes it a good indicator.
posted by kitcat at 1:07 PM on April 1, 2015

My question is: what sorts of indicators should I look for that would indicate genuine, lasting change in this area?

The ability to live in a budget, and month by month increase in savings.

I feel this will make or break our relationship and it seems so deeply ingrained that I fear it’s not ever going to really change.

Yup. It probably will make or break you. There are two ways this can go:

1/ You can accept he will never change, accept that, and live independent financial lives.

2/ You can accept he will never change, and decide that regardless of how much you love him, he does not bring enough to the table for a lifelong partnership.

but to conclude that that seems so harsh and unloving, especially when they've just started to make an effort.

In adulthood, we don't get points for trying; we get points for being an adult and pulling our shit together. Insisting someone have their shit together enough to be able to not overspend has NOTHING TO DO WITH LOVE, it has to do with keeping the lights on and having a partner you can rely on.

You don't mention kids, but if you are hoping to have some and thinking about having them with this man, re-think that. Seriously, like sit down with a pen and paper and work out how you think maternity leave, child care, and family vacations will work with a partner who can't make the "huge sacrifices" required to support even themselves.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:15 PM on April 1, 2015 [12 favorites]

If you do marry, I'd insist on a pre-nup and also keep finances separate. Even with those precautions, you'll still be tied to him financially in ways that could be very damaging whether you stay together or eventually split.

Before you marry, I'd also suggest couples counseling and him working on this within a more disciplined framework (hard budgets and direct deposit into savings/retirement, etc) or working with an adviser if he can't get there on his own. Personally, I'd want to see major and consistent change for a year before considering marriage. This will not fix itself or get easier.
posted by quince at 1:19 PM on April 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Stories from those of you who have experienced this yourself (on either side.. as someone who changed their financial habits, and as someone who was in a relationship with such) would be especially welcome.

My ex-wife and I fought about this *a lot*. I was committed to saving up, even while only one of us was working, since I was making enough for this to be a reasonable goal, and would allow us some headroom to quit my job and move to the US, rather than being away 2-3 nights a week working in Canada. We tried a lot of different approaches - using Mint, envelopes with a pre-allocated budget, excel and google spreadsheets, allocated personal allowances for entertainment and discretionary spending, a "maximum spending amount" before spending where we would agree to talk to the other partner....as you might have guessed, we never fully figured it out. While it was only a factor in our separation, from my point of view it was a significant contributor, since my resentments in this area spilled over into all sorts of other areas of the relationship. I really didn't like being the "financial czar" at all - it made me feel bossy and controlling in a way that was in no way fun, and the repeated overspending helped erode the trust in the relationship.

You can try all the things I tried - I'd also recommend financial counselling, or couples counselling generally. I've come to suspect that her overspending was at least partially motivated by unhappiness rather than malice or lack of respect for my financial boundaries or financial goals I wanted us to share.

On the plus side it forced me to re-evaluate my own relationship with money - I am a lot better at budgeting now, and much warier of spending on unnecessary items like I used to, so hopefully this will stand me in good stead for the future.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:20 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

You should probably dump them.

I can think of a way though: is your partner willing and happy to completely hand over their income to you and live off an allowance you give them? I doubt it, but there's all kinds.
posted by flimflam at 1:27 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

What worked for me was giving up the final word on purchases and such to my wife, who was a much more frugal person than I was in our 20s and 30s. We didn't have one fight about money in our entire relationship. HOWEVER, I'm a pretty laid-back person and don't mind not having the latest gadget or whatever. If he's not fully on board with handing over the keys to the cashbox it won't work at all, it'll just lead to resentment and possibly dishonesty.

Interestingly, when we divorced (nothing to do with money, haha) and I suddenly had a credit card in only my name and could have gone crazy, I found that I had become much more responsible with my spending... so the timeframe for becoming responsible with money for me was somewhere within a 20 year period, not sure where.
posted by Huck500 at 1:27 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the nuclear option would be to have your partner set up direct deposit to your account, and you pay all the bills and give partner an allowance. This actually works for a lot of couples where one person is financially savvy and the other isn't. If you're thinking marriage and this is the main dealbreaker, make this part of the deal.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:33 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are coaches who work with exactly this. Would your partner be up for talking to one? It sounds like they have some habits that are hamstringing them. If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, IM me- I have some names of financial coaches and even a financial therapist or two.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:29 PM on April 1, 2015

Oh, and an interesting compare and contrast would be to look at the post directly above this. Much of the advice for the overspender is gentler, and focused much more on helping them. Maybe that advice will be more helpful for them and you, as I found carrying any blame and resentment around to be an express train to marital misery city.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 5:35 PM on April 1, 2015

Financial discipline is a learned skill. It is not always an easily learned skill.

Is there a willingness to start to learn those skills? If so, see if you can enable and support that. There are great tools these days, including software such as Quicken, which even supports entry of data from a smartphone. Understanding where the money is coming and going is very helpful to adjusting habits. Setting a budget, and living within it (at least on average), would be a significant indicator that change was possible.

Some people never get beyond financial adolescence. They live their financial lives out of a checking account and carry massive credit card debt, and never wrap their head around the ways to get ahead. That's kind-of okay when you're 20. It isn't so cool when you're 40. Could be headed for the cat food retirement plan.

There are a ton of resources out there to help move beyond financial adolescence. I really kinda like "The Millionaire Next Door." It's pretty awesome, yet full of common sense. Maybe see if that, or some other similar resource, or a financial counselor, or whatever, makes an impact. For me, having to manage a business was very helpful, as I then applied similar strategies to personal finance.

Change not possible? Pre-nup, and keep the finances separate. Joint obligations such as housing get paid from an account that you both pay into on some agreed basis. Don't undertake a joint obligation (such as a house) that you cannot shoulder all by yourself if need be, if you're not confident that your SO is going to be able to hold up their end. Then you each manage your finances separately. This could be made to work for certain types of people.

However, I feel strongly that financial maturity is something that has to be wanted. If it isn't wanted, it probably isn't going to happen. Then you need to contemplate how that's going to impact the relationship, especially if you do separate finances.

Marriage is about having a partner. The financial aspect of a marriage is one of the most important aspects, because if you tie the knot to a boat anchor, you could easily find yourself sinking sooner or later. You need to be reasonably certain that your partner is not going to ruin your retirement, or ruin your credit, etc. Are you strong enough to say no to bailing out your SO when you discover that they've run up a $50K credit card debt?
posted by jgreco at 5:35 PM on April 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

I gave the straight talk answer above, but that's not to say that your partner might not be THRILLED for someone else to deal with everything and just tell them what to do.

I pretty much handed everything over to my husband when we got together - we were both broke as shit, and our biggest problem by far was being broke as shit and not the lack of an app, but I was broke as shit and prone to freaking out/ostriching/doing it wrong. He had some money management skills, and I was just like "as long as I have some small sliver of money of my own that you don't get to tell me what to do with, you can figure out what to do with the rest" and that worked. It's not that anything was a secret - I had the logins to the bank, and we agreed together on short- and long-term strategies, but I didn't have to do the stuff. So it actually got done.

(I did learn from him, over time and increased income. I could take over now if I had to. I'd have to be extra careful that depression didn't get in the way but I would mostly be okay. It's habit now.)

But you seem upset that your partner has chosen not to earn more money, and that is one million miles different from simply being broke and bad at money. That is likely not fixable unless you really search your soul and find that being with them is more important than their lack of ambition. And you have to embrace that completely, through all the stuff you are never ever going to be able to split 50/50, or you're going to get resentful and the relationship will end.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:36 PM on April 1, 2015 [3 favorites]

I married someone who was more of a grasshopper to my ant, like you. Here's the difference, though:

1. He hadn't taken a cent from his parents other than the occasional $50 bill for Xmas or birthday since he was 19.
2. He was in debt when I met him, but it was due to a period of unemployment and he had other points in his life where he was well off, although he never saved for retirement or emergencies (grasshopper style).
3. Once we were together, while he still was encouraging us to spend money (vacations, eating out), he also totally respected my desire to save, and we sock away about 20% of our income before planning vacations, etc.
4. He would never in a million years expect me to fund our good time together while he doesn't contribute.

I think your SO has a maturity problem, not a financial styles problem. Grasshoppers can be lovely partners (I actually *do* enjoy vacations in Mexico, something I never would have considered on my own), but your values also need to be valued by your SO. I would break up if I were you. SO needs to grow up and change, and that is going to be hard/impossible in the context of a relationship.
posted by tk at 7:05 PM on April 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

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