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Dear Money Mom,
I grew up in a working-class family, the oldest of four children who were often told we couldn’t afford things at the supermarket. At an early age, I vowed to have a different, more stable life. I got a scholarship to college and reduced costs further by taking classes at night and working during the day. My sophomore year, I met my husband. His wealthy parents paid all his expenses. My senior year, he proposed.
As I was graduating, his parents got me an interview with a white-shoe law firm. I definitely would not have gotten my foot in the door without their connections, but my success here is my own. I’ve been a top biller for eight out of my ten years here. I make about $90,000 a year and my husband, who has bounced around in low-paying jobs, recently got a new position that makes $40,000.
Meanwhile, my husband’s parents have continued to supplement our income. When our rental apartment flooded a few years ago, they bought us a house with cash. It’s in our name. Before that, they gave me a car. My husband gets a new car every two years, and we don’t talk about where the money comes from. Last year, we had a daughter. His parents pay for our babysitter, who is my relative.
Here’s the problem: I still feel like we never have enough money, and that I spend too freely. So many of our normal expenses are taken care of; shouldn’t I have more in the bank? We don’t have any debt, and I have about $180,000 in my 401(k). Usually we have about $25,000 in savings, but I wasn’t paid for half of my maternity leave, so we spent about a third of it. Since I’ve been back at work, I haven’t been able to save at all. I am also working fewer hours and paying for diapers, wildly overpriced music classes, yadda yadda. But it also feels ridiculous. We still go out to eat. I like clothes. We buy fancy groceries. We go on vacations. I have a housekeeper that comes once a week. I know where I could cut expenses, but my husband says we should just enjoy our lives. I agree until it’s time to pay the bills and I don’t have anything left over.
I could slice every scrap of fat from my expenses tomorrow (I have done this as an anxiety-induced exercise), but should I? Should I just relax for now and worry about it after we’ve made this transition? I feel totally alone in this, because in my circles I am wildly, wildly fortunate and in my husband’s circles we’re normal. How do you know when you have enough money?
Of course you’re conflicted about your bills — you’re in a financial world that’s foreign to you, where your husband and his parents wave money wands and make cars appear. You’re straddling a past where cash was scarce and a present where it’s plentiful. Your save-it-all instincts are at odds with your loved ones’, who are telling you to quit worrying and go take a spa day. Who’s right?
First of all, know that your finances are in great shape, objectively. Your expenses might seem daunting and amorphous right now (no first-time parent is like, “Oh, this infant is cheaper than I expected!”), but take a moment to appreciate what you’ve built — you’re debt-free with a fulfilling career and an impressive start on a cozy retirement nest egg. On paper, you’re a financial adviser’s dream — and parent-in-law’s, for that matter. Yes, you had some help to get where you are, but even if you strip away the house, car, and bells and whistles that your in-laws have generously provided, your income and savings are nothing to sniff at. Give yourself some credit.
Instead of self-flagellating over your spending, try to zoom out and survey your finances from a purely numerical perspective. Most experts recommend, as a general rule, that you put 20 percent of your net income toward long-term savings (including retirement), 50 percent to necessities (your home, food, car, health care, etc.), and the remaining 30 percent on fun stuff, like vacations and cute baby toys and pre-cut mangoes from Whole Foods. Bucketing your money proactively can make you less freaked out about spending it, and will help curb your black-and-white inclination to slice “every scrap of fat” from your budget when you’re feeling guilty.
As for how much money is “enough”: If you want a hard number to work toward, the internet is teeming with calculator tools that you can play around with to determine how much you’ll need to retire comfortably, depending on your income, age, and other factors. Having an abstract target, with benchmarks you can meet, might put your mind at ease.
However, I don’t think that’s what you are truly seeking. What does “enough” money mean to you, really? It’s subjective, of course, but for most people it involves a measure of independence. And as it becomes harder and harder for you to envision your life without your in-laws’ financial support, your grasp of “enough” is being gently pried from your hands. “Maybe you’re worried that you’re getting acclimated to this,” says Amanda Clayman, an L.A.-based financial therapist. “When your in-laws are funding part of your life, it can create a sense that you don’t have control over your own future — which is especially stressful now that you’re raising a child.”
Then there’s the elephant in the room — the difference between your “enough” and your husband’s “enough.” I know what you’re thinking: You don’t want to factor his family’s money into this conversation, because they’ve already given you so much and you’re proud of running on own steam. But two are playing this game (or four, counting your in-laws), and if your husband is buying new cars with mystery money, it’s time to talk about it at the very least. “In my experience, couples where one person is still dependent on his parents for certain things, or plans to be, that money never fully gets into the ‘ours’ category,” says Clayman. “The inheritor may contribute money towards joint expenses, but he rarely — if ever — gives up complete control of it. And that can make the spouse feel left in the dark.”
In that sense, simply being honest with your husband — and getting everything out in the open — might be a huge relief to both of you. “Your anxiety could be a signal, or it could just be noise, but the only way to figure that out is to acknowledge it,” says Clayman. “Do you want to make structural changes, like establishing certain rules? Or is it just that this isn’t what you were raised to expect, in terms of how the world works and how relationships and families function? Having your husband affirm that he hears your concerns could make you feel much better.”
This conversation goes both ways. “You could ask your husband if he feels vulnerable, too,” Clayman adds. “Like, how does he feel about these gifts from his parents? What would happen if they stopped? Talking through different scenarios together will make you feel less alone in this.” It’s also part of what psychologist Brad Klontz, the founder of the Financial Therapy Institute, calls “the de-shaming process,” which involves recognizing that everyone struggles with money. “It’s a taboo topic, but we all feel shame around it — shame we have too much, shame we have too little,” he says. “Self-awareness helps put these things into context, and create a clear picture of the difference between our emotions and the reality of your financial situation.”
As for your unease at how quickly you’ve grown accustomed to a life of weekly housekeepers and white-tablecloth restaurants: Welcome to being human. Known to psychologists as “hedonic adaptation,” it’s normal to adjust to new circumstances even if they once seemed beyond your wildest dreams. This “wearing off” effect is particularly quick when you’re surrounded by other people in your same boat (like your husband and his family). And for what it’s worth, research shows that most people think they’d be happier if they had a little more money, usually about 20 percent more than their current income level, no matter how much they already have. (The truth is, while wealthy people are generally happier than those who aren’t, happiness does not appear to increase in proportion to wealth beyond a relatively low point.)
How to escape the constant ennui of the “hedonic treadmill”? It might sound cheesy, but being mindful of what actually brings you satisfaction, and taking the time to convey gratitude for it, is your best bet. What exactly gives you pleasure, and makes you feel rewarded? For your husband, maybe it’s cars. For you, maybe it’s travel, or extraordinary new meals, or making sure your daughter can go to college wherever she wants — and the satisfaction of knowing that you worked hard to earn it. You don’t need to default to your husband’s values and spending patterns just because you’ve become part of his world. Instead of focusing on what seems “ridiculous,” pay more attention to what you genuinely enjoy.