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I need some advice on how to deal with my boyfriend’s money issues. He and I are our mid-40s, divorced, with children from our prior marriages. We’ve been dating for about three years but do not live together (due to logistical issues around child-custody schedules, job locations, etc.), and we have separate finances. We both have well-paying jobs and post-grad degrees.
After we had been dating for a little over a year, he confessed that he was having financial difficulties. He had no savings, was not contributing to his employer-matched 401(k), and was behind on his bills. He said he needed to “pull back” on dinners out, weekend trips, and so on (we had been splitting the cost of these activities), which was fine with me. But I was concerned about his lack of financial management skills, and I told him I would never put myself or my kids in the position of being tied to someone who can’t track expenses. He agreed that he needed to get his finances into shape, and we worked together to set up a budget for him. He opened a savings account for emergencies, resolved to be more attuned to when his bills were due, and decided to put most of his household expenses on a credit card to maximize his rewards while paying them off every month.
It’s been two years since then, and as far as I knew, things were going according to plan. He’s been talking about buying a new car, and we were discussing (someday) getting married. Then, yesterday he called me and said that had amassed $14,000 in credit card debt, and hadn’t been contributing to his emergency savings fund.
I am horrified. And angry. How could he let it get to this point, especially without telling me? It will take years to pay this off. It’s not my debt, as we are not married and don’t live together, but we’ve been calling each other our “life partners” and talking about engagement rings. I won’t be moving those plans forward anytime soon, but I don’t want to break up over this either. That said, there are so many things about this that bother me — his total failure to act like an adult, manage his finances, and tell me that he was having difficulty. I’m also wondering whether any of this is my fault. I was the one who suggested our recent ski trip, for example; did he feel like he couldn’t refuse without upsetting me? Should I have been more of a nagging girlfriend to help keep him on track? I don’t want to have to nag. What should I say? How can I help him? Should I even try?
When I was in my 20s, a colleague I admired — older, polished, sophisticated —mentioned to me that she had a credit card with a balance that her husband didn’t know about. “I can’t tell him,” she said. “I’m pretty sure it would end our marriage.” I was surprised by her admission — and also relieved. At the time, my own budgeting skills were so abysmal that I’d frequently overdraw my checking account by accident, and I wasn’t much better with my credit card. But I would have preferred to eat my own bank statement than discuss it with my significant other (or anyone, for that matter). Apparently I wasn’t alone in wanting to keep my bad habits to myself — and neither is your boyfriend.
This type of omission has a name — “financial infidelity” — and over 40 percent of U.S. adults have engaged in it, according a survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education. Meanwhile, your reaction to your boyfriend’s admission puts you in good company: other research shows that 31 percent of adults believe that financial infidelity erodes trust just as much as physically cheating on your partner, if not even more so.
Your relationship can recover from this. But it will take a good deal of work — and not just on your boyfriend’s end. “If you’re both invested in the relationship, then this is a solvable problem,” says Amanda Clayman, an L.A.-based financial therapist who often treats couples. “But you can’t approach this as, ‘My partner needs to be fixed.’ You have to be committed to doing this together.”
At the same time, you’re wise to be cautious. As you now know, just because he says he wants to get better doesn’t mean he’s willing — or able — to confront the problem with the full attention it needs, and there’s only so much you can do. “Remember, financial mismanagement can incite deep feelings of shame, which often cause avoidance, withdrawal, and denial,” says Megan Ford, a financial planner and professor at the University of Georgia. Think about what’s at stake for him: Outwardly, he seems like a competent, well-educated, successful man who takes ski vacations with his equally competent, well-educated, and successful girlfriend — the type of guy who’s got his act together. Who wouldn’t go to extreme lengths to maintain that picture?
For some people, budgeting is very straightforward: What goes out must be equal to or less than what comes in. You seem to fall into this camp, and I envy you. For many others, money is not intrinsically motivating, and we need a bigger, stronger stick to prod ourselves toward financial stability. In your boyfriend’s case, that stick might be you.
If you both want to stay in this relationship, and his financial insecurity is a deal breaker, then it’s time for you to decide —together — the conditions under which you can move forward. “When I work with couples, we create a central agreement of what ‘healthy’ looks like,” says Clayman. “That agreement needs to be inclusive, in that both people are participating. It needs to be transparent, in that they negotiate the boundaries of what they share with each other. And finally, it needs to be sustainable and flexible.” If one person doesn’t like the plan, then it’s not a sustainable one — and you both need to be flexible enough to try something new.
To your credit, you already attempted to start this process two years ago, and now you’ve learned something: The financial plan that you devised for him, while well intentioned and reasonable, doesn’t work. His “difficulties” almost certainly date back a long time, far before you arrived on the scene, and require a different and more nuanced strategy. “I suspect that something deeper is keeping him stuck in this destructive pattern, and you can’t fix these issues just by throwing a budget at them,” says Ford. “Ultimately, he has to want to explore further if he’s going to achieve real, lasting results.”
Of course, you don’t want to be the money police. Instead, encourage an open, ongoing conversation, and continue to be very clear about your own experience: You’re worried about attaching yourself — and your children — to someone who isn’t in control of his finances. Also, pay attention to what triggers that anxiety, and communicate when you’re feeling it without placing blame. “Don’t frame it as ‘You did a bad thing,’” explains Clayman. “You don’t want him to be in a shameful place where he shuts down and says, ‘You’re right, you’re right, I messed up.’ If you try to control this process, he will agree to anything just to stop talking because the subject is so painful, and that won’t result in structural changes or a different outcome.”
After all, the value of money is relative. “It’s not that you are right and he is wrong. Yes, he made financial choices that resulted in debt, but in the moment, they were in service of meeting whatever needs he is dealing with,” says Clayman. In other words, you might view his decisions as mistakes, but they made sense to him at the time; unpack that. His tendencies might even be related to qualities about him that you like — he’s an optimist, always believes that things will work out, or great with spontaneity. Those aspects don’t have to change, but he does need to understand how they connect to his spending, and when to question them.
As for my colleague with a secret credit card: About a year after she told me about it, she came clean. Her husband was upset, she said, but there wasn’t a blow-up; instead, they agreed that she would pay it down with her additional income from a recent promotion, and be more forthcoming about separate accounts in general. That was five years ago; they’re still together.