my two cents

‘My Husband Spends All His Money on His 13-Year-Old Daughter’

Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

Dear Charlotte,

I am eight months pregnant, and my wonderful husband and I have had a loving and supportive relationship for the last six years.

That said, economically, we are on very different pages. I am a saver, have no debts, and have always been careful with money. He is also financially responsible but, as a divorcé, he must pay child support for his 13-year-old daughter and has accrued a small amount of debt due to previous trouble keeping up with it. At a minimum, 20 percent of his monthly paycheck goes to his ex-wife, and another 10–15 percent goes to his debt. Although we earn about the same amount, I end up paying for a lot more of our shared expenses, such as groceries and the deposit for our new home. He always runs out of money within days of getting paid, and if he ever does have anything extra, he spends it on his daughter.

Lately, this has been creating resentment. Although I am proud of my husband’s role in his daughter’s life and appreciate that he is a loving and supportive father, I am worried that I will be 100 percent financially responsible for our child. This was exacerbated a couple of weeks ago when his ex-wife asked for double this month’s child support to pay for their daughter’s orthodontia (which he has covered entirely so far). He agreed and was going to try to find extra work to pay for it … a month before our child is born. I told him that I felt he was prioritizing them over our unborn baby, leaving me with all of the expenses of putting together our child’s nursery, so he decided against giving his ex-wife the money after all. Then I paid for the nursery anyway, and he never offered to help. Yesterday, he spent the last of his paycheck on an outing with his daughter.

Whenever I have tried to bring up these concerns, my husband has reacted very defensively and even accused me of not liking his daughter. I am confused about how I should feel. How do I process this? Am I wrong to feel like a second priority? Should his first child be priority number one? Should I have known this was going to happen? I’m worried about what might happen if my financial situation were to change. How do I delicately address these issues?

You, my friend, have a dilemma on your hands — a problem that can’t be fixed without producing another problem. Ask your husband to spend less money on his daughter, and you alienate him; say nothing, and your resentment grows at an inverse proportion to your bank account. The only way to address the situation is to recognize that you both need to shift your expectations — and be open about them.

First of all, it’s interesting that you asked how you “should feel.” You also didn’t say that you felt resentment — you just mentioned that it’s there, like a stretch mark that showed up one day in your third trimester. I think what you actually want to know is how to stop feeling the way that you do, which is angry at your husband and sad that he can’t (or won’t) take steps to make you feel more secure. And that’s a confusing, terrifying experience right before you give birth. You want your husband to be on your wavelength now more than ever, but instead, you’re shopping for cribs alone and seething about it.

Your fears are completely understandable, but they’re also based on assumptions that may not be true. Yes, it’s logical to believe that your husband’s previous behavior is the best indicator of what he’ll do in the future, but you can’t read his mind, and vice versa. What exactly are your expectations for him? What are his expectations for you? He can’t deliver what you need if you don’t ask for it directly.

Meanwhile, according to experts, it makes sense that your husband is focused on his daughter. “Sometimes it’s harder for a father to connect to a baby before it’s born, because he doesn’t actively feel its physical presence the way a pregnant woman does,” says Chelsea Garneau-Rosner, a psychologist who studies human development and family science at the University of Missouri. “His daughter is right there in front of him, whereas the baby’s needs aren’t tangible yet. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to pay for everything on your own forever, or that he’s not going to be invested in your child.”

Putting a price tag on a kid is impossible. Yes, your husband contributes a set dollar amount to his daughter’s care every month, but you can’t compare that number to what he’ll provide for your child. There will be times when your baby’s expenses pale in comparison to his daughter’s, and vice versa. Trying to make them “equal,” or measuring your husband’s priorities based on how much money he spends on whom, is a lose-lose approach. Should he have spent the last of his paycheck on the baby instead of his daughter? Who knows. “He may be trying to reassure his daughter that she won’t be replaced,” says Garneau-Rosner. “Thirteen is a tough age, and she’s probably anxious about getting a new step-sibling. In all families, there are moments where one person’s needs take precedence over others.”

So, you and your husband have some talking to do. And since this topic gets his hackles up, you’ll need to ease in carefully. Avoid statements that might be perceived as blaming (“You made me buy everything for our baby! Do you know how much a stroller costs these days?”) and reframe them as a description of your own experience (“Since I covered the costs of the nursery, I’m worried that I’ll be shouldering the bulk of our child’s expenses, and I don’t feel prepared to do that”). Make specific statements (“I spent $60 on diapers”) instead of global ones (“You never pay for anything!”). Be curious: What are his concerns? How do you want to approach your child’s expenses together? While you’re at it, ask about the role he wants you to play in his daughter’s life, seeing as he’s called it into question before. Consider writing down your talking points in advance, so that you can figure out how you want to word them. If the exchange gets too charged, get a counselor or therapist to help you — the National Stepfamily Resource Center offers a list of professionals who are specially trained to do just that.

In addition to putting your feelings on the table, you’ll also want to walk away from this discussion with a concrete plan. The backbone of every couple’s financial stability is an understanding (if not exactly a happy agreement) of what’s “mine,” what’s “yours,” and what’s “ours.” For example, you could decide that everything is “ours,” pool all of your money, and treat his child support payments as part of your family budget. Alternatively, you could both contribute a set amount every month to a shared account (“ours”), use it to cover your child’s needs, and each keep the rest of your incomes separate (“mine” and “yours”). You’ll have to get creative about budgeting and communicating, and you will have to compromise. It may be that you’ll continue to pay for more than half of your baby’s needs; he may have to tell his ex-wife that he can’t throw down for their daughter’s retainer. You’ll argue, but you’ve got to keep talking. These are emotional, sensitive subjects, but it sounds like you have a strong connection that will survive them.

On that note, while your husband’s child support payments preceded your relationship, your marriage can outlast them. “From a legal perspective, when you enter into a marriage, you take your spouse ‘subject to their obligations,’ whether that’s outstanding debt or child support,” says Laurie Israel, a Massachusetts-based lawyer who specializes in divorce law and couples mediation. The birth of your child won’t affect what your husband continues to owe — his premarital obligations supercede any new ones. “However, marriage goes beyond those obligations,” Israel adds. “Debt can be paid off, and once his daughter turns 21, your husband will no longer be required to support her. Remember that this is temporary.”

And finally, stay positive: You married a stand-up guy. According to the U.S. Census, fewer than half of custodial parents receive the full amount of child support owed to them by law, so your husband is in the minority when it comes to honoring his commitments. As you said yourself, he’s a great dad, and clearly wants to do the right thing.

‘My Husband Spends All His Money on His Daughter’