I’m a 46-year-old single mom and I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost four years. He moved into my condo almost immediately after our relationship began, and we always split the bills. Then, about four months ago, he lost his job and has since accrued a debt to me of over $8,500. I wonder all the time if I’ll ever get that money back. I’ve set myself a limit of $10,000, but I don’t know what I’ll do if and when he hits it. This is a horrible place for a relationship, and I have so much tension and resentment. I feel that he should borrow money from family instead of me — is that wrong? I’m drawing on hard-earned savings just to keep us afloat, and it’s ruining us. Can we overcome this?
You’re facing two possible scenarios. Behind curtain No. 1, your boyfriend has simply hit a patch of bad luck; it’s only a matter of time before he finds a new job, repays you in a timely fashion, and expresses his endless gratitude for your support during this rocky period. Alternatively, behind the more ominous curtain No. 2, he will spiral into long-term unemployment, continue to indebt himself to you, and eventually drive you so nuts that the relationship will implode and you’ll walk away broke and furious that you didn’t cut him off sooner. We’re all rooting for the first scenario, but you need to guard against the second.
The intrinsic problem with muddling love and money is that the latter is finite and the former is not. Therefore, if you lend or gift money to your boyfriend (or anyone, for that matter), the terms must be clearly defined — how much you’re lending, what you expect in return, and the timeline you have in mind. Your feelings for the borrower may be immeasurable, but your finances have clear, hard boundaries that must be understood and respected. Many people don’t know what those boundaries are until they’ve been crossed, and it sounds like you’ve discovered yours the hard way.
Your first and most logical step is also an awkward one. If you haven’t already, discuss your loan limit with your boyfriend (the $10,000 cap you mentioned), and establish a rough plan for how and when he’ll pay you back — say, once he gets a job, he’ll give you 10 percent of every paycheck, or whatever seems feasible. (This maybe goes without saying, but be kind about this. No one wants to be in your boyfriend’s situation, and he probably feels like crap already.) Next, put your agreement in writing and have him sign a promissory note, which you can do quickly and cheaply using a service like LegalZoom.
This formalizing process sounds cold and clinical, but at least it will get you both on the same page — literally — about how your financial exchange will function going forward. It should also give you some peace of mind: If the relationship suffers further, at least you won’t have to worry about losing your money and your boyfriend — you’ll retain a legal right to collect what he owes you, regardless of your status as a couple.
If he refuses to sign the note, then that’s a huge red flag — do not lend him another dollar, full stop. He might wheedle or beg or threaten to leave, but stand firm: the honey fund is closed. “If he sees this as a breach in the relationship, remember, there’s already been a breach in that you’re uncomfortable with what’s happening,” says Brad Klontz, a psychologist, certified financial planner, and founder of Financial Psychology Institute. What’s more, you shouldn’t apologize for drawing this line, and your boyfriend shouldn’t make you feel like you have to, especially since you also have a child to look out for. He’ll need to get the money elsewhere, and it’s not your job to suggest where he might find it.
Meanwhile, if your intuition is blaring alarm signals, step back and try to take a more objective look at this guy. Is his current situation an isolated case, or part of a larger pattern? “If he’s spending eight hours a day looking for work, then this may be a one-off issue,” says Klontz. “But if he’s spending most of his time playing Fortnite and hanging out with his friends, then it could be more chronic.” Has your boyfriend done this in previous relationships? Does he shirk responsibility in other areas of his life, too? The best predictor of his future behavior is not your optimism — it’s his past behavior. “Pay close attention to his history,” says Klontz. “It’s much more likely that it will repeat itself, versus you becoming the person who magically changes him.”
Economists have a term for the human tendency to stick with something that isn’t working just because you’ve already poured a lot of resources into it: the “sunk cost fallacy.” For example, I once bought a dress that didn’t quite fit, made several unsuccessful attempts to get it tailored, and then kept it in my closet for years because I’d spent so much on it. This is related to “loss aversion,” or the irrational fear of ditching something (in my case, an unwearable dress) even if the result (more closet space) is ultimately in your best interest. Or, as Klontz puts it, “Loss aversion is the urge to hold onto something because you don’t want to endure the emotional pain of admitting that you’ve made a mistake.” Do you see where this is going, nudge nudge?
Four years is a decent amount of time to be with someone. Are you standing by this guy because of your sunk costs, emotional and financial, or because you truly believe that he’s a good partner for you? “A lot of people stay in relationships for way too long, and when they think back to the beginning, there was always a little voice that said, ‘It’s not going to work, but it’s too late,’” says Klontz. “Then, ten years later, they’ve got three kids and a house, and it’s an even bigger mess.” In other words, it’s always and never too late to break up with someone — if you stick it out, that $8,500 debt could seem like small potatoes after a few more months.
But if you do want to stay with him — and it sounds like you might — this is your opportunity to hammer out a better contingency plan for the present and the future. “We all like to think that if we hit a dry spell, our partner will give us some support,” says Klontz. “But how far does that go? At what point is he just going to take a job, even if it’s not the best job?” When your boyfriend does get a job, will he work on saving more so that this doesn’t happen again? How else can he make you feel more secure after this period of stress and upheaval?
Many couples have a live-and-let-live policy about money until they’re forced to confront their financial differences. Like you, I moved in with my significant other fairly early in our relationship, and we simply began splitting the bills without a fuss. It wasn’t until years later that we had our first fight about money (of all dumb clichés, it was about our wedding budget) and I realized that we’d never really discussed finances at all. Despite what you read about the need to “align financial priorities” before you co-habitate or marry someone, I believe that there’s only so much you can anticipate before it becomes a sticking point. For us, it took a number of bumpy disagreements before we learned how to communicate about our spending (“I want to buy this. What do you think?”), and it’s still one of my least-favorite topics. But one hard-and-fast rule is that we always state our boundaries: If we’re sharing a cost, I’ll say how much I’m willing to contribute, and vice versa. This is your chance to learn to do something similar — stake out your financial comfort zone, and if he’s not willing to join you there, then he’s on his own.