I’m in my late 30s and live in an expensive city in California with my boyfriend. I’m a manager at a nonprofit and make a relatively comfortable salary, although I do worry about my potential to earn more than I make now. I grew up with a lot of income insecurity and have no safety net, so I’m fiercely on top of my finances. Saving makes me feel safe. However, I always seem to be in relationships with men who are the opposite — spending money is what makes them feel safe, and unfortunately, they’re often men who don’t have a lot of money to spend.
I want to believe that my current partner is the one for me. He’s wonderful, and it’s the strongest relationship I’ve ever had. But money is a major sticking point for us. Multiple times over the three years we’ve been together, he’s had to borrow money from me. He’s managed to pay me back eventually each time, but it makes me worried. He doesn’t plan or budget, and when he gets a big chunk of money at once, he tends to blow through it rather than save anything. At the moment, he doesn’t have much debt aside from a few thousand dollars on a credit card, which he’s paying off. But he’s avoidant around bills and has even let a debt go into collections without telling me about it.
I have begged him to be honest with me about his financial situation, but many times he hasn’t been. He’ll tell me he can afford a weekend trip away or a security deposit on an apartment (we live together), but then once we’re committed to it, all of a sudden he can’t pay. It makes me wary of any plans he talks about, because I know there’s at least a 50 percent chance that it won’t work out. This might sound like he’s running a scam, but I don’t think he even realizes that he can’t afford something until he’s smack in the middle of it. He’s disorganized.
We talk about money differences, and he feels despair and guilt about how he can never get his head above water. He has also had real setbacks, like losing his job during the pandemic. He works in the restaurant industry and no one is hiring at the moment. His unemployment is now about $1,800 per month since the additional $600 benefit was cut.
To me, though, it doesn’t matter how much money he does or does not have — he simply can’t stay on top of what’s coming in and going out. How can I help him change his relationship with money? Are there classes or exercises? Is it simply about helping him make a budget? I’ve asked him to do couples money counseling (at my expense), but he refuses. He may be coming into a sizable amount of money (for us) in the near future, and I’m terrified the cycle will repeat itself and he’ll fritter it all away.
I wish I had the kind of job security and earning potential that would allow me to cut him some slack here, but I just don’t. I fear an otherwise rock-solid relationship will not be tenable in the long term if we can’t figure this out. Financial matters are a dealbreaker for me. What can I do?
I can’t overstate how glad I am that you’re confronting this problem. I’m also relieved that you know your boyfriend’s finances are a dealbreaker for you, as painful as that is. (Money is a dealbreaker for most people, but they just don’t realize it — so you’re a step ahead.) Deep down, you know your boundaries, and that’s half the battle. Now you just have to stick to them.
Your boyfriend is not going to change unless he wants to, and you can’t make him. Sure, you can give him books on budgeting, sign him up for budgeting courses, or pay for couples therapy, but none of it will go anywhere unless he decides to grab the wheel himself. What will that take? It’s impossible to say, but you have to decide how long you’re willing to hang around to find out.
To be clear, I very much empathize with your boyfriend here, too. I used to have a similar head-in-the-sand approach to bills, and it took me years to grasp a basic spending plan. The belief that you are inherently bad at something and shouldn’t bother trying to improve is known as “learned helplessness,” and it’s very common with money. But studies show that it can be overcome with practice and education.
In my own case, I told myself that managing money was like learning to drive. It’s technically complex and requires time and attention, and everyone’s terrible at it at first. But if you want to get from here to there, you have to buck up and put in the work. “Financial literacy is a muscle,” says Thomas Faupl, a marriage and family counselor who specializes in financial therapy. “In the beginning, when we exercise a muscle, we don’t see much development and we’re not very good at it. But if we do it 300 times, we see results, and that’s empowering.”
Even more important than learning the nuts and bolts of managing his cashflow, your boyfriend needs to learn to communicate when he’s struggling. You can’t force him to get his act together, but you can foster an environment for him to improve and earn your trust. You’re right that he’s probably dealing with a ton of shame around his financial shortcomings, and your emotional support and encouragement can help alleviate that. You can also keep modeling what financial responsibility looks like, and show him that it’s doable.
Meanwhile, be transparent about your own goals, mistakes, and anxieties too — these conversations are a two way street, even when they involve things he doesn’t want to hear. “Financial intimacy is a key component of a relationship, and it needs to be clear and conscious from both parties,” says Faupl. “My question is, when are you going to give him consequences? When do you say, ‘No, enough. Until I can trust you, we can’t proceed’?”
By setting boundaries and consequences, I don’t mean that you should police his finances — in fact, you should do the opposite. “You want him to know that he has the power and agency to improve his situation, and it’s up to him to do it,” says Dr. Mary Bell Carlson, an adjunct professor of financial planning at the University of Georgia. “You also need to be clear about what will happen if he chooses not to.”
Dr. Carlson has a lot of experience with people like your boyfriend — she used to counsel government personnel who had gotten themselves into financial trouble and were at risk of losing their security clearance as a result. “None of those clients wanted to see me,” she says. “They’d have their arms folded, chair pushed back. They’d say, ‘I’ll just do whatever you tell me,’ and not engage.” Rather than trying to win them over, her motivational tactic would be to invite them to leave. “I’d say that they were welcome to walk out the door and deal with the consequences — which would probably be that they’d lose their security clearance. Or they could stay and work with me. But they had to want to be there.”
You can give your boyfriend a similar choice. Either he stays and takes steps to get his finances organized, or the relationship ends. Of course, I hope he chooses the former, and putting your foot down if he doesn’t will be painful. So you need to be extremely clear about what you want. Faupl recommends saying something like, “I need for us to have more transparent conversations about money where you’re honest with me, because I don’t trust you, and here’s why.” That way, you aren’t shaming him — it’s about you, and what makes you feel safe. “Ideally, he’ll wake up and say, ‘This is really impacting my partner, and I want this relationship to work.’ But if he doesn’t, you have to set a limit,” says Faupl.
Much as I wish you were a gazillionaire, I’m actually glad that you don’t have the means to cut your boyfriend more slack. It would just enable him further, and burden you with more of his responsibilities. Instead, you need to pay attention to your instincts, which are good. If you don’t think he’ll be able to follow through with a plan, tell him you’re apprehensive. And for both of your sakes, stop bailing him out when he flakes on a bill he said he could afford.
You mentioned that your boyfriend is about to come into some money, and you’re nervous about how he’ll handle it. To me, this is a perfect opportunity for him to overhaul his finances. It’s hard to budget proactively when you’re unemployed and constantly feeling strapped, as he probably is now. But a sudden windfall is ripe ground for a fresh start. (And it also strips him of excuses for leaning on you when he comes up short.) Remember: Your role here is not to babysit him or his money — it’s to tell him what would make you feel secure in your future with him.
I hope your boyfriend can find it in himself to earn your trust. But if he can’t, you’ll be much better off breaking this cycle.