I’m getting married next fall to a wonderful man and father of two daughters from his previous marriage. He shares custody with his ex-wife, who is not my favorite person but a decent mom. I was never sure if I really wanted kids, but I really love both girls and I’m proud of the relationship I’ve created with them. I’m excited to become their stepmom.
My fiancé and I moved in together about a year ago and the girls spend half their time with us (the ex-wife lives nearby with her boyfriend). This is where things get a little hairy financially. We had to buy a bigger home because of the two kids, which stretched my budget a little more than I would have liked (we split the down payment, mortgage and utilities in half). Otherwise, we are both reluctant to pool our finances. My fiancé is still pretty traumatized from the financial toll of his divorce, understandably, and hates to talk about money. That leaves me hanging a lot of the time, when I don’t know how exactly to split costs when they include stuff like groceries for his kids. One of his daughters wanted me to take her shopping for back-to-school clothes, which was very sweet, but also … should I pay for that? (I did, and my fiancé paid me back, which also felt a little weird.) Keeping track of what I should pay for vs. him is also confusing.
From a monetary standpoint, my fiancé and I both make about the same amount (I make slightly more, but I also have less savings because I had student loans), and don’t have any debt except for our mortgage.
Anyway, how do people normally do this in a way that feels fair to everyone? I want to treat my soon-to-be-stepdaughters like my family, but they also have a mom who is supposed to pay for their stuff too, so I’m not sure where I fit in or what my obligations should be. We should probably see a financial advisor, but I figured I’d ask for broader advice, too.
It sounds as though you’re going to be a great stepmom already based on the questions you’re asking (and the fact that your soon-to-be stepdaughter wants to go shopping with you — the ultimate compliment). But still, the stakes are high: marriage, two kids, and a new house all in one year! I can understand why you don’t want to mess this up and need a solid plan.
That said, this will be an evolving process, and there’s no “normal” way to do it. Blended families are complex — there are a lot of ingredients in the mix. When I spoke to several stepparents about your situation, they all said some version of “Prepare to talk about it a lot.” In other words, it’s critical that you and your fiancé communicate well about money because there’s no way to anticipate all the challenges (and costs) that will come up. A plan is nice and all, but it won’t stand a chance if you don’t have the skills to confer and make adjustments as you go along.
“A lot of people don’t think about how stepparenting will impact their finances until they’re already in it, and that can be jarring,” says Cameron Normand, who offers coaching and support for stepparents and blended families (and is a stepmom to four kids herself). “My husband and I talked about all kinds of stuff before we got married, but it wasn’t until I actually had to deal with the reality of it that I was like, Wait a minute, what am I supposed to do here?”
This may not be welcome news if your fiancé hates to discuss money. He probably has good, divorce-size reasons for his avoidance, but the only way out is through. “It’s very common in blended families to have one partner who’s been burned financially in their previous relationship,” says Normand. But allowing money to remain taboo only fuels the discomfort, she adds. I always think of communication as a skill or a muscle; it requires training. And if you don’t use it enough, it atrophies.
This is where a professional third party — a couples’ counselor or a financial planner who has experience with blended families — may be helpful. (Several stepparents I spoke to said they went to couples therapy before they got married to sort through how they’d manage household finances with stepchildren.) I also recommend setting up regular appointed “meetings” with your fiancé to go over your household expenses (more on that here), which helps take some pressure off the topic.
Another way to neutralize money is to acknowledge the weirdness up front. “When you’re excited to move forward in a relationship, having uncomfortable conversations can feel like a step back,” says Ally-Jane Ayers, a certified financial planner and the owner of Brooklyn FI, a financial-planning firm. “But you can also use the discomfort as a stepping stone. Like, ‘Hey, paying for those back-to-school clothes was a little awkward for everyone. How could we make that less awkward in the future?’”
Which brings us to the more concrete part of your question: How do you break down who pays for what? “Every couple is somewhere on a spectrum between keeping their money completely separate versus pooling everything,” says Ayers. “You get to decide where on that spectrum you fall.” This is where you can be creative.
For blended families, it’s common to keep at least some money apart — and that’s totally fine, says Normand. She and her husband started out their marriage pooling everything, then decided it made more sense to separate things after all. They now have joint credit cards for shared costs but pay them out of their individual accounts. You could try something like that to start and go over the bill together every month to make sure you’re on the same page about what qualifies as “shared.” You could also have an additional credit card or account for kid-related expenses that your fiancé contributes more to or covers outright.
My point is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it. There’s a lot of gray area between what feels fair to you and what’s supportive of your fiancé and his children. You don’t want to overextend yourself or feel infringed upon financially, but you also don’t want to actively police the boundaries around what you’ll pay for and what you won’t. You’ll need to be honest with yourself — and your fiancé — about how you feel when questions come up.
It’s also important to consider your own budget. Are you comfortable with the amount you’re saving? Are you up to date on your emergency fund and retirement plan? What can you afford to contribute to your household costs after you’ve paid your bills? Once you figure out those numbers, you’ll be better equipped to discuss which costs you’re willing to share.
Remember, stepchildren shouldn’t feel like a burden. “You may love these kids, but you are not obligated to spend money on them,” says Normand. “Anything you do for them is because you want to. And if it feels comfortable and natural, then that’s great, but if it doesn’t, then you have to figure out what’s best for you and for your relationship.”
Normand also suggests coming up with a special thing to do with your stepchildren that you always pay for. “Look for a tradition or an activity that’s just yours,” she says. “For instance, I take my stepdaughter to The Nutcracker every Christmas. That bond is separate from money, but it still makes you feel like you’re contributing in a way that’s fulfilling.”
The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org