I’m poor. I’m the kind of girl who began working at a young age. Everything I have I’ve worked for, including my car and college. I like who this has made me. However, it has also made me a girl with student loans, medical bills, and a hefty monthly car payment, and since I chose to be a writer, my paycheck barely covers the bills. Then you have my boyfriend who comes from a pretty well-to-do family. Everything he owns was bought by his parents, and he just recently started paying his own rent. So how do I tell someone who has it all and has never had to experience any debt that I have debt? I’m also wondering when is the appropriate time to tell him and if it is even his business? I just feel like I’m lying, because it occasionally gets brought up. For example, one day I had a note on my computer that said “Pay DSL loan today” and he said, “What’s that?” and I grabbed the note, threw it away and said “Nothing.”
He recently started bringing up the marriage talk, which I also avoid. Of course, I want to get married and have a wedding with flowers and a kick-ass white dress, but that costs money. And I don’t have it. So I’ll say, “let’s just get married at the courthouse,” but that doesn’t really work because he wants a nice wedding.
How do you tell someone you’re poor? And should you even? — Confused-Ramen-Eating-Hopeful
First of all, YES, of course you should tell your boyfriend of three years, whom you are thinking about marrying and who is beginning the discussions of such a commitment, that you have significant debt. And in case you missed my column last Friday, your money situation isn’t the only topic you should be talking about with your boyfriend if you’re serious about each other. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised you even have to ask whether your debt is something you should mention to your boyfriend, and I’m even more surprised that you seem to think the cost of your wedding is the only reason — or at least, the only reason you mention in your letter — to broach the topic of your financial limitations with him.
A wedding is one day in the rest of your lives together. In the great scheme of things, it’s kind of not that big of a deal. It’s a party. After you pay for that party, you still have the rest of your lives to pay for. Don’t you think your boyfriend might want to know what kind of financial contribution you’ll be making to your marriage and family life? That’s sort of important. And if you’ve been together for three years, I’m willing to bet he has more than a hunch what your finances look like — especially if you’ve been weirdly secretive about it (like quickly hiding any information that might give you away).
Look, your debt doesn’t define you. You are not the number in your bank account. I understand more than you realize how scary it is to be the partner in a union who has a deficit — who is a financial liability, so to speak. It sucks. I’ve been there and it made me feel like crap. Sometimes it still does. But I also know that even if I am not making a big financial contribution to my marriage, I contribute so much in other ways, and on good days — which definitely outnumber the bad days — I choose to focus on those things. I’m a good cook, for example, and a good mom and I’m fun to be around and good at organizing both our social calendar as well as our kitchen pantry, and I make a kick-ass Bailey’s martini. I have enriched my husband’s life in many ways, even if I am not rich. And I bet you do the same for your boyfriend.
Still, just because you may be wonderful in lots of ways doesn’t mean you can avoid the topic of your debt. There isn’t an easy way to go about it, but you HAVE to have a serious discussion with your boyfriend about where you see your relationship going and what he needs to know about you before going further. Explain that you never meant to keep things from him but that you’ve been ashamed and scared to open up before now. Let him know you love him and it’s that love and faith in your relationship that’s prompting you to open up now. Tell him exactly how much debt you have and what your monthly minimum payments are. From there, you will decide together how you’ll manage that debt together should you decide to marry and merge your financial lives.
You and your boyfriend, should you guys get engaged, may have to sacrifice some of your ideas of what a “nice wedding” looks like. You may have to compromise on your ideas of a nice life, too. But when it comes down to it, it’s not the “stuff” that fulfills us and makes us happy — it’s the relationships we make and commit to. It’s the way we choose to fill our time. And it’s the contribution — financial and mostly otherwise — that we make to society in general and people we care about, specifically.
*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to follow me on Twitter.