Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“I’m Obsessed With The Debt I Bring to This Relationship”

Much money 07
I’m a 25-year-old woman and have been with my 28-year-old boyfriend for around a year; we have the most honest, open, and respected relationship I’ve ever been in and possibly ever seen. We do have one issue though: finances. My financial situation is this: I work a great job making above my city’s average wage and have a part-time job for extra funds, but between mortgage, utilities, student and car loans, I live paycheck to paycheck and can’t quite seem to get ahead. Owning my own house is very important to me as I want to start building equity while I’m young.

When I met my partner, I was aware that he was financially better off than I am as he has an exceptional job, but he lives modestly and is not an impulsive spender. We recently had an in-depth conversation about finances and, much to my surprise, finding out exactly how well off he is put me into a panic. Suddenly, the only thing going through my mind was how our being together was a burden on him. While I’m relatively stable financially in my own right, I do have roughly $30,000 in outstanding debt between line of credit, credit card, school and car loans, plus the house (which builds equity, so I’m not concerned about). On top of this, I’m crippled by the thought that I can’t now, or expect to ever, contribute equally to a future household.

In our conversations he’s been wonderful and understanding and has flat-out said that this is a non-issue for him. We talked about how we’d split household bills in the future when we marry or live together. I proposed we split things proportionally to our incomes, to which he disagreed, stating that at that point it’s OUR money and OUR life and it’s not fair for me to still not be living with the same financial access he has.

But despite all of this, I still have this nagging feeling that I’m bringing a burden of debt into our future. I’m starting to see that my independence on this issue is going to burden our relationship if I don’t learn to get over this and take the situation at face value. What can I do to help myself feel better about being the lesser contributor in the relationship? I feel ridiculous that THIS is the issue I’m stuck on, but I know I’m obsessing and need to deal with it. Any advice you can offer is appreciated, thanks. — Building Equity

I’m not going to give you financial advice because I’m far from a financial advisor, but I would advise you to speak with a debt counselor if you haven’t already. I’d be curious to know what such a person would say about buying a home in your early- to mid-20s without the ability to build up any emergency savings, let alone retirement savings, while working two jobs and living paycheck to paycheck. Since I’m not a financial advisor, I’ll stick with relationship advice and tell you this: You have more value than your monetary worth. You have more value than your debt and your equity, and you are not what your possessions represent. A person who falls in love with you sees you, loves you, wants you in his life and his future — not what you can or can’t financially contribute, not what titles or deeds you have to your name. Your boyfriend wants you. You — your smile, your laugh, your companionship and ideas and dreams, the way you care for him, the care you take in being a decent and loving person — all of this and all that you are means so much more to him than whatever his money can buy.

Maybe in addition to a debt counselor, you could book an appointment with a therapist to help get to the root of why you base so much stock in your financial net worth, as if the other things about you mean less. Your self net worth is comprised of so much, and only a tiny fraction of it — a fraction that most people don’t give a shit about, particularly someone who has a lot of money already anyway — is financial.

I was once like you, so I get it. I met my now-husband when I was well over 30K in debt (credit card and student loan), and, like you, I felt really freaked out by the financial burden I was bringing to the relationship. As we got more and more serious and talked about marriage, I couldn’t fathom how I would “make up” my deficit. We worked through that and I moved on and then I got pregnant and we decided together I would stay home with our baby (now kids, plural) and again, I felt a pang. What was my worth as a woman and a person if I wasn’t financially contributing equally to our household? I’ll tell you what my worth is: I manage our household and make sure it runs smoothly, happily, and successfully. I maintain order, I make sure everyone is fed and clothed and safe and nurtured and that our cabinets and our hearts are full. (I don’t do this all alone, of course, but without me life in this family would be very different. I’m the glue that holds everything together, and I work hard to keep it that way.) I contribute so much that I no longer measure my worth by the money I make, but by the care and love I provide to our family and our community and, in some degree, to society at large. (I do this by my work here, connecting people and advising when I can, and by spreading awareness of issues that are important to me, and in donating to charities that I value. And by voting! And volunteering!)

The best way you can get over measuring your self worth by your financial net worth is by shifting your focus and your energy. Instead of focusing so much on building equity, you could focus on building a community. Volunteer when and where you have time. Do kind things for others. Be generous. Share yourself — your time, your energy, your love. And when you do that, you will begin to appreciate how much that is worth. And if you don’t, then, again, I’d recommend therapy to address WHY you place such a strong emphasis on your monetary net worth instead of all the other aspects of yourself that are more valuable to the people whose paths you cross, including your boyfriend who is trying his best to assure you how much he values YOU.


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at [email protected].

28 comments… add one
  • Ale November 1, 2016, 9:38 am

    I’m on the other side of this, I make much more money than my boyfriend does, and have less responsibilities than him. He has to help his mother, grandmother and sister out and so contributes less to our relationship. Most of the time we go out to dinner I am the one who pays, also our trips are almost entirely paid by me, and I feel very guilty when I let him pay. But I stress so much over money because I want to own a house and with the spending I do now I can’t yet. And I know he won’t be able to buy one with me. I have to buckle up and that would mean that I would have to help him less. I hope this situation changes soon, because he is applying for a new and better paid job.
    I have to say that love sometimes is not enough, and finances need to be discussed thoroughly during a relationship. But if you’re not willing to listen to what he says then it’s not a discussion. I mean, he’s told you he’s fine and this is not an issue, but you won’t listen to that. He is willing to contribute more than you and you are not ok with that. Let him care for you.

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  • Ramen Dreams November 1, 2016, 9:57 am

    Don’t have much to add except it sound like you’ve got a thoughtful and generous partner! Best of luck to your future together. You should spend more time talking about your concerns and together you guys will be able to come up with a plan that will make the both of you happy.

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  • Andrea G November 1, 2016, 10:28 am

    “Financial Security” doesn’t just equal the amount of money you have. Think of how many celebrities who make millions and end up completely bankrupt. You’re BF doesn’t see you as a financial liability because you are smart about your finances. Someone making $50k while maintaining a savings account and 401k plan and following a budget is far less of a “financial liability” than someone making $100k and spending it all.
    I agree with Wendy, you should speak with a financial adviser. Owning a home is a good financial move but not when it’s at the expense of any savings. Just look to the housing burst a few years back.

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    • SpaceySteph November 1, 2016, 1:35 pm

      Yeah, LW is maybe placing too much stock in having a house. Having a house without savings is itself a liability. Home ownership comes with many unexpected expenses… like just yesterday I discovered that my AC is broken (luckily its October and its cool enough at night to sleep, not July when its 80some degrees even at night and too humid to open windows). Now it may be something we can repair ourselves for $50…or maybe we’ll need to get a professional out here for several hundred dollars worth of repairs… or maybe we’ll need a whole new unit for a couple thousand dollars.
      I’m not exactly pleased to have to spend this $ unexpectedly, but I am very lucky I don’t live paycheck to paycheck and can come up with the $. If not AC, then maybe it’s a plumbing problem or roof leak or the refrigerator dies (all of these have happened to us in the last 3 years, to varying levels of expense).
      Having an emergency fund is so important in general, but especially so if you own a home.

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  • snoopy128 November 1, 2016, 10:41 am

    Wendy, I just wanted to say thank you, again, for legitimizing the work the goes on to maintain a home. To make sure things run smoothly. This invisible emotional work is sometimes overlooked and undervalued and I love the way that you talk about it and give it the acknowledgement it deserves.

    And, as usual, I agree with this advice. LW, you are more than the money you bring into a relationship. Speaking to a financial advisor and a therapist may help you have clarity with regards to your financial situation and what you bring to a relationship.

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  • Janelle November 1, 2016, 11:13 am

    While buying a home is important I find that some people seem so wrapped up in doing so that it is to their own detriment. What if your furnace goes out or your car is totaled (insurance rarely covers it all). You may have equity but that does you little good when you would have to use all of it to cover any sudden expense. Some people are in a good position where a mortgage payment is less than or equal to their areas rent. If this is the case great. Otherwise it might not be the worst idea to stop the home owning obsession, pay down your debt, gain some liquid savings and purchase again in a few years when you are more stable. Perhaps doing so would also allow you to not be forced to work two jobs yet still not having extra. A lot of freedom could come from it. Just my two cents (which stem from my BF being in this exact position and very overwhelmed).

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  • bondgirl November 1, 2016, 11:31 am


    Your debt would probably only be alarming to your boyfriend if you were frivolously spending way beyond your means. But you don’t; hell, you took on another job just to HAVE spending money. Your boyfriend seems aware of your fiscal responsibility, despite your debts, and that’s probably why he’s okay with your situation.

    The only other thing I could offer to you in advice would be to look into some credit card options, aka those with low or 0% interest rates for the first 18 months, as well as reward points. Some of them offer cash bonuses for charging a certain amount within the first 3 months. If you pay bills with your credit card, that can help reach the bonus requirement and get you more reward! There’s all kinds of offers available, as well as banking option incentives. For instance, Chase has a great offer going on right now that you can get up to a $500 bonus for opening up a checking account with direct deposit set up, as well as opening a savings account.

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  • Vathena November 1, 2016, 11:34 am

    Also, if you and your BF are seriously considering building a life together, your current financial situation may only be relevant in the short term. Life is long. If you have good financial habits and values (spend less than you earn, pay down debt, prioritize saving) that is more important than the fact that you have student loan debt right now. You won’t have it forever. If you get married, you become a financial unit – more so in some states than others – and you work together to make financial decisions, pay down debts, purchase cars and homes. There are lots of hypotheticals that might help you take the long view. Are you going to limit where you can live by your income? What if you want to split everything in half, or even proportionally? Maybe you can only afford your “share” of the mortgage payment in a house in a crappy school district. Do you want to send your kids to bad schools because you are too proud to accept “help” from your husband? What if one of you is laid off, or gets sick or injured? What if one of you stays at home to take care of small kids? What if one of you gets a dramatically better-paying job, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in Bhutan? If you plan to spend your lives together, especially if it involves marriage and children, then you will have decades to make these kinds of decisions together. Your financial picture will look very different in 50 years.

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    • Vathena November 1, 2016, 11:37 am

      Also, put the shoe on the other foot. If your BF were the one in debt, how would it make you feel to know that he was stewing about being a burden to you and a drag on your future? If he thought you might be better off without him, when all you want is to enjoy life with him?

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  • Kate November 1, 2016, 11:49 am

    I agree that if this is bothering you so much – and yeah, it should, just for your own sake – going to see a financial advisor (get a recon from someone you trust) is the right first step. Buying a home before you have established an emergency fund, retirement savings, and the ability to keep contributing to those as well as pay down your debt, is a dumb move. Building equity is great, but not if you legit can’t afford your lifestyle. Sorry. A plan and a budget will do a lot for your peace of mind. And hey, if you marry this guy, maybe you sell your house and use the equity to pay off/down your debt or help pay for a new home, right?

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  • Holly November 1, 2016, 11:53 am

    I’m the “breadwinner” of my family. My boyfriend makes around $11/hour, I make around $25/hour. The mortgage is in my name alone. Once he is no longer paying rent on his apartment (working on breaking that lease but it’s taking time) he’ll be contributing around $500/month to our expenses, which is a little less than half. Right now he’s contributing exactly $150. And that’s fine. Granted, he doesn’t have debt outside his car payment, but he has so little income, almost no savings, and will likely never make much more than he currently does. And you know what? I don’t care.

    I really don’t. I buy him stuff constantly (it’s a love language of mine.) I don’t resent that almost all the bills come out of my check. It was like that before he moved in, so I’m used to it. I’m just glad he’s living with me, because I love him and the amount of happiness he contributes to my life more than makes up for it. I know sometimes it can feel challenging – once in a while he gets a bit down about not being able to help more – but think about it from your boyfriend’s perspective. Sometimes what you bring to the table OUTSIDE of money is worth far, far more than splitting the bills.

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  • KMJ November 1, 2016, 12:02 pm

    What a great response, Wendy!

    I will say, LW, you are just 25. That is a lot of debt, yes, but it is not unmanageable. I am older than you and considering marriage as well, so I definitely get that this bothers you and why.

    If I may, I strongly recommend that you look into this budgeting site and app called YNAB. I have used it for about six months and it has been completely life-changing. Before I started it, though, I was already working on paying off a credit card and did pay it off: $14,000 in six months by working extra and focusing on that goal like crazy. I believe it’s possible for you to whittle down your debt at least some before marriage and that could be a useful tool in doing so.

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      othy November 1, 2016, 12:23 pm

      I was going to suggest Mint.com – it’s similar to YNAB, but it’s free. I started using it about 3 months ago, and I’m now very aware where all of my money is going. The little things here and there add up quite quickly. Just by tightening my budget a little bit, I’m already putting a lot more money into my next home’s down payment fund.

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  • RedRoverRedRover November 1, 2016, 12:04 pm

    I have a feeling you’d be a lot more comfortable with your debt if you weren’t currently in over your head, financially. Maybe you are seeing your bf as a bit of a lifeboat, which makes you feel crappy because you want to handle this on your own, not have him swoop down and “rescue” you.

    To do that, you need cash flow. That’s your problem right there. You can’t control your finances without cash flow, because right now all of your money is locked up. It’s all spoken for, leaving you nothing to plan with. Your top priority right now should be to create an emergency fund. It’s a higher priority than debt, even, because if you don’t have cash flow and you don’t have an emergency fund, then as soon as you run into a problem you’re going to have to put it on the credit card. Once it’s there, good luck paying it off if your cash flow never increases. Do you see what I mean about being stuck? You’re digging a hole for yourself.

    Definitely talk to a financial advisor. Right now I can see a couple of obvious options. One is to sell the house, which I know you don’t want to do. But go through the work to see if it makes sense, so that you know it’s an option. How much did you pay for it and how much is it worth? Include the legal costs into what you paid, and consider the costs you’ll incur to move. If you’re going to take a big financial hit by moving so soon, then hanging onto the house may make sense. But if you keep it, you have to increase your cash flow another way. You’re already working a second job, so that isn’t an option.

    Have you considered making your house work for you? Use it to increase your cash flow. Can you get a roommate (or two) who will pay your mortgage for you, which will free up your own money to put into an emergency fund? You also need a maintenance fund btw, which should ideally be separate from your emergency fund. Build one first then the other. If you don’t think you can get a roommate, then could you consider renting out the entire house, and moving into an apartment for now? A year or two of that would give you a lot of breathing space. Meanwhile you’re still building equity.

    A financial advisor may have other ideas as well. And at the very least, you should be calling around to your creditors and seeing if they can reduce your interest rate, reduce your monthly payments, or both. If you let them know you’re struggling, they will negotiate with you to keep you paying. They don’t want you to end up in bankruptcy, because then they may not recover much from you. They’d much rather take less now and be assured that you’ll keep paying. That should be your very first move, actually. And then think about what you can do with the house. Good luck!

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    • RedRoverRedRover November 1, 2016, 12:09 pm

      Oh and while I agree with Wendy that there’s a lot of valuable unpaid work that gets done (mainly by women), I would be wary of using that to try to “make up” for your income. If you’re working fulltime and he’s working fulltime, you can’t take on all of the unpaid work even if you’re making less. In my opinion, in an equal partnership, both people should have roughly the same amount of free time, regardless of how much money each one is bringing in. So don’t think that because you make less, you have to do all the unpaid work as well to earn your keep. That’s not fair either. You both need to be happy, and if you’re working fulltime and doing all the work at home while he does none, you won’t be.

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  • csp November 1, 2016, 12:09 pm

    LW – there are two things that I will say.

    1.) When you have long term relationships, it is more important that you have the same financial mindset rather than who makes more or less. My husband and I have been married for 9 years and together for 11. Over that time, we have both made more or less money than each other. We have both made stupid mistakes that have caused financial blows and have had to depend on each other more or less. For example, my husband got in a car accident where he flipped his pickup truck that was paid off but when totaled, not worth a lot. So we had to take out a car payment we weren’t anticipating. Or once I made a financial plan with a huge error in it and we did a home remodel that ended us up in 10K in credit card debt. The thing about marriage is that you lean on each other through all sorts of stuff. I am saying that just because you have a different power dynamic now, doesn’t mean it will always be that way. The bigger issue is how you approach money and how you deal with conflicts with money and what you value. Do you want to save like crazy or do you value items over experiences. How do those line up? My husband and I also changed over the years so when we were in our 20s with no kid, we traveled every chance we got and could care less about our house. Now with a baby, we would rather spend money on home projects. We both are involved and check with each other regularly about purchases. Basically, you have to think of yourself as a team.

    2.) This may be a wake up call for you. While you have to be careful about comparing your financial situation to others, maybe it is time to look into your finances. A few years ago, I looked at every bill i had and worked at lowering them. I called the trash company, cable and cell and lowered all of them. I worked to use less electricity. We made tough choices and worked on budgets. Look at what you spend on food, booze, cable, cell phone. Is it worth doing a prepaid cell phone or setting a food budget. Making all purchases in cash or getting a roommate. I tell everyone I know that we are on a spending diet and most people are relieved to hear it. It has been a game for me to work with coupons and I moved our food bill from $250 a week to $100 for our family. Or we have left over parties with our friends where everyone brings their left overs of both dishes and hard alcohol (We call it iron chef). Or moving to cheap beer versus craft stuff. I even play a game where I try and walk places rather than spend gas. Even sell items on facebook yardsale sites or let go. The best way to feel secure in who you are financially is to really take control of your finances.

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  • Julie November 1, 2016, 1:01 pm

    I’m excited by all the good financial advice here, and I’d like to add another dimension about relationships. Balance. Many of us are raised to see “fairness” as defined by a 50-50 (equitable by the numbers) split. Among co-workers and siblings and peers this is a great way to start finding fairness, but in a primary relationship I’m given to a different test: is everyone getting their NEEDS met and a similar amount of their WANTS met? A balanced primary relationship has that needs/wants thing working…even if that doesn’t necessarily look like it if you wrote the numbers down.
    If your BF is getting his needs met (many of which may never be something you can put a dollar figure on, like a happy and peaceful home with thriving kiddos) and you are getting your needs met, trust that he’s telling you his truth that the bucks aren’t part of his calculation. Don’t let cultural definitions of fair define how you two find your balance of happiness!

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  • Ashley November 1, 2016, 1:56 pm

    It sounds like you could benefit from taking a gander at mister money mustache. It’s an early retirement blog, but he has several articles about money and it’s relation to your happiness, what your true needs are, and how society pressures us into making poor financial decisions. It definitely got me into biking to work, and eventually taking a work from home job. I was able to pay off one of my students loans entirely and now I am working on a down payment for a home. I have never made more than 14 an hour. It’ll make you take a hard look at your bills and you may find after you implement his ideas you are not so bad off as you think.

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    • csp November 3, 2016, 11:25 am

      Thanks for bringing up Mister Money Mustache. I have never heard of it and am now obsessed. Now I want to cancel cable, ride my bike, and not spend money. this is great and so true.

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    honeybeenicki November 1, 2016, 2:21 pm

    LW – what Wendy said.

    And Wendy, thank you. I think I needed to hear (read) this line: “I contribute so much that I no longer measure my worth by the money I make, but by the care and love I provide to our family” … I do not stay at home, but I’m used to working 2 jobs. This is the longest I’ve gone only working one and I’ve started to feel like I could be doing “more” financially. (Really – our finances suck, especially with child support and the fact that I’m the higher earner but a gov’t employee who doesn’t make a ton. But we make it work.) I need to occasionally be reminded that while I’m “only” working my one full time job, I am contributing a ton at home just by keeping it going and raising my son.

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    veritek33 November 1, 2016, 5:00 pm

    No one has mentioned Dave Ramsey’s financial peace, so I’ll throw it out there.

    I recently completed the 9 week class and was given a scholarship by a local church to do so. It’s christian based, but not super religious enough to make me uncomfortable. I think even if you’re not a christian you can get a good benefit from it. (It costs about $100 to take the class and get all the materials that you keep, and you can retake the classes as many times as you want for no additional fee.)

    In that nine weeks I’ve made huge progress – put my unemployment checks into savings while I lived on my severance, paid off a huge loan and 3 credit cards, got a roommate to help with house expenses, etc.

    I took a pay cut with my new job but I can do it comfortably because I’ve made so many strides financially recently. And if you have time, get a part time job. I work between 8-16 extra hours a week which is totally doable, and I keep one check a month for “fun money” and put the others toward paying off debt. I also moonlight as a freelance photographer and get some extra cash that way.

    I hate to say that unemployment/being laid off was the kick in the pants I needed, but it was. I’m now in a much better financial position than I was before the layoff and I’ve learned a few good lessons. Maybe look into Dave Ramsey classes or just get his books from the library. For me, they were super helpful and make a lot of sense.

    Getting out of debt is overwhelming but you can do it. Good luck.

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    • KMJ November 1, 2016, 6:39 pm

      Wow, @veritek33 , that is great that something good came from what seem like bad circumstances!

      I am trying to do the Baby Steps of Dave Ramsey too, but since I started out focusing on paying off debt, I am doing it out of order (and I did not take the course). I do think it’s a great program, though, and eye-opening.

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  • dinoceros November 2, 2016, 11:11 am

    As others have said, I don’t think money is necessarily what create incompatibility in couples. It’s how each person handles their financial situation. I think you do need to talk to a financial advisor. Buying a house where you’re at now financially seems like bad idea. So, I think you do need to get on a path where you are following actual and sound financial advice, rather than just checking off the “adult” check boxes. A person who lives in a studio apartment with IKEA furniture who has a savings account is as much an adult as someone who owns a house.

    It’s cool that your SO is fine with all this, but I could see this becoming an issue later IF you continue making somewhat poor financial decisions. You don’t seem clear on why exactly you are living paycheck to paycheck (whether it’s simply because you couldn’t afford a house yet or whether you’re spending more money than you should or your income is not as high as you think it is), so I think you need to get a better idea of what’s going on and what to do going forward. Because I would be cool with a partner with debt IF I knew they were going to be making good decisions.

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  • Ron November 2, 2016, 12:52 pm

    I don’t think she has a lot of debt. Student debt plus car debt plus credit card debt is less than the average college grad has as student debt alone and pales beside the amount borrowed for a mortgage. Student debt has slow requirement to pay back and if it is recent, the interest rate is probably quite low. She is paycheck to paycheck, because mortgage, tax, utility, and home maintenance costs aren’t cheap. The only somewhat unusual thing here is that after the 2008 crash that she is so sold on housing as an investment, but assuming she bought recently after the market crashed, she likely is above water and in decent shape there, as well. Nothing she wrote suggests that she can’t manage money or is a profligate spender. She plus bf are in great financial shape. She shouldn’t stress so much about this. In just about any relationship. one partner is going to be in significantly better financial shape than the other. Her bf doesn’t seem concerned about this so I think she needs to stop guilting herself about this non-problem.

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    • RedRoverRedRover November 2, 2016, 1:07 pm

      I agree with you on paper (just comparing assets to debits) but she’s working a second job to manage this and is still living paycheck to paycheck to manage this lifestyle. That’s why she’s stressing; she’s obviously overextended. She needs to get to where she has a buffer, at least, so that a single emergency doesn’t make it all come crashing down.

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    • Kate November 2, 2016, 1:19 pm

      The two things that stand out for me as her not being in good financial shape are living paycheck to paycheck and not able to get ahead. That suggests she’s not paying down her debt and maybe accumulating more, and that she’s not saving anything for retirement (she should start now) or emergencies. Not having an emergency fund can put you in a very bad position if something happens to your home or your car or yourself, you can’t pay for it, you go into more debt, etc. It’s not so much the amount of debt as that she’s not able to pay it down or save.

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    • dinoceros November 2, 2016, 4:05 pm

      As the others have said, the issue is that she’s paycheck to paycheck (not to mention, she already has a second job, so it’s not really possible for her to increase her income). That’s not a good thing. Having a house opens you up to many more possible emergency expenses. If my fridge goes out, then my apartment complex will replace it. If hers goes out, she has to buy a new one.

      I don’t know what her spending is like, and it might be that she’s super frugal. But buying a house without any savings and without buffer room in her income is really risky. I tend to think the responsible thing to do if you have so many bills that your income (which she says is above average and is from two jobs) barely covers it, then you find cheap housing with roommates or something. She could have used the money she paid down on the house to buy a used car without a car payment. Then she could save up money and be OK if an emergency arises.

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      • Kate November 2, 2016, 5:55 pm

        Right. First you save up enough for 6 months living expenses and start a 401(k). Then you can buy a house with additional money you save. With interest rates so low these days, you don’t necessarily need to put 20% down, but whatever you do put down needs to be separate from your savings, and you should be able to keep contributing to your retirement account and pay down debt. If you’re living like this, you can’t actually afford a house and should be living with roommates. If your debt continues to accumulate, that’s really bad and you need a program like people mentioned above, to get it under control.


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