Dear Aunt Acid,
I am a young woman in a committed live-in relationship with a man who is great and supportive and whom I love very much. I was helped onto my feet after college when I gained control of a small trust fund that my parents and grandparents had been building up since I was born. I know I’m very lucky to have a safety net, and I generally live within my means as a broke non-profit employee and plan to eventually use the trust for something Big and Adult like a down payment on a house. However, my partner hates saving, admits he has “no self control” with money, and prefers to spend his money as it comes. I know it’s his money and he should do what he wants, but it also frustrates me that he’d rather buy fancy food and go out all the time than plan for a future that doesn’t include panicking about being priced out of our shitty apartment every six months. How do I talk to a person I love about money when we both know that I’m only in my current, stable financial position because I got lucky and outside help?
Writing to a stranger for advice for the first time,
Trust Fund Baby
Dear Trust Fund Baby,
Remember that line that the Rubio Bot kept repeating at the recent Republican debate that got the candidate into so much trouble? “Let’s dispel with this fiction that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.” Well, let’s dispel with this fiction that you don’t know what you’re doing, money-wise, just because you “got lucky” and have a trust fund. You say in your email that you “generally live within [your] means” and that you look forward to using the cash that your parents and grandparents squirreled away for you on an asset and investment such as a house. Congratulations, my friend: you have earned your Financially Savvy merit badge. I’m not kidding! These may seem like basic, no-brainer decisions for you, but they’re not. Indeed, your partner’s less-savey, more-spendy approach is an example of how many people do money.
Impulse control is difficult. What you’re doing – getting a job and keep it, putting cash away for the future rather than exchanging it a quick hedonistic rush in the now – can be hard. Rather than undermining your confidence in yourself because you’ve been lucky and had some help, give yourself some praise. That kind of self-care, of recognizing and appreciating your own value, doesn’t cost a dime.
So, now, how do you talk to your partner about something this important? Frankly. If you’re going to have a future together, he needs to be more mature about money. Suggest that he start reading some accessible personal finance sites like, oh, I don’t know, The Billfold. Tell him you’ll be happy to discuss strategies at length to find ones that he’s comfortable with, to see a financial planner or advisor together, and/or to be patient as he figures out how to do better — as long as he agrees to try and do better.
And remember, there’s no one perfect way for couples to merge assets. A system wherein you retain largely separate accounts might end up working for you; or maybe a system wherein much of your income goes into a communal fund, but each of you retains a certain percentage to do with as you will, and you can be an ant with your Fun Money and he can be a grasshopper with his. What never works, though, is a system wherein each party is frustrated with or secretly resentful of the other. You have to be able to communicate about things that are this important. It’s part of learning to Adult.
You seem to feel a little guilty about your good fortune, and you shouldn’t. Some people are lucky and some aren’t — it’s what we do with our luck that counts.
Just my two cents,
Dear Aunt Acid,
My sister has been married to “Bill” for three years. My parents and I have been wary of this guy for a long time, to say the least, but so far things have been okay and they seem happy. Now I’m starting to get worried. Bill is a talented chef, but can’t seem to hold onto a job. He’s had at least 15 jobs in the past three years, all for about three months until he’ll abruptly transfer somewhere else. For the past five months, he seems to have given up. He’s home all day smoking weed and playing XBox while my sister works her ass off to support them on her modest nonprofit salary. He’s not out there looking for jobs in other industries or any alternatives, even just bagging groceries to help support them. His only idea is a far-fetched plan to start his own weed distribution company when the state legalizes medical marijuana in 2018. My sister swears she’s okay, they’re okay, but evades questions about him or gets defensive when offered help, and seems exhausted and sick a lot of the time. Bill may be legitimately depressed and need help, or he may just be a deadbeat who is using her. Either way, it’s been torture for me not to get involved and try to help her in some way. How can I be of help without butting into her marriage and having this backfire?
You can’t. Not really. I’m sorry: I know you want to be Anna to her Elsa and ride to her rescue, but it’s not your place, and through her actions your sister is making that very clear. People can’t save other people who don’t want to — and aren’t asking to — be saved.
There are some relatively small things you can do, though, to let her know that she can always rely on or turn to you, should she need to. You can keep your ears open, listening sympathetically when she talks to you about her troubles, and your mouth clamped shut on any criticism of her domestic arrangements. You can make it clear through your own actions that you are less interested in judging her than in supporting her. If you have some cash to spare, you can give her a material assist in ways that don’t ding her pride—like a Trader Joe’s gift card or an offer to pick things up for her at Costco. If you don’t have cash to spare, you can make concrete, specific suggestions of things you’d be happy to do that might make her life easier, like helping out with yard work or taking some clothes to the laundromat for her.
If you manage to do this while still treating her as an equal rather than as an invalid or a charity case, it will help her to let her guard down around you, to see you as an ally, and make her more likely to confide in you should something serious go wrong. Whether she makes that choice or not, this is her life. Make that your mantra: this is her life.
As I tell myself whenever I consider a friend’s mystifying relationship, she must be getting something out of it—great sex, emotional fulfillment, or simply the satisfaction that a caretaker-type person derives from protecting someone who clearly isn’t able to handle himself: whatever it is, if it’s enough for her, it’s enough for her. She doesn’t need to justify herself to you or to anyone. Considering your own strong caretaker-type drive to protect your sister, I think you might be able to relate?