Not every child gets a trust fund. But each of us is heir to a certain set of abstract financial assets: a standard of living, an aspiration for lifestyle, mom’s savings philosophy, dad’s retirement strategy. And because money is more private than sex, one doesn’t always know how their financial habits measure up until they're face-to-face with the financial habits of, well, the person they're having sex with.
There’s nothing romantic about bills. But learning to navigate finances well and early — and to overcome differences in money values — can in many ways define the health of a long-term relationship. And there is no greater influence on our relationship behaviors than our parents, financially and otherwise, even if they were far from the role models we would have liked.
Here, 12 young(ish) adults describe how money works in their relationships, and what they’ve learned to do (or not do) from watching their parents.
My Prenup Will Be Air-Tight
My parents got divorced when I was really little, and my dad was in and out of my life for the next decade — until he started his new family and basically stopped talking to us ever. My mom just only recently finished her prolonged legal battle for back child support. For this reason, she has always impressed on me the importance of maintaining your financial independence, having your own emergency funds and investments, and not letting everything become tied up in your relationship. Basically, always have an exit strategy. I am getting married in the fall, and my fiancé is very understanding that we will have an air-tight prenup and maintain some separate accounts along with our common ones. It’s not personal. It's just about protecting myself, because my mom never thought her situation could have happened to her, until it did.
I’m a Gold Digger
F/28/In A Relationship
I won’t date a man who doesn’t earn at least twice what I do. I recognize this makes me something of a gold digger, but it’s a habit I can’t break. My mother was an artist who never made much money, but she was (and is) very beautiful, so she always dated and married very wealthy men. I am not an artist, but I love my $50,000-a-year job. In order to maintain the lifestyle I grew up with — vacations, nice dinners out, a general feeling of comfort about money — I find myself dating men who make at least twice what I do, often more. I am very squicky about money because my mother never had to think about it, and so I want the same.
My current boyfriend, whom I hope to marry, earns nearly $250,000 a year, and in many ways reminds me a lot of my father (my mother’s second of three husbands). It’s not that I don’t love the men I date, or am with them solely because of money. But it is a criterion they must meet before I can consider their other qualities, like being a certain physical type.
My mother was always madly in love with my father — right until she cheated on him with her now-husband. So I was not raised by a trophy wife and do not aspire to be one. I consider my boyfriend an intellectual and emotional equal, like my mother did with my father. I don’t emulate her Elizabeth Taylor–esque husband-collecting, but I do emulate her ability to never compromise what she loved to do, or work more than she wanted, by marrying well. I plan to do the same, and to never have to think about money.
I Was Alone in Picking Up Good Habits
Watching my parents sit down with each other at the end of each month to sort out bills, write checks, and track spending helped to instill the importance of having an egalitarian mind-set as it pertains to shared finances. I feel that my partner and I are truly "in it together" as far as saving alongside each other and planning for what we want for our future selves. Neither of us feels exempt from being aware of our finances.
Unfortunately, my siblings do not all share this mind-set. My sister is much less financially aware than I am, and despite being in a relationship for several years, is not terribly equal in terms of financial savvy and decision-making, and likely never will be. It made me realize that even setting a perfect example does not mean my children will inherit my good habits.
I Give Outside My Means
My divorcée mother is a shopping addict. Period. She would never admit it to anyone, and luckily she makes enough money that she is usually able to cover her ass, but she is absolutely addicted to shopping. She used to come home from “errands” with a wardrobe full of new clothes for me and my sister, and would buy herself so many shoes that half of them never even left the boxes. Her latest addiction is designer candles. On a recent trip home, I calculated that she has approximately $1,100 worth of French candles in the house right now.
I’m not a shopping addict, but I recognize that, in my relationships, I have a similar compulsiveness that comes out in gifts. I rarely spend on myself, out of a fear of behaving like my mother. But when I am with someone, I can lavish them with gifts, dinners, vacations, etc. I justify it with love for them, thinking that it’s selfless and healthy, because it’s not for me. But it's the same rush of shopping, and the same moment of joy, except it’s someone else opening the gift. On the bright side, I’ve started seeing a therapist and plan to have at least 10 sessions before I go on another date.
I’ll Never Marry
My parents had a terrible marriage, mostly because of my dad’s addictions — alcohol and gambling, mostly — which drained our finances. As a result, I will never get married. I simply do not want to be financially obligated to someone for the rest of my life. I can love forever without being legally tied to someone, because I don’t want that risk. I will also probably never have kids.
We Make Memories I Can’t Afford
M/31/In a Relationship
Growing up, my parents always took us on really nice family vacations, no matter how everything else was going financially. Some of my best memories are from beaches in the Caribbean with my family, and even though it was probably out of our budget several years. In my relationship, I am the same way. I’ve been with my boyfriend for five years now, and every year at least twice we have a nice vacation, either just the two of us or with friends. I’ve lied about how much money I had in savings or opened up a new credit card in the past to justify these trips. I know it’s a bad habit but it makes me feel close to my boyfriend like nothing else does, and I always tell myself I’m "creating memories," which don’t have a price.
I Pay So There’s No Discussion
I come from a background where chivalry and tradition are highly valued, and I often operate that way as well. It makes everything ridiculously simple in terms of paying for things. No you put in X amount and I'll put Y amount when we go out or buy something. Instead, there are three options:
1) I pay everything.
2) We split it evenly.
3) I pay and you put the tip in cash because I have none.
It's usually 90% option 1, 5% option 2, and 5% option 3.
It simplifies the transaction time, makes both parties look less petty over haggling for whatever, and opens up the opportunity for "I'll get it next time," and when that happens a balance is struck. The last thing you want to see on a date (no matter if it's a first date or with your life partner) is money being handled. It's an interruption. My dad always says that if the most important part of an outing with the person you love is the bill, you're doing it wrong.
I Gritted My Teeth and Told Him About My Loans
My mom is not exactly a shopaholic, but let's just say she likes to spend money. She doesn't tell my dad what her credit card bills are, so she has a few for Saks, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales. She hides them all and pays them off slowly. He's found out a few times, gets furious with her, makes her cut them all up, and pays her debt off whenever he gets, like, a bonus or something. It hasn't happened recently, but I've seen them get into pretty horrible fights over this, and it’s instilled in me a conviction to never do the same thing, and to be very open with my partner about my finances. I can feel that inkling to hide sometimes — I was hesitant to even tell him how much my loans were at first — but before he proposed, I told him just so he knew what he was getting himself into. And it’s much, much better that way.
I’m a Breadwinner With My Own Checking Account
When my mom remarried, she was incredibly protective of her finances and always kept them separate from my stepdad’s. She made sure that she had her own money so that she'd never have to ask "permission" from anyone to use her money as she wanted. I think how she spent money was a big issue with my dad.
In my own marriage, I have followed the example of her second one. My husband and I don't have a joint account. We do not have combined finances and neither of us feel indebted to the other. I never want to feel like someone owns me and so I am very cautious about how the finances get dealt with in my own marriage.
Another interesting carryover from my mom is that she was always the breadwinner in the family, as I am in my marriage. I watched my mom be the provider while also being incredibly present and loving. It pushed me to create my own career and life.
We’re Retiring Early
Even though my parents did not earn the same income, they were always very egalitarian (feminist?) about money. They worked together on everything from big purchases, like houses, to little ones, like the weekly grocery budget. They’ve always been extremely frugal, living below their means and forgoing temporary luxuries to have the life they dreamed of. They both were able to retire in their fifties and now live on a boat for half the year, while they rent out their two properties on Airbnb.
I’ve always had this approach to relationships, even in situations where my girlfriend and I did not live together or share finances. I’ve been Mr. Frugal, like my dad. In fact, my responsibility and caution with money has led to some breakups in the past, because my girlfriends wanted me to be more “spontaneous” and “fun” with my money, and wanted me to treat them to more and better things. (I distinctly remember one terrible fight over not going on a four-day destination wedding to Aruba for friends we hadn’t seen since college.) I was never willing to compromise.
Luckily, in terms of delayed gratification-based finances, I’ve definitely found my soulmate. My wife and I are now working to do what my parents did, and just bought our first property together last year after three years of marriage. We share everything, and consult each other on everything. In fact, it’s hard to get each other gifts and surprises sometimes because we are so open about our finances with each other. But it’s totally worth it!
I Tell My Boyfriends "No"
F/26/In a Relationship
My dad and stepmom are major fuckups who taught me what not to do. Dad and stepmom would ignore bills, not talk, and assume the other was handling the shit. They did not have a budget. To combat this, in my relationships, I make an effort to switch off who pays for what, and I don’t share bills.
But I’ve had boyfriends who have been eerily like them, including one who would take out extreme cost of living loans to get through bills and justify big expenses, ignore that he was living out of his means, and justify that his debt would be forgiven in a few years based on government service.
But luckily, my mom taught me the opposite, to be honest about finances. I've always had a frank I can afford this or I can’t afford this honesty with my partners. And I've dated around the money spectrum, from poor poor to six figures and way more than me, and generally once it's out there that one person can afford it or can't, we work out if it's worth us to split the cost differently, to be fair to both of us. Things like vacations, dinners, concerts, and what we do with our free time/hobbies is all dependent on who can afford what, and whether the other person has volunteered to pay if so; there is no gender-based expectation of footing the bill. Another mom lesson.
I Date Other Children of Divorce
My parents were in a bitter divorce battle for a good part of my preteen and teen years. Nothing was really off-limits as a weapon: petty custody, nonpayment of child support, constant degradation of the other parent in front of me and my sisters, the works. I was the oldest, and for several years would have to go to my dad’s house myself if I wanted to see him because my mother essentially painted him as an unfit father and tried to keep me and my little sisters away from him to get back at him. He responded by trying to keep every dime he could away from her. (He cheated on her and left her for the woman he slept with, which obviously sent my mother into a tailspin. Yeah.) I remember him once telling me that he would rather burn his money in her front yard than give it to her, not to mention calling her a “bitch” and a “bitter old hag” in front of me. But I still loved him, and honestly, my mom was almost worse, playing us as pawns.
Because of this I’ve obviously been extremely hesitant to get into relationships, and have almost exclusively decided I need to be with another child of divorce because I need whomever I’m with to understand the mental fuckery of having your parents use holidays as battlegrounds to pit their children against each other. But it also means that when I see a problem with finances, I address it right away so that it can’t fester and turn into something worse. I don’t share money, I don’t want anyone to pay for anyone else, and I don’t date anyone who has any problems with money management. I need a totally independent adult, and to remain one myself, so that if the worst happens (which it might), we can’t torture each other financially and destroy our kids’ childhoods in the process.
Want to read more essays from Inheritance Week? Sarah Hagi wrote about paying remittance. David Dobbs explained the genetic research industry’s exaggerated picture of genetic power. Susie Cagle wrote about the difficulty of selling her grandmother’s clothes and the worth of vintage. Syreeta McFadden reflected on what it’s like being brown in a world of white beauty. Sharon H. Chang wrote about society’s fixation with mixed-race beauty. AJ Jacobs wrote about planning the world’s largest family reunion. And finally, Rosecrans Baldwin wrote about reciting poetry at public gatherings, something he inherited from his grandfather.
Chelsea Fagan is a writer and founder of the blog The Financial Diet.
Contact Chelsea Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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