Dear Penny,

I’m a 35-year-old female who’s divorced, and my boyfriend is 38 and never married. We’ve been dating for two years, and it’s been wonderful. Recently, we’ve been having talks about our future, but money is a bit of a hang-up for him. 

He makes significantly more than I do (between four to five times as much), and he worries that my low income means I’ll be a burden on him when we get older if we decide to marry. The way I see it, I am very responsible with the money I do make. I don’t have any debt, and I pay all my own bills. 

I’m not asking him for anything, although I do understand that at this rate my retirement savings will be meager while his will be substantial. That could lead to problems if he wants to travel and not feel bitter about having to pay for me for everything later on. 

Do you have any advice for us? This is one neither of us knows how to navigate.

-R

Dear R.,

It’s been a wonderful two years. You’re talking about growing old together. Then the conversation turns to how little money you make and how you might be a burden to your boyfriend later on.

That doesn’t sound wonderful to me. That sounds cruel.

Discussing how you’ll split the bills is a vital conversation if you’re merging lives. Some couples choose to keep their finances completely separate, and that’s OK.

But you’re not ready to have that conversation yet. That’s because of a problem that, at least as you’ve described to me, exists entirely in your boyfriend’s head. It doesn’t sound like there’s a concern about whether you can afford a life together. He has no reason to worry that you’ll run up debt or drain his bank account. Is he seriously worried that the bitterness he’d feel over money would overshadow his happiness should he build a life with you? You really need to establish that now so that you can move on if the answer is yes.

Most couples encounter this situation to at least a degree. Few people will marry someone whose salary is identical to theirs for their entire careers. You’re marrying a person, not a paycheck.

Paychecks change. There’s no guarantee your boyfriend will always be a high earner. And just because you have a low income at 35 in the midst of a pandemic doesn’t mean you’ll always have a low income. That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with not having a high salary. But I don’t want you defining your potential by what you earn right now.

Life can also change. What if the two of you married and he got sick, so you had to become his caregiver? Would you think of him as a burden then?

Ultimately, this is your boyfriend’s hang-up. You’re living within your means. There’s nothing wrong with you just because you can’t afford to live within his means.

Is he willing to shoulder a greater share of the bills for the privilege of building a life with you? Or is he willing to adapt to your more frugal lifestyle so he can have the peace of mind of knowing he never contributed an extra cent? His call.

But the control factor also worries me here. If you got married and he paid most of the bills, could he still approach this as a true partnership of equals? Or would he make you feel like a child asking a parent for allowance money?

One thing I have to wonder about based on what you told me is whether this is about money at all. Imagine your salary were to quadruple tomorrow. Do you think your boyfriend would be enthusiastic about your future together? Or do you think he’d find another hang-up?

For some people, money is very much a dealbreaker. But other people get really antsy when they start talking about the future. So they look for a dealbreaker — any dealbreaker — to make you think that you’re the one with the problem, not them. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case here, but it’s fodder for you to consider. You need to know if you’re dealing with a cheapskate or a commitment-phobe dressed in a cheapskate’s clothes.

It sounds like this is a topic the two of you have been dancing around for some time. This is going to require a brutally honest conversation. Your boyfriend needs to decide whether he  can treat someone who makes way less than he does as an equal partner and back it up with action. Until then, any discussions about how to handle finances are premature.

This may be a painful discussion. You may not like the answer you hear. But I suspect a likelier outcome is no answer at all — just a bunch of hemming and hawing. If that’s what you get, then you have your answer.

Your value goes way beyond your salary. Please don’t waste your time trying to build a future with anyone who doesn’t recognize that.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].

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Source: thepennyhoarder.com