Michelle Singletary’s The Color of Money: Broke before lessons learned

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WASHINGTON — There are times when you’re right but you wish you weren’t. This is one of those times.

Ten years ago, a reader wrote to me ask­ing for ad­vice about his re­la­tion­ship with his girl­friend. It was near Val­en­tine’s Day, and he wanted to ask her to marry him. But he had ma­jor res­er­va­tions about how she man­aged her money.

“I plan to pro­pose to my girl­friend of a year and a half,” he wrote at the time. “Her spend­ing hab­its are out­ra­geous. She jus­ti­fies [the spend­ing] by say­ing she works two jobs and bar­gain-shops. She has more than 400 pairs of shoes, some she’s not even worn, and cloth­ing falls in the same cat­e­gory. There is al­most no room left in her home. I am the fru­gal one in the re­la­tion­ship, and I hope it’s be­gin­ning to sink in that she can’t spend the way she’s done in the past.”

He asked for my help. “What can I do to help her curb her spend­ing hab­its with­out mak­ing her feel bad or as though I am put­ting her down?”

I told him to hold off on the en­gage­ment. He had a lot of work to do be­fore hitch­ing his life to some­one he was con­cerned had fi­nan­cial is­sues, and in par­tic­u­lar to a part­ner not will­ing to ac­knowl­edge she might have a spend­ing prob­lem.

“Real­ize the two of you are a clas­sic case of money op­po­sites at­tract­ing,” I an­swered. “This isn’t un­usual. But hav­ing dif­fer­ent spend­ing styles that aren’t worked out can cause se­ri­ous con­flicts in a mar­riage. The im­por­tant thing is to ex­change your views about money be­fore you ex­change wed­ding vows.”

I laid out sev­eral spe­cific things he needed to do be­fore pro­pos­ing. I rec­om­mended that the cou­ple dis­cuss their ex­pec­ta­tions. He should ex­press his con­cerns. But I cau­tioned that the con­ver­sa­tion shouldn’t just be about her spend­ing. Oth­er­wise, things might get con­fron­ta­tional. She might be­come de­fen­sive. And fru­gal­ity isn’t al­ways good if the penny pincher is too crit­i­cal or judg­men­tal of a spouse’s dif­fer­ent money style.

I sug­gested that they pull their credit re­ports and share them with each other. Same for their credit scores. You can get free cop­ies of your credit re­ports ev­ery 12 months from an­nu­al­cred­itre­port.com. You have to pay for the credit scores, but it’s worth the money to check each other’s cred­it­wor­thi­ness.

I sug­gested that they seek pro­fes­sional help from a credit coun­selor who could pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about bud­get­ing and money man­age­ment. I even gave him the con­tact in­for­ma­tion to find a coun­selor: www.deb­tad­vice.org or 1-800-388-2227. (Still the same site and num­ber, should you be in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion).

I ended with this warn­ing: “You’re right to be con­cerned. It’s vi­tal that you ad­dress your fi­nan­cial dif­fer­ences be­fore you get mar­ried. After all, love does not con­quer all, be­cause it can’t pay the bills.”

Fast-for­ward to this month and I get an­other email from the same guy. He didn’t do any of the things I sug­gested.

“Your col­umn that Feb­ru­ary 8th was spot on and, al­though I read it, I didn’t fol­low it,” he wrote. “Thus here I am on the brink of fi­nan­cial ruin and a failed mar­riage.”

Some­time af­ter the wed­ding, he dis­cov­ered his wife owed $30,000 to the In­ter­nal Rev­e­nue Ser­vice. “While I al­ready had one mort­gage, I took out a sec­ond [mort­gage] in or­der to pay off her tax debt. Had I asked all the per­ti­nent ques­tions early on, I would have also dis­cov­ered [an­other] $15,000 tax bill from the city.”

Ear­lier this year, just in time for Val­en­tine’s Day, the Na­tional En­dow­ment for Finan­cial Ed­u­ca­tion re­leased a sur­vey that found 13 per­cent of cou­ples who have com­bined fi­nances have de­ceived their part­ners by ly­ing about such things as the amount of debt that they owe or how much they earn.

Th­ings have not gone well for the cou­ple in part be­cause of the lack of fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure.

“Here we are 10 years later,” he wrote. “The home I pur­chased, I now stand a good chance of los­ing by not ask­ing all the right ques­tions. I’ve put my fi­nan­cial health in a dis­mal, near-death state. This is not a good feel­ing, as I now also have a young child at home. Hope­fully, I will be able to save my home to the point where it can just be sold and I can be­gin to stop the blood­let­ting of my fi­nan­cial woes, and pre­pare for my re­tire­ment (53 years old) and her school­ing.”

It may not be too late to get help and save his mar­riage.

None­the­less, the reader wanted to warn oth­ers. He ended his up­date with this: “It’s my hope that oth­ers don’t fall into the same mis­hap I’ve put my­self into.”


Michelle Singletary can be reached c/​o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071 or at michelle.singletary@washpost.com


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