Lauren: On the Money

You are not what you say you’re going to do. You are what you’ve done.

Vivian Chen Owls

When, exactly, is the right time to tell someone you’re dating that you’re in debt? Like, a lot of debt. The third date seems too early; waiting until you’ve moved in together seems too late. So when Jared and I started dating, I was deliberately vague about my financial situation for months, fearing that our fledgling relationship was still too young to survive the truth. How do you tell the person you’re falling in love with that you’re $40,000 in debt, especially when that person has a degree in economics?

I was never what you’d call a shopaholic, but I was extremely good at justifying things I couldn’t afford, like pastries, magazines, beer, and shoes. I was young! Being in fill-in-the-blank country, at fill-in-the-blank moment, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience! I could always make more money. Besides, I was studying travel writing. Becoming rich was not in my immediate future; may as well get used to being broke. When my purse was stolen in a bar, I lived off of my credit card until I could get a new debit card shipped to me in London. Every time I swiped my card, I got an uneasy feeling and swore that I’d get my shit together, soon.

Once you’re in a little bit of debt, it’s surprisingly easy to get in a little more. Over a three-year period I swiped my credit cards so often I could have paid for the wedding we are currently planning. That, on top of a $25k student loan. It took seven months of dating for me to fully realize what a hole Past Lauren had dug for Future Lauren. My debt wasn’t just my problem anymore; it was about to become Jared’s too. No matter how we handled it, my finances were going to affect us both. I felt embarrassed, guilty, angry, ashamed, but I still couldn’t bring myself to tell him exactly how much I owed. So he asked, straight up, because “if we’re going to be together, we have to talk about this stuff.”

There were tears (mine); there was shock (his). Admitting the number made it real and I smashed into reality. Yes, I could always make more money, but I hadn’t, and the flaw in my plan became painfully clear: you are not what you say you’re going to do, you are what you’ve done. It was a very quiet, very tense evening while we both thought over the implications of my confession. The next day, Jared sent me an email at work. I have been thinking, he wrote, and I am sure we can work it out.

We flew to Australia for a year and moved in with his parents. I took the first job I was offered, working retail at a surf shop in the mall. My manager was ten years younger than I was, but I didn’t care; I felt like I deserved it, this crappy job for which I was so overqualified. In my spare time I wrote poorly paid articles for online content mills. Every week, I paid down my credit cards. At the end of the year, I paid them off completely.

Buckling down and paying off my debt was the easy part. The hard part was watching Jared build his savings, which would eventually become our savings. To this day, a part of me struggles knowing that a big chunk of our house deposit came from that money he put away back in 2009, when I wasn’t contributing to the pile. Can I truly call that money “ours”? What did I do to deserve it? By the end of two years teaching in Korea, we had all but combined our finances fully and I was almost debt-free. Jared wanted to use his salary to pay off the remaining $2,000 on my student loan, and I balked.

“It’s not your problem,” I said. “I feel like I’m dragging you down with me.”

“It doesn’t matter which one of us pays it,” he said. “It’s our money now.”

We cleared the last of my debt over two years ago, but to say that I am completely at peace with money would not be true. I still carry residual guilt from the past; if anyone’s a financial liability in this relationship, it’s me. I worry that I’ll slip into my old habits, even though there’s no evidence that I will. Our house loan frightened me at first, because I was nervous about getting into debt all over again, even though it was on completely different terms.

But.

What we have built as a result of that time is so much stronger than I would have predicted. Sharing our finances isn’t about who earns more or who spends more; it’s about managing the whole thing together. It’s knowing that if one of us loses our job, we share the burden. If one of us wins the lottery? We share that, too. (What’s that saying again? Oh, right—for richer or for poorer. Makes sense now.)

Do we still argue about money sometimes? Sure. Am I still tempted by boots and baked goods? Of course, but now I understand the opportunity cost of instant gratification and the value of a budget. Back when I was fretting about telling Jared the whole truth, I imagined the worst. What I got was the knowledge that if everything goes to shit, we don’t quit on each other. And these days, when I buy a pair of shoes, I do it with cash.

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