You meet a boy. Suddenly everything makes sense, and you understand why people would ever consider getting married. You marry this boy. Before and after the wedding, over nearly two decades of wedded bliss, you discuss with the boy the potential issues surrounding the fact that you are in academics and will never make anywhere near as much as he does. Over and over you are assured that this is fine, that he is the primary breadwinner and that he wants you to pursue your dreams of teaching and writing.
Despite being not only in academics, but in the Humanities, for goodness sake, you are pragmatic and understand the importance of having savings, retirement, etc. Unfortunately, he does not. However, he has an incredible job with an even more amazing retirement plan, so you don’t bring it up.
I’m here to tell you to do something about it, and do something now. Stay on top of the bills. Keep track of spending. Make a budget and stick to it. Why? Not because he is hiding things from you (I mean, he might be, it happened to a friend of mine, but that’s a different story). Do it because this is a marriage, it is a partnership, and you should both be involved in the finances, even if he is the primary breadwinner. Yes, even if he is the primary breadwinner. Now, I am not talking about situations where you both keep your finances separate and agree to each pay portions of the bills. Or where one is responsible for bills x, y, and z and the other is responsible for bills a, b, and c. This is a perfectly fine setup for day-to-day and month-to-month. (Truth be told, however, you want to be on top of it even in this situation because being married means your credit could be impacted by your spouse’s actions).
Unfortunately, my soon-to-be-former spouse is a spendthrift. He always has been. No matter how much he or we made, what promotion he got, what wage increases he was given as he changed jobs, we would still often come up short at the end of the month. Every now and then my credit card would get declined at the grocery store. I consider myself fairly frugal, and watch my spending, especially when I notice money is tight. I want to make sure there is something left at the end of the month. Still, there almost never was. When I would ask him how this happened, it was always a vague “you know, bills and things”.
I never did stop to look through the accounts and see exactly where everything was going, telling myself that maybe I was just miscalculating and needed to be more careful. I’m not saying he was gambling it all away or anything. He just doesn’t think when he spends money. So seriously, sit down and make a budget with your spouse. Make sure you both stick to it. If one or the other of you can’t, then enact some kind of allowance to help keep each other in check. This sounds harsh, and like you’re treating them like a teenager, but realistically, this is going to hurt you both in the long run if you cannot keep your spending in check.
Also, seriously, keep track of your retirement options. Start saving early. Save as much as you can. I know, this is exactly the boring crap your family and econ professor told you, but I mean it. I am 40. I have almost no savings and zero retirement. That’s right. ZERO. Why? Because my beloved/not beloved decided to clean out his 401k or whatever it’s called and put it into a more fluid account. Initially I agreed to this because we had a few serious emergencies that required attention, but, again, we set no parameters regarding what would happen after those particular fires were put out. So what happened? He just kept spending it. Sometimes on important things, sometimes not. And I, stupidly, didn’t ask him and didn’t keep track. So it went from a six-figure cushion to a few thousand dollars at last look. . . but that was several months ago, so who knows what it’s at now.
You’re probably reading this, thinking, “Holy crap? I thought this chick was smart or something!” Frankly, at first I wasn’t overly worried, because he had a great retirement plan with his new job, and I knew he would build it back up quickly. And yes, I feel stupid and a bit ashamed that I let this happen, but it did, and now I have to deal with it.
So, take a leaf from my book, and be involved in your finances, especially the savings. It’s essential. You never know what may happen. Your spouse may die, he or she may get injured and no longer be able to work, the industry may crash and he or she could lose his or her job, or in my case, your spouse may decide he doesn’t love you anymore, on top of being a spendthrift and you could go from thinking you have a solid cushion to retire on, when in reality, all you have is half a ply of toilet paper.
This article is part of a series that chronicles the real life journey of Lillian Epps, a woman navigating a recent divorce. The stories are real. The names have been changed. Photo by norwood.