Dear Wayne and Wanda,
My girlfriend and I met two years ago and have been together for a year. "Shelly" and I used to work for the same nonprofit. Now we have both moved on to other jobs. Mine is with another nonprofit. I love my work and I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's great to feel like I am making a difference in my community every day. Meanwhile, Shelly finished her engineering degree and got an awesome job at a big company that works the Slope. It was never a secret that Shelly made a lot more money than me. Mostly, this didn't bother me. We've never been into expensive dinners or big vacations. We like dive bars and Netflix, and the free things Alaska has to offer, like weird outdoor festivals and the gorgeous nature.
But for the first time, the money thing has become an issue. We are moving into our first apartment together and I can't afford a big rent bill. I've gotten by living in cheap places with roommates. I'm struggling as it is to break even and pay off debt with whatever's left over. Shelly wants to live downtown or in South Addition or Bootlegger Cove -- awesome areas but so expensive. She's also made it clear she wants a big cable package with the movie channels, high speed Internet, curbside recycling if it's available ... I told her I can't afford those zip codes. She said I can if I manage my money better. The fact is, I can't. And it's embarrassing to tell her I make so little. I'm not sure how we can move forward.
-- Signed, Broke Bloke
WANDA: I'm not sure who coined that phrase "You can't put a price on love" but you certainly can put a price on monthly living expenses, can't you? Rent, utilities and extras like cable and Internet add up fast, and few things create conflict between couples like overdue bills and empty coffers. Since you've agreed to cohabit, potentially embarrassing personal details like how much money you make are, sorry to say, no longer personal. You're about to depend on each other to make it month to month and you need to be completely transparent about finances.
Shelly's remark that you should manage your money better shows she may not be totally aware of your financial reality. That, or in her state of newfound wealth, she may already be growing out of touch with how difficult it can be to make ends meet. Sit down, discuss your finances, and talk about what you can realistically jointly afford. Smart finance people generally agree that no more than one-third of your take-home pay should go toward rent, so keep that in mind.
As a side note, Shelly may be more flexible than you think. With my last live-in man, I made more -- quite a bit more. So we split rent 60/40. I didn't mind paying more because we were in it together, and it seemed fair. Creative compromises like this could help you both reach a solution. Good luck.
WAYNE: Well, it's just like the great poet Christopher Wallace (aka The Notorious B.I.G.) said: "More money, more problems." Or, in your case, more money for your girlfriend, more problems for you!
The wise and wealthy Wanda certainly covered the possible solutions to your potential living situation, so I'm going to broaden this conversation a bit. Let's keep it real -- if you don't sort this situation out soon, the apartment dilemma will be the first of many money issues ahead for you and your lady. Next issue, vacation: You're thinking a three-day weekend in Talkeetna while she's dreaming of two weeks in Tahiti.
If you've been together for more than a year and are about to move in together, your trajectory is certainly heading toward long-term partnership/marriage. Now is the perfect time to have a real conversation your present and future. If you are to stay together and both remain happy with your respective careers and shared life together, this is how it's going to be: She's always going to make significantly more money than you are. Can you live the life you both want while working on separate ends of the financial scale? Can your pride handle it? Can she handle being the big breadwinner?
This can work. I know a handful of couples like you who have thrived -- the artist and the executive; the journalist and the marketing maven; the nonprofit lifer and the lawyer. All passionate in their careers and tight in their love and partnerships. I also know a handful of singles who would never get serious with someone far outside their financial brackets. Hope you have the talk soon and also hope it works out.
• Wanda is a wise person who has loved, lost and been to therapy. Wayne is a wise guy who has no use for therapy. Send them your questions and thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.