Dear Wayne and Wanda,
I recently graduated after earning my bachelors and then my MBA. It was a lot of school, and I had visions of landing my dream job – along with my dream salary. Not surprisingly, reality did not match my fantasies, and while I’ve found a pretty great job, I’m on a tight budget.
In the meantime, I’ve been dating “Mike,” who is a few years older, with a really good job and a salary much closer to the one of my dreams, as far as I can tell. We don’t live together (way too soon) and I don’t even have roommates, so in addition to the student loans, I’m learning to live on my own and pay all my bills with my less-than-dreamy salary – while trying to enjoy being with Mike.
The problem is Mike likes to live much more extravagantly than I can really afford. He likes to go out to dinner all the time. Usually he wants to hit the bars on weekends. And the places we go aren’t dives or diners, they’re higher end, with higher bills. And Mike never pays! He will only pay if I drag my feet about going and say I can’t afford it, and even then, after offering, half the time he appears to forget when the bill comes and he requests the waiter split it, and I feel cheap and embarrassed if I have to remind him so I usually just don’t say anything and pay.
Mike is awesome, but this relationship is bankrupting me and ruining my financial goals. I feel like I should just give up and find a guy who is broke like me. Advice?
Money is funny, honey, and not in the ha-ha way, but in the way in which it does weird things to our minds and priorities, and whether you have it or need it can completely distort how you spend it. Mike sounds like someone who lives comfortably and has a casual relationship with the good old American dollar. His spontaneous excursions seem to come from a genuine drive to show you a good time and hang out, without much brake-pumping for penny-pinching. This is so true that it doesn’t even occur to him that those around him aren’t able to operate with the same unhindered approach to the good life. You’re going to have to remind him. A lot.
Just because you guys are in different income brackets does not signal doom. But Mike’s used to living a certain way, and you’ll need to remind him repeatedly that you aren’t, and for that matter, can’t. If it helps, give him a rough draft of your monthly budget. Being so transparent with our personal finances can leave you feeling ultra-vulnerable but it will definitely hammer home your point when he sees what little disposable income you have for swanky dinners and cocktails.
As for the nights he volunteers to pay, but appears to forget, I understand why you’d just suck it up and pay, but there are more subtle ways to remind him of the agreement. When sensing the bill is about to come, take his hand and thank him again for paying. Or near the end of the meal, remind him of what an extravagance this would be for you, and thank him for so generously picking up the tab so that the two of you can enjoy a lovely night together. That should serve to remind him with eloquent clarity.
Oh, I remember the era of living the champagne and king crab lifestyle on a beer and ramen budget. Didn’t last long. It’s an early “adulting” moment when that first big old credit card statement arrives and lists 30 days of restaurant, bar, bar, restaurant, restaurant, bar, gas station, restaurant, bar, ski resort, ski resort bar, ski resort restaurant, bar, restaurant, grocery store, bar, etc. But I wasn’t about to stop going out or miss out on fun. I just had to be smarter and more disciplined about my party process. I quickly learned that even a baller on a budget can live it up without busting the bank.
First, friend/follow all of your favorite restaurants and bars on social media, then friend/follow any places that interest you or appear to be popular in town, and then even slum it up a little and follow some spots that you might initially cringe at, like chains, dives and really expensive places. If they have a website, visit and join their mailing lists. Suddenly, you’ll be delivered every daily, weekly and monthly food and drink special, every daily “Happy Hour” menu offering, and every upcoming event that includes free or cheap meals and all-day drink specials.
Next: go to Yelp or even TripAdvisor and search the area with key words like “specials,” “Happy Hour,” “cheap drinks,” etc. People have already done the legwork for you and they’ll share the gems they’ve found. Now, dig deeper into those menus. You’ll discover deals everywhere, including big bang for little bucks entrees and appetizer platters that, when split between two or three friends can be filling, affordable and fun to share. I bet even the fancy places that Money Mike likes have great deals if you look for them.
Time to explore: bookmark the bars that offer free snacks and food, or are situated near places that serve pizza slices, reindeer sausages or tacos. Take it from me: if you are industrious, you can easily eat a different dinner for a week or more in Anchorage without paying for a single bite of food while ringing up a diminutive drink bill.
You have your goals and your limits, and you should stick to them. And my approach may mean you meet up with Mike earlier or later than usual, and occasionally at a different place than the usual rotation. But if he’s into you, and you’re into saving, you’ll still be hanging out and filling your tummy without emptying your purse.