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Michelle Singletary

Lessons on finance, marriage the hard way

A reader had major reservations about how his girlfriend managed her money.

Robert Caplin/Bloomberg/File 2011

A reader had major reservations about how his girlfriend managed her money.

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.

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“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.

I suggested that they pull their credit reports and share them with each other. Same for their credit scores.

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 call 800-388-2227.

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 e-mail 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.”

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 at michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM).
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