Ask Polly: My Husband Can’t Handle Money, and It’s Ruining Our Lives!

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Photo: Jami Tarris

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Hi, Polly,

My husband and I have been together for ten years, married for three. We have a 9-year-old son. If you do the math, we were together for about five months before “Oh hey, baby on the way.” We survived unexpected, unplanned pregnancy, our son’s infancy and toddlerhood, postpartum depression, and not-quite-abject poverty (we live in North America; poverty is relative) while we both finished our post-secondary education before deciding that, yes, we still liked each other and could be married and, yes, we could make it through anything. We are in love with each other, deeply connected, and even though I’m about to do some serious complaining about him, there’s no one I would rather spend time with every day than him.

Here’s the thing. He suuuuucks at dealing with his shit. Like, Adult Life shit. For years, until I got sick of it, I made all his dentist appointments (we have the same dentist) because I knew he just wouldn’t get around to it. I do our taxes. I know when all the school events and baseball games are and when we need to send money for field trips. This is mostly fine, because the balance of effort feels equal to me. He does all the housework I hate the most, and he gets our son to school on time every morning, and we readjust as necessary when one of us feels overwhelmed or gets sick.

Except there are some things I literally and legally cannot take care of for him. Like dealing with his student loans, which is the source of the current issue. He just … never set up a payment plan, or he didn’t make consistent payments, or he didn’t apply for repayment assistance, and he ignored (?) my daily reminders that I sent him for six months (before just saying “Fuck it” and giving up, and not wanting to ruin our otherwise good marriage with nagging). Soooo last summer, they started garnishing his wages. Thirty percent of each of his paychecks (after regular deductions) now goes to the student-loans collection agency. He has a decent job with a decent wage (for where we live), but even though he’s been there now almost seven years, he only works 20 to 30 hours a week. Losing 30 percent of his income has majorly impacted our way of life. I feel like we’ve taken a huge leap backward, and this past year has been hell for me, because most of the financial responsibility now falls on me. I also have a good job and great salary, but we live in a city with one of the highest costs of living in the country, so it’s really tight.

I didn’t get mad at him when he told me this was about to happen. I knew it would! I knew that the only way for him to realize how serious it is to “take care of your shit” would be for him to deal with actual consequences, and I knew that it would impact the whole family. I didn’t even say “I told you so.” But I thought at the time (and he said at the time) that he would find a second job, get us more income to make up the difference … y’know, like a normal person would do. Like I would do if it were me. Take responsibility. Polly, the only jobs he’s applied for in the past year are the four that I submitted his résumé to on his behalf, out of desperation! I decided to not reinsure my car — to save us money. I canceled our third-party life insurance — to save money. I switched our internet provider — to save money. I cashed in my savings bonds — because we needed the money. I arranged to make lower payments on my own student loans — to save the money. I even worked a second job over Christmas, just to have a tiny bit more money during the holidays. We have a lovely landlord who is okay with me paying rent half at a time, twice a month, because I just can’t do it all at once. We’ve also entered a debt-management program (because I made us the appointment and told him which day to book off work), which thankfully has rescued us from a bunch of consumer debt, but it’s just started and we have a long way to go.

It sounds like I’m score-keeping, and I’m trying so hard not to. I’m trying so hard to be patient, and kind, and supportive, and make good suggestions without being pushy. I know he feels like shit for letting this happen, and when he’s depressed he loses his sense of ambition/faith in himself and psychs himself out of even applying for jobs, but he won’t even take half an hour to write down a few things he would just like to have in a new or additional job. I can’t pressure him too much, because I’m trying to maintain a basic level of household peace while also keeping all my own shit on track while also answering my son’s incessant questions about “when can we get this or that expensive snack/new bike/soccer camp/shoes that aren’t from a thrift store?”

And I’m not doing the best job I could do. I’m not super-great with money, especially less money than we need. I make budgets but don’t always stick to them. I can’t go to Costco like everyone and their dog suggests — I have no car right now. I sometimes get really frustrated and yell and scream at my son because he’s asked again for me to buy him Minecraft or because he ate all the cereal in one sitting and it’s still ten days before payday. Or I get really stupid drunk, like I did in September — then blacked out right after trotting out the D-word (divorce). I try to tell myself that nobody is perfect, and that no marriage is perfect, we all have our ups and downs and this won’t last forever … but then I realize it’s going to last another 14 months and I think he has to try to find more work, right? I mean, what even are my options? I’ve exhausted every single resource I have. I barely sleep, eat once a day, bike to work and everywhere else, and don’t have the capacity to work 12 hours a day. Even if I wanted a divorce (which I don’t! I want to keep my family intact!), I can’t afford to leave.

I’m completely at a loss. I’m tired of asking our moms to help us with groceries. I’m tired of panicking every time we get a bill. How do I survive another year of this? How do I get him to (want to) take care of his shit? Is there even a point? Am I fooling myself into thinking it will get better, or is this just my life now?

Too Much Shit, Too Few Dollars

Dear TMS, TFD,

When you’re still young and single and married people tell you money issues can sink a marriage, it sounds absurd. Make more money, dummies! you think and blow your last $7 on a frozen-coffee concoction with candy on top without having to answer to anyone for it. It’s like hearing “Stress is terrible for your health!” when you’re a kid. Why don’t you stressed-out adults just relax then? you think, as you make your third mud pie of the day, the 6-year-old’s version of a day spa.

As it turns out, though, most people range from Almost Okay With Money to Absolutely, Horrifically Bad With Money. And when you pair one Reasonably Halfway Decent With Money person with one I Behave As If My Lifelong Dream Is to Go Bankrupt person together, what you have is two people who want to murder each other in their sleep. Hell, even one Great With Money person pairs pretty badly with a Not Completely Terrible With Money person because there are endless ways to fuck with each other just by being yourselves. She believes in saving up, you believe in seizing the day. He believes in fancy vacations, she believes in parking illegally, then losing all of her parking tickets until her car is booted or towed.

What you don’t know when you’re young and single is how personal it feels to live at the whims of someone else’s bad habits. It’s like riding in a car when you suspect the driver has a deep desire to steer off the nearest rocky cliff. It almost feels like abuse or emotional terrorism. And the weird thing about people who handle money carelessly is that they’re usually pretty fucking defensive about it. You can say, “You spent $250 in late-payment fees alone last month, at a time when we’re eating baked potatoes for dinner every night!” and their response is, “Whatever, it happens.” What can you say besides, “Gosh, that’s interesting, because it never happens to me!”

See how there’s always a comparison involved or at least implied? “You are bad, and I am good. Why can’t you be good like me?” But what else can you say when you’re suffering and the person who could limit your suffering refuses to even acknowledge his problem? Staying in that place is the worst possible thing for a marriage, and it can kill a marriage very quickly.

But once you’re married and you have a kid together, you can’t just sit back and watch someone fuck up his life flatter than hammered shit as you say, “Well, he’s about to learn his lesson.” Because he’s not the only one who’s getting punished now. You’re suffering, and your son is suffering, and honestly, this was avoidable. You should control the family’s finances 100 percent. I’m also confused by your assertion that you literally and legally can’t pay his student loans. Ask him for his log-in information and the year his mother was born, and fucking deal with it.

You also take time to explain that you didn’t even get mad at him or say “I told you so,” as if this makes it clear that you’re still a good wife and not a nag. And you “sent him daily reminders” but then “gave up because nagging was sure to ruin our marriage.” You drove yourself half-insane over this, and now you’re losing sleep and yelling about divorce when you’re drunk, all to sidestep the possibility of nagging him?

Have you ever met a married couple before? Nagging is the weather system of a marriage. When there’s a big uptick in nagging, that sets off a tornado-warning siren and you both have to sit down and admit your weaknesses and make a new plan that plays to each partner’s strengths. Marriage is not about one person controlling herself so she doesn’t sound like a bitch. The woman who will stand by and let her world implode just to avoid sounding like a bitch is the woman who will become the biggest bitch in the universe eventually, because she swallowed her anxieties and fears and never said a peep and it slowly but surely destroyed her.

You can’t live that way. You need to speak your mind. Get practical, for fuck’s sake. Learn to say things like, “Look, this isn’t working. We have to fix this now.” Because it’s not just his problem. You are also an adult, and you are married. It’s your problem, too. It doesn’t sound to me like your husband is smoking bong hits under the covers all day. He just avoids ballooning problems. Yes, that is enormously frustrating, but it’s not an uncommon phenomenon. Based on the experiences of the women I know, many men are massively avoidant and bad with money, and when things start to go wrong, they get secretive about it. It’s hard not to treat it like a massive failing, but it’s a common trait that needs to be discussed openly instead of catastrophized. But blaming your husband after the shit comes down, then making rash decisions and blaming the fallout from those decisions on him, too, only makes things worse. Canceling your car insurance and life insurance isn’t practical because it opens you up to further financial disaster. It doesn’t sound like getting rid of your car is very practical, either. I know you feel like you have to do something, but it seems like you’re making arbitrary, somewhat illogical decisions in a vacuum, informed only by panic and anger. You watched this boulder rolling toward your whole family but somehow you wanted it to come, so your husband would learn a big lesson. And all this crisis did instead was increase his self-loathing and make you more furious and fuck with your marriage even more than nagging ever would’ve.

You have to resist the temptation to shame yourselves and each other because, God forbid, you are both messy and incomplete and bad at some things, like every other human being alive. People say marriage is all about communication and commitment, but 80 percent of the time, marriage is all about finding some pragmatic way to work around both of your flaws.

I get it, and I do empathize with where you are. But here’s an intense but unavoidable thing about marriage: Sometimes you have to grab the fucking wheel and steer it away from the rocky cliff, for everyone’s sake. A marriage isn’t a loose, easy, “You deal with your shit, I’ll deal with mine” arrangement. In cases where the I’d Secretly Love to Lose Everything partner is screwing up, demonstrably and repeatedly, the I Am Sporadically Not Terrible With Money partner needs to take over. It’s simple. If someone keeps dropping the baby down the stairs, that person isn’t allowed to hold the baby anymore.

When I met my husband, he was 41 years old and he had zero assets. I couldn’t understand how he had managed not to save a single penny along the way. He and his ex both had good jobs and they had no third-party life insurance and their 8-year-old had no college fund. Soon after we got married, I realized that my husband accrued late-payment fees on his credit cards month after month. So I used money I’d saved to pay off all his credit cards, figuring it would come out in the wash eventually. Then he got into more debt. At one point, he discovered that he had a small credit-card balance that he’d forgotten about and neglected to pay for a year, and he hid it from me because he knew I’d be a bitch about it when I found out. That was a crisis in our marriage. Because as long as you’re actively hiding shit from each other, and letting resentment and lies pile up along the way, you’re basically eroding the good will at the center of your union.

We talked about honesty a lot after that. But the financial side of things seemed obvious: He was dropping the financial baby down the stairs, and he knew it. Meanwhile, I love spreadsheets and numbers and sort of savored the idea of being empowered to handle all of our money, even if that meant I’d also have to absorb most of the financial stress during lean times. So I made lots of spreadsheets and budgeted and delivered my self-righteous lectures about how I was saving us both from financial ruin.

I am not the most pleasant human to link your fortunes to. I’m not perfect with money, either. And I still get mad at my husband sometimes when he doesn’t handle the one small financial thing I asked him to handle. But here’s a sad truth I’ve learned in ten years of marriage: Some people forget everything, always, and yelling at them doesn’t change a thing. My husband has elaborate calendars and alarms, and he does a lot of stuff, between his very demanding job and the kids. He does a lot of housework, too. At some point, I had to forgive him for his absent-minded-professor routine and he had to forgive me for being a shrill know-it-all. We’ve learned to roll our eyes and get over it instead of losing sleep.

That’s how stress and personality differences and huge life crises get metabolized in a halfway healthy marriage. You talk honestly, you strategize, you make a new plan, it fails, you bitch a little, you talk some more, you come up with a new plan, you mock each other, you laugh, you drink a beer, you say “We’re both so fucked,” and you go to bed and sleep soundly at night, knowing that your new plan will very likely fail, too.

You have a habit of bottling things up and then exploding. Instead, you need to speak up honestly, now and tomorrow and forever. You need to be vulnerable and say things like, “I am so stressed out over money that I feel sick.” You can say this whenever you feel it. That will free up some space for him to air some of his shame around feeling depressed and avoidant. Tell him that you want to forgive him for this mess, once and for all, but he must work full time. Don’t talk to him about things he might sort of kind of want to do, or mail out résumés for him. Talk to him about what he can do right now to help dig you guys out of this shit. Tell him he needs to rally.

Your husband sounds depressed and needs to see a therapist. You guys should probably see a couples therapist at some point. Research and meet with some people and explain your financial situation. If you don’t want to do that, then you need to sit down together and have your own impromptu therapy sessions. Maybe you both need to cry, or admit that you’re furious. He’s probably mad at you, too, even though he also feels incredibly guilty. That’s a lot to carry around with you.

It’s time to admit that you both fucked up in your own ways. You have to be honest, but you also have to believe that you can make it through this. Your underlying fixation on divorce and on seizing control of the situation even when it means making rash decisions in a vacuum amounts to escapist thinking. That’s you refusing to work with what you have, refusing to engage, refusing to take responsibility for your role in this life that you two built together. You love this person who secretly doesn’t want to be an adult. Forgive him, and figure out how to work with him, in spite of his flaws. You are both flawed. You don’t want to be an adult, either, that’s why you resent him so much for manifesting that desire.

This is where most good marriages actually begin: after the first gigantic crisis, when two people realize they really do love each other, in spite of everything. Maybe you didn’t make a commitment before. You got pregnant, and you sort of did what came next. This is the start of your real commitment. No more silence and trying to control things while pretending that you’re not. No more putting every ounce of blame for everything on him. Today, you let go of the messes that came before. Today, you meet in the middle of the rubble and agree to start from zero. Today, you look directly into each other’s eyes, and you let the shame and anger and fear and sadness wash over you, and you say, “I still love you, and I forgive you. We messed up, but this is not the end of everything. We can make it through this.”

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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