When a Spender and a Saver Fall in Love

“What do you mean you’re $40k in debt?”

photo by the author

In my twenties, I was a paycheck-to-paycheck spender. I saved when I had something specific to save for, but I never harbored dreams of buying a house or maximizing my nonexistent 401K. Retirement wasn’t a consideration because I didn’t have a steady job to retire from, nor did I want one. My main focus was travel. I chased working holiday visas, picking up random jobs in Ireland, London, Australia, and New Zealand.

A childhood friend told my mom that she didn’t understand my choices, why I would return to Indiana and work like a maniac for a few months, then “blow it” all on travel. Like me, Stephanie thought money was an either/or situation: either you saved up your cash for responsible purchases, or you spent it on experiences. You didn’t do both.

I always arrived in a new country with the bare minimum in my bank account, and somehow made it work. I didn’t have credit cards, because I sensed that would lead to trouble. But one day, at an Internet cafe in Bundaberg, Australia, I cracked. Fruit picking work had been sparse and I was nearly broke. I Googled “credit cards,” embellished my salary in the application, and hit send. A MasterCard with a 3,000 USD limit arrived a few weeks later. I celebrated by buying a case of beer.

“I’m only 23,” I told myself, in the naive way that only a privileged 23-year-old can. “I can always make more money.”

By the time I met my husband three years later, I was nearly 40,000 USD in debt: $25,000 in postgraduate loans and $15,000 across three credit cards. Nobody knew the extent of my debt except me, and I intended to keep it that way, ideally until I had managed to get the figures down to a socially acceptable number.

Jared and I met in Belgium, where we fell hard and fast for each other. He was an economics graduate from Australia who had quit his government job to travel. His former employers were paying out his remaining annual leave at half the normal rate, essentially providing an income for his trip. On top of that, he had 25,000 AUD sitting in the bank. I had never been in possession of that much money at one time, never even thought it possible.

Several months into our relationship, I knew I could no longer keep my debt a secret, but the thought of revealing it made me so ashamed. Staying with me meant indirectly assuming my debt. It meant not doing things as a couple because I couldn’t afford it, putting future plans on hold, or, worse, contributing some of his money towards my mistakes. When I finally confessed the full amount, Jared said something that sounded dangerously like an ultimatum. “You have to pay it off, Lauren. All of it.”

Over the next three years, I committed to paying off the debt. My relationship had been the catalyst for action, but I knew I needed to do it for myself. We moved to Australia, where I got a job as a sales assistant at a surf clothing store. My manager was an 18-year-old university student who was unsure how to manage someone 10 years her senior.

“It feels weird telling you what to do,” she said. “Like it should be the other way around.”

Yep. Felt weird for me too.

In my spare time I wrote for online content mills, typing up thought-provoking articles like How to Roast a Pig on a Spit. These pieces paid 25 USD each, and I produced up to seven in a day. It did little for my writing career, but by the time we left Australia a year later, I had paid off all three of my credit cards and taken a holiday to Thailand.

During our year in Australia, Jared and I slowly started to merge our finances. We contributed equally to a joint account which we used to cover bills, food, and miscellaneous expenses. To save money, we lived with his parents. The rest of my income went to my debt, while Jared socked his away as savings. I started to sense an imbalance: how could we be equal partners if he was saving for the future and I was struggling to catch up?

For the next two years, we taught English in South Korea, which provided a decent monthly salary, low cost of living, yearly bonus, and free housing. We traveled to seven countries in Asia and got engaged in Hawaii. I had laser eye surgery. We saved up 10,000 AUD for our next trip, three months in South America. Best of all, my student loans were gone. There’s a reason people get sucked into teaching English in Korea: it’s a financially sustainable lifestyle.

Throughout our time in Korea, we maintained one joint bank account and two individual accounts. Jared continued to save, bringing his total to 50,000 AUD. He called it ‘our’ money, but I felt like I hadn’t earned it. If I hadn’t been so careless before we met, that amount could have been doubled. The thought plagued me and I struggled to reconcile my guilt with his suggestion to fully combine our finances.

It took me a long time to agree. I didn’t want to justify my purchases to anyone, nor did I want anyone to question what I spent money on. I didn’t want to benefit from his years of saving since he certainly wasn’t profiting from my past. I also feared that I would slip back into my old habits. But I knew that we were both in a stronger position when we approached our finances as a team.

A shared bank account didn’t mean I couldn’t buy shoes or that I had to report every purchase to my husband. Joint finances held me accountable for my purchases, which brought out my dormant frugal side. Spending can be a slippery slope; when I am in a little bit of debt, it’s easy to get into a little bit more debt.

Don’t even get me started on wedding budgets

Saving money is not, as I used to think, an either/or proposition. Jared and I have had to negotiate what’s important to us as a couple and as individuals. I like to buy new clothes and go out to breakfast; Jared has been wearing the same pair of pants since he was a teenager and would happily eat Vegemite on toast every morning. He likes to bet on the horses, but I would rather go to a movie. In our budget, we make room for little luxuries but always prioritize our larger financial goals. It works, most of the time.

We returned to Australia in 2013 and got grown-up jobs in logistics (him) and marketing (me). The next year we bought a house. I resisted the purchase: I’d seen what happened to my parents when they bought property in the US just before the housing bubble burst. In Australia, it’s a different story, particularly when you’re buying close to the coast. Limited space and high demand means that property values go up, rather than down.

The mortgage broker informed us that we had been approved for a loan of up to 800,000 AUD. We both shook our heads, refusing to be drawn into more debt than we could manage. We put down a 70,000 AUD deposit — the nest egg that Jared started before we met — and bought a 435,000 AUD house. (This amount also blows my mind but is under the median price for Newcastle, Australia.)

And I wondered: is there a time when I would have accepted that offer of a higher loan? When I would have been tempted by something a little bit bigger, a little bit nicer? Maybe, if I thought I was going to live there for years to come. Instead, I see the house as an investment that fits into the bigger picture. This year we left our jobs, rented out the house, and are now road-tripping through Australia. It’s an experience that appeals to me more than a pretty house does.

Current house situation, inspired by the saver in the marriage

We have made our spending styles compatible, but it is a work in progress. I am still a spender and he is still a saver, which is unlikely to change. The trick is to keep the scales as even as possible in the long run, even if there are imbalances along the way.

Lauren Fitzpatrick is a former carny and drug trial recruiter who has decided to stick with writing. Follow her on twitter: @LateralMovement

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