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Dating maze #268 - Financial Inequity

May 8, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Her parents have more money to give. Does that create a problem?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I have been dating a guy for the past three months and we have started speaking about getting engaged at the end of this year. Since the beginning of our courtship there was one issue that had bothered me: We come from different economic backgrounds. His family has significantly less money than my family does. Since we are both in school and both plan on going to graduate school, our parents will have to financially support us for the next five years. I don't feel it's fair that my parents should have to pay for our apartment once we are married.

I really do love him and we are amazing together, but this keeps bothering me. We are both very motivated individuals who are not planning on living off our parents our whole lives, but it bothers me that this is not going to be split equally. Any advice you could give me would help a great deal.


Dear Veronica,

Thanks for writing to us. The issue you have described happens more often than you would think. It can manifest itself in a number of different ways when a couple comes from different economic backgrounds -- one side having the resources to pay for a fancier wedding than the other side can afford; one set of parents wanting to give a sizeable gift or home down payment that the other parents cannot match; one family offering a large amount of support while the young couple is still in school and the other side contributing a lesser amount.

Even though this imbalance makes you uncomfortable, there isn't much you can do to change either of your family's financial situations. The only thing you can do is change your perspective. Try to look at the long term, rather than the short term.

You'll each contribute different amounts of effort to housework and errands.

It sounds as if you and the man you are dating have talked about your long-term financial goals, and that you plan to support yourselves the best way you can once you are out of school. You'll be doing what most married couples do -- working together to build a home, family and financial stability. And as a husband and wife each of you will contribute according to your ability and the resources, financial and otherwise, you have available. You'll view your life together as a shared enterprise, even though one person will probably earn more than the other, and even though you'll each contribute different amounts of effort to caring for children, cooking, housework, paying bills, managing investments, running errands, handling the family's social calendar, taking care of the car, charity activities, etc.

Although each of your "contributions" to a particular area is inequitable, you will appreciate each other or doing the best you can, and of course will not descend into the dynamics of "keeping score."

Now try to look at the short-term in the same way. Both sets of parents want their children to be happy and will help them out the best they can. They'll contribute love, emotional support, and financial help to the best of their abilities. Can you accept and appreciate these blessings, without measuring who gives more love, who gives more emotional support, and who gives more money?

Two Choices

You can look at your situation from another perspective, too. If you and the man you are dating had not come into each other's lives, he'd still go to graduate school next year, perhaps paying his way with some financial contributions from his parents, his own earnings, and student loans. He'd minimize expenses by living at home or in an inexpensive apartment with roommates. Life would be pretty simple, but he'd get his degree and then go on to build his future. That first job may not pay too much, and he may have student loans to repay, but he'd be motivated to move forward without expecting more help than his family was able to give.

You could decide to share that modest lifestyle if you got married. You'll go to graduate school and receive the same amount of help from your parents that he'll receive from his. You'll each get your degrees, and you'll enjoy being together even though you're struggling economically, because of the promising future you can look forward to. And you wouldn't have to feel badly about any disproportionate contributions made by each set of parents.

At the end of the day, there's nothing "wrong" with either lifestyle choice -- many young adults struggle economically until they finish school and get their start in life, and many other young adults, whose parents have the means to help them, live somewhat more comfortably until they can go out on their own. If you prefer to have the more comfortable lifestyle, then you have to accept the fact that your parents will be paying for most of it simply because they are able to and the other side isn't. If you still feel uncomfortable about accepting more help from your parents than he can accept from his, you can choose to live more modestly.

Parents get great joy from giving to their children.

There is one more factor to consider: Your parents would like you to be more comfortable, and since they have the means to help you, they would prefer to see you living a more pleasant lifestyle while in school. It might be helpful to imagine the shoe was on the other foot: If you had financial means, and your child was in this position, what would you do? Parents get special joy from giving to their children, and although always "taking" may be uncomfortable, it can also be an act of giving to allow the other person to express their need to "give."

Have you discussed with the man you're dating how he feels? Is he also uncomfortable with being in the position of taking?

Future Expectations

One more point: It is important for two people who are thinking about getting married to discuss their lifestyle and financial expectations for the future. Each individual's socio-economic background, their parents' approach to finances, and their own life experiences play a role in shaping how they view this. If you haven't already done so, we think it's a good idea for the two of you to talk about the lifestyle each hopes to achieve when you begin to support yourselves; how much of your incomes you'd like to save; how you expect to allocate income between day-to-day expenses, vacations, large purchases; what financial decisions you hope to share and what decisions you think can be made independently; how to handle debt, and the like.

If your outlooks are very different, you'll want to figure out how to meld those expectations into something you both are comfortable with. Financial issues are a source of disagreement in many marriages, and those disagreements can be minimized when two people understand their differences and work on addressing them before they begin their life together.

It sounds as if the man you are dating is someone with whom you can build a good life. We hope that you can come to terms with your different economic backgrounds, because that is the only thing you can change about your respective circumstances, and it would be unfortunate to derail an otherwise good relationship over this issue. We wish you success.

Rosie & Sherry

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