I’m Financially Independent, But My Partner Is Not

Last Friday afternoon, I signed out of my work e-mail, shut down my company-issued laptop for the last time, and walked away from my full-time job. At age 28, I’ve declared financial independence. Starting next month, my partner Daniel and I are planning a variety of adventures around the world, starting with a months-long road trip in our 1996 Dodge Caravan.

As I hinted in my most recent post, though, there’s a minor wrinkle in our plan: While we’re similar in many ways, Daniel and I have chosen different career paths, and we’re in different financial situations today.

I’ve reached financial independence, but Daniel is years away.

 

So, what does this mean for our upcoming adventures?

From a tactical financial perspective, my FI stash will need to cover both of our expenses.

Looking at the numbers, my passive income today is sufficient to fund my ordinary one-person living expenses (> 90% chance of success per cFireSim). But adding Daniel’s living expenses – nearly doubling the burn rate – destroys the whole model (< 10% chance of success). On top of that, we’re making so many changes to our day-to-day lives that I don’t know exactly what level of expenses to project. Depending on where our adventures take us, our spending may even go up over the next few years. Oh, crap!

If I lived and died by the 4% rule, I would be sounding the alarms. Danger! Abort! Return to soul-crushing office job immediately!

Yet here we are, selling our possessions on Craigslist and proceeding with the plan anyway. I’ve gotten comfortable with all this uncertainty for several reasons:

  1. I’m open to my withdrawal rate temporarily exceeding the 4% rule. If there’s one gripe I have about the way FI is typically discussed, it’s that this idea is near-sacrilege. The framework is too strict: work to save $x, quit your job and never earn a single dollar again, and you can safely spend up to (but not more than) 4% each year. That’s all fine, but the reality of our lives will be much more variable. Some months we’ll spend a lot; some very little. Some months we’ll earn nothing; some we’ll have plenty of side income. And at some point, whether it’s in six months or six years, I expect that we’ll want to slow down our full-time vagabonding to live a more geographically settled life. If we choose to spend more on traveling in the meantime only to recoup part of the stash when we return, that’s fine. FI isn’t about restricting ourselves to an exact spending level; it’s about having the flexibility to live as we choose.
  2. We can flex our spending by adjusting our destinations. We’re already finding ourselves making these choices while planning our first few months on the road. Three months of hopping around from ski town to ski town (at significant expense for lodging and lift tickets) sounds fantastic, but so does camping and hiking in state parks for just a few dollars a night. We would love to return to expensive parts of Western Europe, but we’ve also never explored regions of Southeast Asia where luxury apartments can be rented for $375/month. As we learn more about our travel spending habits, we can plan future destinations accordingly.
  3. I expect to continue earning active income as we travel. Over the past few months, I’ve built up a moderately active side hustle business that I can run from the road. This income, along with any other money-making opportunities we find as we travel, should help cover our two-person expenses. I’m also open to the possibility that some day, I may actually want to pursue a full-time money-making endeavor again. This blog is called The Resume Gap rather than I’m Retiring Forever, Suckas! for a reason: I fully expect that at some point, I might choose to work again (whether in the form of a new entrepreneurial venture, a part-time gig, or a real full-time job).

Finances aside, this is a major change for our relationship.

We’re making multiple enormous adjustments to our lives all at the same time:

  • Leaving our jobs (the first time either of us has had no predetermined “next step” of work or school lined up)
  • Traveling together full-time (previously, we’ve spent a meaningful amount of time apart each week because of our jobs and my frequent work travel)
  • Combining our budgets into one (the first time we’ve ever managed our finances together, with the exception of a few shared bills)

Search around online and it’s not hard to find a hundred examples of how major life changes (in particular, combining drastically different finances) can be a total disaster:

  • Financial disagreements: Partners with different values and spending habits critique and criticize each other’s spending decisions, leading to fighting.
  • Undue resentment: The higher-earning partner gets bitter about being the primary breadwinner only to have the lower-earning partner “freeload” by spending more than he or she earns.
  • Concern about dependence: The lower-earning partner starts feeling uncomfortable that his or her lifestyle is reliant on the higher-earning partner’s income.
  • Keeping control: In the worst-case scenario, the higher-earning partner becomes manipulative and controlling, putting the lower-earning partner in a borderline-abusive situation.

We’ll both have to grapple with these potential issues over the coming months. I track my spending down to the line item today; will I start questioning every decision Daniel makes? Will I start resenting that I’m financing our adventures? Will I turn into an unscrupulous and conniving asshole and put Daniel in a situation where he ends up 30, single, and back at his parents’ house?

I don’t think so. We’re going in with eyes wide open, and we’re working to be as transparent as possible with each other about this potentially awkward dynamic.

On top of that, I feel reassured that our financial differences today have been driven primarily by our career choices, not by major discrepancies in lifestyle or financial philosophy. While I built up my savings rapidly through seven years of full-time work in a high-paying corporate environment, Daniel chose a completely different career path in social service. After two years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, he worked in a variety of settings serving people experiencing homelessness, living with HIV, and coping with major disabilities.

We could debate forever about whose work was harder (his), more stressful (his), more emotionally challenging (his), or more important for the well-being of thousands of people (his), but it’s clear whose work paid more: mine.

On the more important dimension – financial philosophy – I believe we’re highly aligned. Daniel lives more frugally than I do. He’s never owned a car. He biked to work every day for years. He doesn’t buy frivolous junk. He paid off five figures of student loan debt in just a few years. And even on a non-profit social service income, he banks 30-50% of his income.

Those traits, in my opinion, are far more important than the different dollar amounts we’ve saved.

***

Dear readers, we would love your input on this uncharted territory for our financial relationship. Have you had a major financial difference in your relationship or successfully merged finances with your partner or spouse? What worked for you?

33 Comments

  1. With my wife, when we started to life together, we moved into my appartment. That was a first hurdle to take, but we found an agreement. Later, many more followed.
    What seems to work best for us now, is to have personal fun money. We both put most of our income on a joint account to pay for the mortgage, food, kids,travel, invest. We each get to keep the same amount if fun money for the month. We spend it like we want, no questions asked!
    We have different levels of income as my wife is not working full time! This solution is the best for us, as we are a unit that runs the household together. We each get the same personal money to “splurge”.
    I hope it can be of any help to you.

    • That’s a great idea; we will definitely be spending plenty on the “fun” category, and those might be different expenses for the two of us!

  2. I can’t speak from experience but I know flexibility and compromise will be huge. And just because your plan doesn’t mirror others’ plans, doesn’t mean it won’t work. Best of luck!

  3. We have a similar quandary though different: we have similar income levels and savings rates now, but we came to the relationship with different levels of assets. I started saving for retirement much earlier (19 vs his ~25) and have more access to retirement account room, so my retirement accounts are much bigger than his, but he has most of his portfolio in taxable, which is actually not a bad balance/combination between the two of us. This isn’t really a problem now, but if one of us wants to retire earlier than the other, it could be interesting. My boyfriend doesn’t really want to retire early, so we’ll see how things play out!

    • This could be a quandary for us in a few years if we decide to settle down in one place, particularly if I decide to declare myself “early retired” while Daniel continues to work. We’ll see!

  4. “I’m retiring forever, suckas!” Would have been an awesome blog name! Mr. T and I married young and in school, so our finances have always been combined. I often wonder how hard it would be to combine after having such individual finances for so long. We didn’t have any set ways before our finances were combined. So, in some ways, we were lucky to start out together as poor students. We just figured it out together along the way.

    • I once asked my parents how they thought about combining finances, and my mom joked that they were both completely broke, so it didn’t matter at all! I expect that we’ll generally keep separate finances as long as we’re not legally married, even if our spending comes out of the same bucket for a while.

  5. It sounds like the key is that you and Daniel have similar (frugal) values. I think having common values will pull you through more than anything. My wife & I would separately live the same lifestyle. If anything, our relative success has meant we both live to a standard that we both feel a bit spoiled.

    You are 28 years old, so you have such a long horizon to think about. I don’t imagine any of us can imagine what our lives will really be like in a 2 years, 5 years or 10 years. Better to think about retirement(s) – multiple retirement lifestyles with different choices because of evolving circumstances. Better to just focus on the shorter horizon and know the longer term will take care of itself.

    • Thanks for your perspective on this, MrFireStation. I’ve always hated that cliche interview question about “where do you see yourself in x years?” I don’t feel the need to plan my life over a long time period, nor does that seem realistic or practical.

  6. My wife and I have major opposite differences in how to save and spend money. She wants experiences and she adores spending money with out knowing any and all consequences of her behaviors. She will spend money blindly on a trip regardless of coast and what percentage of income she saves. I on the other hand love to save money first, make sure I have all our bases covered and what ever extra money is left over I can then enjoy and use. I want to retire early and to enjoy life; seeing the world, camping and hiking all the great trails of this country, bike coast to coast and be able to ski all parts of this world. I have a plan and a dream. My wife does not. She cannot see or think of what she would like to do tomorrow never mind 10 or more years down the road. This causes a lot of stress for me and the fact that my dreams may not come true due to our current lifestyle. Make sure the person you are with shares future desires and is a life partner for this and not just someone going along for ride who’s heart is not truly in it.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Mark. Having a different long-term vision is definitely a huge challenge, but I also know that compromise is part of any relationship — even the best ones. Our goals and dreams may also change over time, and not necessarily in the same ways. I hope you and your wife are able to find a plan that works for both of you.

  7. The Mr. and I have always had combined finances, and we will be both in ór both out of financial freedom probably. We come from very different backgrounds and convictions concerning money. I earn a lot more and am frugal as h*ll, Mr. CTC knows when to ‘live a little’.

    Over the last couple of years however we did grow much closer together. A shared goal, total and utter openness and mutual respect did the magic. It’s never without any form of sacrifice I think, when combining two lives.

    • I totally relate to the “frugal as hell” vs. “live a little” dynamic, and I think it’s actually a healthy balance in a relationship. Thanks for your kind words about the blog!

  8. Love your blog by the way! It seems you’ve set yourself some admirable goals.

  9. I think you hit the key word that is always wonderful to hear between couples & finances: transparency. Although, you are both going into uncharted territory with this new adventure, what’s amazing to hear is how supportive you are of one another. With open mindsets and the ability to be transparent with one another, regardless of what potential obstacles will come you have a solid foundation to figure it out. 🙂 It wasn’t until just a couple years ago that I started taking a huge dive into personal finances, and when I slowly brought up topics to be open about it with my fiance it felt so foreign. In the initial stages of our relationship, bringing up 401(k) allocations, credit scores, saving habits, and the like over first dates would be almost laughable (now, I try to encourage more people to bring these topics up earlier if they can)! What’s exciting is you have a commonality between your future goals that if addressed together (not just independently) will allow you both to flourish. I am very excited to hear about your journeys!

    • I’ve gotten much more comfortable with it over the years, but I still have a lingering element of discomfort talking about financial topics with anyone — even Daniel or my close friends. Maybe it’s because I grew up believing (and still do, to some extent) that it’s rude to talk about money. Of course, they’re extremely important to discuss in the context of a relationship, so I’m happy we’ve done it. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  10. This is definitely a tricky one. Mr. MMM and I are still in the process of combining finances after getting married last October. Our difference lies in the fact that my income is the high/steady income. While Mr. MMM has the potential to earn a high income, but it is unpredictable. Mr. MMM left a high-paying career of 15 years to pursue his passion for film, and although he has been successful with four feature-length films in four years, he has not yet earned a high income. when we met, he was already immersed in his film career, so he didn’t do a bait and switch. And, although I have a high-paying steady career/job, I have other passions that I would love to pursue but can’t because my job pays for our monthly expenses, health insurance, retirement and personal investments, etc. Any money he brings in is earmarked to pay off the mortgage. Basically, I make the money and he is able to pursue his true passion. When money comes in, he puts it directly against the mortgage. I would be lying if I said that, at times, I didn’t feel a bit jealous or resentful. The most frustrating thing for me is that almost all of my money goes towards monthly expenses (and retirement contributions), so most months, it feels like we’re not making ANY progress. It’s only when he gets paid that we feel like we’re making strides toward our financial goals. Unfortunately, sometimes there is a very long stretch between project payments. It’s just important for me to keep in mind that life is not about money. It’s about loved ones and experiences.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, MMM. I think you’re right on with your takeaway — money isn’t the point. I also think it’s healthy to accept that jealousy and resentment are normal human emotions that we should be aware of and manage rather than believe we can completely eliminate.

  11. Thank you for sharing this! I SO admire your view on Daniel’s work, and your clear-eyed view going into your new adventure. I’m sure you’ll have money tension, which makes sense as you figure out this new way of living. But it sounds like you guys are super compatible in terms of money values, frugality, etc. The only advice I’d give is to stay flexible, and continually reevaluate how you think about your money together. We’ve been together 11 years, and in that time, how we’ve dealt with money and each other around money has evolved a ton. Even the financial arrangements we made when we got married have since changed (we used to have separate accounts and allowances and don’t anymore), so don’t feel like anything is permanently settled or locked in. It can always change.

    • I greatly appreciate that advice, ONL. Nothing is set in stone, and I’m sure plenty will change in our lives, relationship, and financial situation over the coming years. Good to keep in mind.

  12. You should probably give Daniel a set amount each week or month to spend. He can save or spend it. do not question what he does with it.

    I will have a similar situation with my SO. My rentals are mine, and although we have one rental together, most of the income is due to my investments.

    Good luck in your travels!! I plan on traveling too, maybe we will cross paths.

    • We’ve considered that type of arrangement (in which each of us has a budget each month), though it also poses challenges if we decide we want to pursue some higher-cost travel options at times. Regardless of the exact arrangement, I think you’re spot on with the “don’t question” advice — we can have healthy discussions about spending but also need to appreciate each other’s ability to make informed decisions, even if we don’t agree!

  13. First of all, congrats!

    My husband and I play very different roles in our finances. I am the breadwinner and involved in many side hustles. He has a part-time job (3-4 days per week). It can cause some stress. Usually the issues arise when I expect him to pick up slack with the kids or housework . . . without talking about it. So many relationship issues really just come down to communication. My advice would be to make sure you and Daniel discuss your plans and responsibilities at length, so that you’re both on the same page.

  14. My fiance and I currently have lopsided finances. Our incomes are very different (100k+ difference), debt is different, but attitudes are the same. We spend on experiences versus material things, we have the same life goals, and we value the same things (friends, family, etc). I think that is all you need. Other FI bloggers are pursuing their FI independently while a spouse continues to work. I can’t imagine not bringing my fiance along for the ride. What is freedom without a companion to share it with?

    • I’m with you, MB — I think compatibility is 90% about mindset and goals, and it also wouldn’t be the same doing this alone. Glad to hear you’re making things work in a similar situation.

  15. Traveling is like building/remodeling a house with your partner. It takes SO much communication, compromise and grace. Whenever Mr. Mt and I have a subject that needs more finesse, we set aside a time each week or month for a check in. It’s easier to chat about touchy things before there is tension and a problem. You guys will do awesome!

    We never had separate money, probably because we started broke and in debt! But we do keep separate “fun money” accounts that definitely reflect our personalities. I.e. Mine has nearly 2k in it and I can’t figure out what the hell to spend it on, and Mr. Mt’s… maybe a $100, if he’s lucky. =)

    • I appreciate the positive words! We talk about our spending very regularly, so everything has been good so far. That’s hilarious about your fun money stash. Maybe one of these days you’ll jet off to Hawaii for the weekend, first class? 😉

  16. Amazing story and a very compassionate ending. I wish you good luck and I’m totally sure you’ll find a way to fix that bug in the Retirement Calculator 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, MrRIP. So far, so good on managing money together and keeping things relatively within budget. Plenty more years ahead to make sure we’re on course.

  17. Just found your blog (via a shout out from Mrs. Our Next Life while being interviewed for the Mad Fientist’s podcast — how’s that for Six Degrees of Separation in the personal finance blogosphere?). At any rate, cool blog. This post caught my attention because my wife and I will have staggered retirements, mainly because (1) I began saving and investing while she was spending, spending, spending prior to our marriage, (2) I have a pretty sweet pension coming my way the day I reach eligibility and walk out of my office (Fed LEO), and (3) there’s a 7-year age gap between us. Actually there’s a 4th reason, too, and that is she is just more spendy and requires a much more luxurious lifestyle than me, because if she didn’t, she could retire at the same time as me — and no shit, we could live on my pension and a meager draw (<2%) from my 401k at an $80k/year clip (with future inflation adjustments). So alas, I will retire and do what things I can to fulfill my FIRE dreams until she can join me (5-7 years later?). I worry about tensions arising, similar to the issues you present above. Only time will tell, I suppose. In the meantime, I'm gonna work my way forward through your blog and keep tabs on how it's working out for you two!

    • Glad you found us, Les! Mad Fientist and ONL are two of our favorites, so we’re honored to even be mentioned! We’re doing fine so far working through the financial differences. My biggest concern would be the fourth reason you mentioned. Thankfully we’re mostly aligned on that. I suspect you’ll find plenty of things to do in FIRE even while your wife is still working. Best of luck, and thanks for your comment!

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