We’re Living Apart to Pay Off Debt. I’m Sacrificing. She’s Just Shopping

A is unhappy as he looks at paperwork and talks on the phone.
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Dear Penny,

Just over a year ago, my wife moved back to where she grew up to take a dream job that paid extremely well, with the intent that we would use the extra money to accelerate our debt payments so I could eventually join her.

Last summer, I sold our house and moved to an apartment much closer to work and have restricted my spending to a minimum. Recently, I consolidated all of our remaining debt and paid off loans and credit card balances for both of us to where she no longer has any debt-related obligations. I've been putting every available cent toward debt, and anything that I don't spend from my $200-a-week budget gets moved to savings.

It's been tough being apart, and I know that takes a toll on both of us. We do get to see each other several times a year. But there are times that she tells me she's lonely and depressed. I've been trying to establish a budget for her so she can help to accelerate paying off the debt as well, but she's always complaining that she's living paycheck to paycheck.

We went over all of her income and expenses and, as far as I can tell, she has $525 a week to live on after meeting her monthly obligations.

I don't think she's hiding anything from me, because we both have access to all of our accounts online. But when I look at her spending habits, I think she's coping with her emotional issues with retail therapy.

Based on my calculations, it will be at least another two years before we're debt-free, barring any unforeseen obstacles, but I'm bearing all of that burden myself.

How should I approach her about getting her spending in check so that we can get out of debt faster and better achieve the goals necessary for me to be able to relocate?


Fiscally Frustrated

Fiscally Frustrated,

I hear you. Long-distance relationships are hard enough when you have a firm timeline and know the feelings of isolation will come to an end. But when there’s no hard stop on the calendar and there are money woes mixed in, it’s even tougher.

It sounds like the goal was for your wife’s lucrative job to make a considerable dent in your debt. But it also sounds like you didn’t start making a budget plan for her until she made the move and you started to see how the money part would fall into place.

Could your wife be feeling like you’re putting restrictions on her by prodding her to stick to a budget? Does she see the work you’re doing on your end? She may be going along with the debt paydown plan, but be struggling to see the benefits.

There’s nothing wrong with a little retail therapy, and she may feel justified in her spending choices. But this has to be a joint effort if it’s going to work. And since the debt has all been consolidated under your name (and your credit report), I can imagine you’re feeling a little more passionate about getting out of debt quickly than she does. At the very least, you see the remaining balance more often, which probably reminds you to keep costs in check.

Now, you need buy-in from her, and you can’t volunteer her as tribute — she has to do it herself.

It sounds like you’ve done some math on this, so it’s time for a little prep and a family meeting (by video chat or the next time you’re together).

Pull together three scenarios for paying down your debt.

In the first scenario, you continue as normal, with you scrimping and saving, and she spending as you’ve noted. How long will that debt payoff take?

Then, the second scenario looks at how long it would take if you both were as frugal as you’re being right now.

In the third, you examine a middle option, in which you each have a weekly budget of somewhere between $200 and $525. How long would it take to pay off your debt if you each had $300 per week to cover your expenses? Play with the numbers to see what feels right.

There may not be a huge difference among these options in the time it will take to pay off the debt. Spreading out all the math and taking a look may help you decide on a plan that feels more comfortable for both of you.

If you decide that one of those three plans works for you, go for it with gusto. I’m talking gold stars and stickers and progress charts. You know those thermometer signs organizations use to track their fundraising goals? Make one for your debt payoff. Start coloring it in each week, or month. It’s amazing how much a simple visual can reinforce your commitment to working toward a goal.

Don’t forget to reward yourselves for your hard work, too. Whether you decide to celebrate your progress when you’re together or allow yourself separate rewards, that’s fine. Having a system may help her manage some of her spending, too.

There’s another option here: letting the debt payoff take a back seat. Yes, you set this goal last year to pay off the debt before you live together again. But if it’s weighing on you both too heavily, what’s more important: the health of your marriage, overall, or how fast you can pay down the debt? I can only imagine that your financial efforts would be stronger together than apart, in an environment where you can share wins and challenges.

It may be time to re-evaluate your original plan and decide whether it’s necessary to be completely debt-free before you make the move to join her.

Have an awkward money dilemma? Send it to [email protected].

Disclaimer: Chosen questions and featured answers will appear in The Penny Hoarder’s “Dear Penny” column. I won’t be able to answer every single letter (I can only type so fast!). We reserve the right to edit and publish your questions. Don’t worry — your identity will remain anonymous. I don’t have a psychology, accounting, finance or legal degree, so my advice is for informational purposes only. I do, however, promise to give you honest advice based on my own insights and real-life experiences.