We've all thought, "Gee, if only I had X number of dollars, my problems would be solved!" Yet Ben, 28, and Lynne, 27, prove otherwise. The couple—who've been together six years and plan to marry—will soon have more riches than they'll ever need, yet their finances have become a wedge in their relationship. I understand if you're rolling your eyes right now—who wouldn't want to worry about having a lot of money? But far from being spoiled rich kids, Ben and Lynne strike me as lovely people so focused on making the right choices that they're scared to think about their money at all. Their story illustrates a universal theme: It's our attitude toward money—not how much we have—that causes problems.
Be Honest with Yourself
When I first spoke to Ben and Lynne, I had no idea about the real state of their finances. Their take-home pay is just shy of $7,000 a month. Ben, who works for a market research firm, asked for my help because he and Lynne had a $220 monthly shortfall. I found a few ways to close the pair's spending gap, but something didn't add up. Though Ben earned less than Lynne, he paid more of their shared expenses. He also said that he had $32,000 in savings, while Lynne had just $600.
Ten minutes into our talk came the big reveal: Ben will be a multimillionaire by age 40. He recently received $200,000 from a family trust, $100,000 of which he's tucked away and doesn't even look at. "I don't want to live off that money," he said. "I want to make it on my own."
Just as I insist that people who have $10,000 of credit card debt embrace their reality, my initial advice to Ben was to accept his wealth. ("Stop pretending you don't have money," I told him.) It's a gift to treasure.
Play as a Team
Lynne pays $635 a month toward $60,000 in student loans. She also has a $445 car payment (her balance is $15,000). The $3,840 she earns working nights as a nurse and at a part-time job covers her debt and her share of the rent (yes, she and Ben rent). But with so little savings, she told me she's "terrified."
Talk about a disconnect: Lynne holds down two jobs while her boyfriend is sitting on $132,000 in cash. Ben should use some of his savings to pay off Lynne's debt. Why would I say that when she can clearly take care of herself? Regardless of their marital status, they're in a long-term committed relationship and sharing expenses. Remember what I always say: people first, then money, then things. Whether you can give your partner $50 a month to reduce a credit card balance or $80,000 to wipe it away entirely, there's no better use of wealth than to ensure that everyone in your household feels financially secure.
After a little prodding, Lynne agreed to accept Ben's help. To make her more comfortable with the idea, I asked her to take the $1,080 a month she would have spent on debt repayment and deposit it in a joint savings account (she'll still come out ahead by not having to pay interest on her debts). The couple could then use the funds to pay shared expenses. (Partners should always maintain individual accounts, too.)
Take it Slow
Other than splurging on a car, Ben hasn't touched his trust fund. "I'm in the dark about what to do with it," he told me.
I encouraged him, along with Lynne, to talk to his mom and dad (who came into money late in life) to find out how they handle their wealth. Then I told the pair to work with his parents' financial adviser, with one caveat: It's fine to seek professional help, but I urge everyone—no matter how big their portfolio—to truly understand every suggestion they're given before acting.
Suze Orman's latest book is The Money Class: How to Stand in Your Truth and Create the Future You Deserve (Spiegel & Grau). Ask Suze Orman your questions about debt and saving money here.
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