The wallet triage

Let's go deeply in debtIn past postings we have talked about dating’s financial conundrums and how to find balance. We’ve discussed how different financial values and capabilities cause conflict.

In dating, whether we realize it or not, we begin to do what was called a “wallet triage” by one of my hospital clients. This distasteful term was used to describe when they had to determine if a patient could pay for treatment. If not, they had to be sent to the county hospital. It was unpleasant for the staff to ask the uncomfortable questions about someone’s ability to pay while the patient was bleeding or in pain, and it was distressing for those being asked. But the hospital was hemorrhaging funds, and if they treated people without receiving payment, the hospital was going to close, which would have put the community in dire straights. It was a horrible situation for all concerned.

The dating wallet triage is determining if someone’s financial situation is something with which you can live. Especially if the other is in dire straights because of their decisions, not only because of the recession.

This week, a wooer disclosed that he owed the IRS tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes and penalties, plus some other debts. The government recently took ALL the money from his accounts. (Luckily, he was not asking me for any.)

Another man recently shared that he, too, owes back taxes and the IRS now garnishes any funds deposited to his accounts. He goes to check cashing outlets to cash his clients’ checks to get money for gas, food, etc.

I know these times are hard for many, many people. Both these men are intelligent professionals who made some unwise decisions that have caught up with them. I, too, have had financial ups and downs so I empathize with them both.

But as I ponder entering a relationship with a new man, I know I want someone who is financially sound. He doesn’t have to be weathly, but he needs to have his life mostly in order.

Both these men are natty dressers. The first one recently took a week-long vacation and shared he’d bought some new shoes, since he’s a shoe fancier. I don’t know about you, but if I have a closet full of functional shoes and owe the government tens of thousands of dollars, I’m not going to buy any new shoes, no matter how much I like them.

My ex floated a large debt for nearly all of our marriage. I have been in debt, and when I am, I don’t buy anything extraneous. I live frugally and put all my extra funds toward paying off that debt in months instead of years. My ex saw no problem with buying frivolous items even though he had large debt. It’s a matter of different values and priorities. I hate to be in debt and do everything I can to avoid it, and if I can’t, I pay it off quickly.

I found that being with a man who was always in debt meant we couldn’t do things that were important to me — and he said were important to him, too — or I would pay for them all myself. So when it was time to paint the house, he didn’t have the money (we’d usually split these expenses), so I paid for it. I didn’t mind paying for vacations or household improvements sometimes. But I resented it when he said he didn’t have the money to do what we both said was needed, then would buy something frivolous for himself.

You have to look at your own values around money and what’s important to you. If a man shows early on his values about money are very different than yours, best to discuss it if you can, or let him go. If his situation is temporary because of the recession, that’s one thing. But if he continues to make what you consider unwise decisions, best to move on as you’ll be fighting about money sooner or later.


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10 responses to “The wallet triage”

  1. SB Avatar

    Really good post. It helped me to sort out how I feel about some things.

    I’m currently dating a man who is living “week-to-week” because he’s been having difficulty finding a full-time job. Periodically, this has been a source of frustration for me – we’ve been dating quite a while. However Mr. X and I definitely share the same financial values in that he spends money mostly on essentials – and any extras he can afford tend to come my way. He is conscious of his spending habits and lives within his means. I agree with DG that couples should certainly come to an understanding about whether their financial values are on the same page.

    My situation is difficult, however, because my family and friends are of mixed opinions about “dating a man who is in such a precarious financial situation.” Regardless of how he may have gotten there.

    I’m going to keep hanging in there. Mr. X is a fundamentally generous person; he shares whatever he has and shows me affection in a myriad of other ways. There is no obvious reason why Mr. X shouldn’t be able to find a job when more positions open up in his field. I know he is doing what he can to find steady work.

    (We are both significantly under 40, but DG touches on issues that are certainly pertinent to me and my situation. Perhaps financial concerns are more pertinent than ever for those of us who are just starting out in the workforce. And good advice is good advice.)

  2. Richard Avatar

    They say that money is #1 cause of divorce. So, it is important that you both be on the same page. I think for younger people, it is more difficult because there are so many variables that young people haven’t had to balance (how much are they going to make, and where will they spend their money). By the time you get to 40, it is pretty clear what your earning potential is, and what expenditures are important to you.

    Your blog mentions two separate, but related issues: How you manage your finances (debt), and what expenditures are important to you (do things that are important to you).

    “I found that being with a man who was always in debt meant we couldn’t do things that were important to me …” I think the debt is an excuse not to do something that was not important to him. Since he is in debt, it is obvious that he is willing to spend money on what he finds important.

    I’m willing to guess that the guys you have dated that were not in debt were men who had good earnings. Guys who have excess income, and willing to spend the excess in ways that made you happy.

    There are also guys who have no debt who are “thrifty”. I’m guessing with those guyes that dating never got to the point where spending money on things important to you became an issue.

    I live on the edge. Not in debt, but not much excess income. I spend money where I have to. If the house needs painting/repairs – Pay me now, or pay me later – so I might as well pay for it now to keep the problem from getting worse. However, that doesn’t mean I’m willing to repaint the house just because I want it to be a different color.

    Also, it may be a long time before I can afford the 3 week vacation to Europe. But, if the woman in my life proposed hamburger helper for dinner for the next year to save money for a vacation to Mexico, I could probably make the sacrifice.

  3. Mark Avatar

    “Also, it may be a long time before I can afford the 3 week vacation to Europe.”

    Yeah, I”m in the same boat. Some things are out of reach for me. I know some women want these kinds of things, and I guess I’m not the guy for them.

    There’s a difference between how you manage money and what you are able to spend. You can manage your money well but still not be able to afford the kinds of things some women want.

    To me it all comes down to what you are looking for in a significant other. For some, solid companionship may be enough. For others, they may want that and someone prosperous enough to fit the kind of lifestyle they want to have.

    I know that for me, as I get older, I realize I need less and less. I guess sooner or later I’m going to be content to simply sit in a rocking chair, ha ha.

  4. Karen Avatar

    Very good points, and they trend with my own “learning through living”.

    I grew up in a poor but frugal family, and when I was young I was way impressed with men who spent lavishly on themselves and on me. It was such a different way of looking at life! Unfortunately, I was just too insecure about my own financial knowledge and history to ask many questions– I suppressed my questions because I thought that since I grew up poor, of course I would have no idea what “normal” people spent or how they lived and I shouldn’t criticize, etc. Now I’m older but wiser (I hope!), and have finally taken control of my own finances (helped by getting divorced). It turns out that my frugal parents were right about most things financial after all!

    So now I’m looking for a financially sensible guy in addition to the other things on my list.

    The problem is that I’m having trouble fitting my “new-old” financial ideals into dating norms. If a man doesn’t ask me out to an expensive restaurant, is it because he doesn’t really care about me or is he just being frugal and sensible? It’s hard to tell what’s going on, especially when so much of our “dating culture” and “red flags” depend on the man spending lavishly on the woman to show he’s serious about the relationship etc.

    I’ve tried to solve this issue by bringing it up and talking it over, which has helped in some cases. But it’s still hard to tell.

    Frugal and sensible is good, but if he’s frugal because he’s bankrupt or in debt to the IRS or to his ex for child support—-I wouldn’t date that guy because he’s a bad risk for the future IMO.

  5. Anna Avatar

    I think you hit the nail on the head DG when you mentioned financial values. As long as values match, whether you are both spenders-live-for-the-moment-types or frugal-save-for-another-day types the values must match. I know to my emotional cost in the past when they don’t !! For example I am now eating my brown bag lunch every day because I like to take that annual trip to Europe to see my parents and family and feel its worth it. Thats my way of saving for that trip and I would want a guy that I got involved with to feel the same way. I don’t sleep well if I am in debt because I was brought up that way, again, the guy would have to match. How do we find this out however early in a relationship without bringing up the “money” talk. We are all comfortable with talking about other values eg religion early on, we probably should bite the bullet and talk money. But there are also “frugal” people out there who are just mean with money and wouldnt spend a penny on a relationship because basically, they consider the person/ relationship not worth spending on. In that case, I would have to walk away.

  6. Mitsy Avatar

    I guess you could say I’ve made some unwise spending decisions. I owe some substantial credit card debt, but I pay on it every month and try not to use the cards. I pay extra on my house because I want it paid off in about 6 years and I am driving a ’96 Pontiac that’s been paid for for years. I guess what is important is different for everyone because my financial beliefs have never meshed with most of the men I’ve dated. My first long-term boyfriend was a miser who lived with his parents and saved 95 cents out of every dollar. His tightwad attitude likely made me want to buy that new pair of shoes or treat myself to a new sweater more often than was necessary. Dinner out was Hardee’s or McDonald’s and that would have been fine had he spent more on me at other times. He didn’t, and I vowed never to get involved with another cheapskate again. Some of the others spent money in the very beginning as I’ve mentioned before. But, once they “had me”, that tapered off fairly quickly. One guy made $60-70,000 a year which is a high-end salary in this part of the country but he was going through a divorce and bought & sold houses like it was nothing. He didn’t make money off the deals either. He got “miserly” once his ex-wife wanted custody of their daughter. His life was a mess and I’m glad he didn’t stick around.
    I don’t expect a guy to be debt-free and if he owes on the credit cards, then we have something in common. However, I think it’s much more important to have some goals in place for changing your financial situation for the future. I’ve worked a 2nd job for many years now. It’s how I’ve been able to live and pay extra on the house, on the bills, etc. There are things that I’d like but can’t afford. I know my limits and I’ve overspent many times in my life BUT I don’t expect a man to pay my debts. Likewise, a man shouldn’t expect a woman to pay his debts either. I think what it comes down to is this. It’s not the amount of money the guy spends on a woman, it’s the thought process or effort involved. As I’ve stated before, you don’t have to go to a five-star restaurant. There are a lot of places in between McDonald’s and the Ritz that would make a nice dinner out. As far as Europe goes? That isn’t on my radar screen and seems like a fantasy vacation. It would be out of my price-range regardless. If I had that kind of cash, I would pay it on my existing debts or house. I guess we all have certain things we want and that isn’t something I care to save for.

  7. Mark Avatar

    A guy that only goes to McDonald’s is being cheap. It doesn’t cost that much more to go to a decent restaurant once in awhile. I can’t even imaging taking a woman to McDonald’s unless you were out running around doing something else and were both hungry and just wanted a quick bite.

    So here’s my take. I should be dating a woman who takes care of her own finances. Why should I even need to spend a lot of money on her? Movies aren’t that expensive. A moderately priced restaurant is’t that expensive. There are all kinds of free things to do — go to a park, etc. Any woman who expected me to take her out to an expensive restaurant, who expected me to take her to an expensive musical, and who would be miffed if I didn’t want to pay for these things is a woman I don’t want to date anyway.

    To me those seem like a waste of money and if a woman expects that, she’s not really spending time with me because she’s interested in me. She’s interested in having a man spend money on her. That seems unattractive to me.

  8. Mitsy Avatar

    I totally agree Mark. A woman who expects a lot of lavish gifts & cash spent on her is basically a gold-digger as they used to say. From my own perspective, I always had to lower my expectations when it came to dates and their willingness to take me out. I was most generally, let down and did not expect all that much. As I’ve stated before, it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to date–it just requires that a guy make some effort and if a woman is a decent one, SHE will also make the effort and not let him foot all the bills. At least that is my belief and how I behave when it comes to dating someone for any length of time.

  9. Mark Avatar

    I agree Mitsy. When you’re dating someone for several months, it doesn’t have to be expensive. There are interesting things to do that don’t cost all that much — art exhibits, interesting films to see, open mike nights at coffee houses, local theater (which isn’t Broadway prices here in the midwest), trivia nights at local churches, going out with friends for a beer and some talk, and inexpensive yet still good restaurants.

    You mix in activities like those with having the other person over now and then for a movie and some cuddling, and maybe the woman treats the man to dinner now and then and it doesn’t have to break the bank to date.

    In fact, I’m seeing someone new right now and she couldn’t be cooler about it all. We’ve gone to a bar twice to hear live music and we didn’t drink much so I spent very little. We went to the Art Museum which is free here, so that was the cost of a single drink afterwards. Other than that, she’s had me over a couple of times — her idea, too. She felt like staying in watching a movie so we did — although I had to pay a terrible price because she made me watch The English Patient, ha ha. It’s been really relaxed and nice.

  10. Mitsy Avatar

    Yep, Mark, I’m on the same page with ya on what I think is normal & good as far as give/take in a relationship involving costs and trying to be fair. Another thing that really bugged me when I had a steady guy was the fact that stress (money problems or other issues) ALWAYS got in the way of the relationship. I could worry about money every single day and I actually do to a degree, but I really shelve that angst when I’m with a guy and trying to have a nice evening out or at home. What many guys didn’t seem to understand was that almost EVERYONE worries about money to a degree, everyone has stresses with their jobs and/or their families, and the list goes on. That’s part of life. I saw more than a couple of my former guys buckle under life’s stresses. I remember taking on that stress and feeling helpless–it wasn’t a good situation. I’m actually not dating anyone right now and it’s sort of a good feeling not to have to deal with someone else’s issues. However, at some point, I’m going to want to have some dates again and hopefully it will work out better than the last guy did.