I have a very happy marriage. We have two teenage children, 13 and 15, who are very well balanced, and who are currently at summer camp. That is costing us $1,500 for one week, and I don’t mind paying it. It’s a rite of passage, and we both see it as integral for developing their social skills as they learn to navigate the world in what is often a tumultuous time.
I work in financial services and earn around $160,000 a year, not including commission, which varies depending on the year. Last year I pulled in $90,000 in commissions, which was a good year for me, but also not so great after the IRS took a chunk in taxes. We own a four-bedroom home in New Jersey that will be paid off in about eight years.
My wife has her own business selling cosmetics online, and she makes around $60,000 in a good year doing that. She’s a stay-at-home mother, and she’s also a French tutor for students from a local private school. I’ve told friends that my wife thinks she’s Kim Kardashian because of her cosmetics business, but also because of her lifestyle.
“‘I have three suits, two of which I usually wear to work on days I have meetings, and one that I save for special occasions.’”
She has weekly nights out with friends. They call it “cocktail night.” I’ve checked her credit-card bill and she has $10,000 that has yet to be paid off, including expenditures from her business. I confronted her about this, and she said that “you have to spend money in order to make money,” and that she would pay off the card in its entirety by next month.
But it’s getting worse. The problem is what I would call her lavish lifestyle. She can spend $50 to $90 on cocktail night, and she has a wardrobe with clothes that she doesn’t wear. I have three suits, two of which I usually wear to work on days I have meetings, and one that I save for special occasions. The rest of my clothes are shirts and chinos that I bought on Amazon and at Banana Republic.
While I’m saving money buying shirts on Amazon AMZN, +3.09% — yes, Amazon! — my wife is living like she’s starring in her own reality TV show, posting on Instagram. I feel like the differences in our spending habits are taking a toll not only on our finances, but also on our marriage. I’ve got a 401(k) with $800,000 in it, and I want us to be able to retire and live a small, modest life.
I play golf twice a week. That’s my way of relaxing. It’s where I go to meet my friends and socialize. I have about two good golf buddies, and that’s enough for me. I drive a 10-year-old Volvo VOLV.B, +0.65%, and my wife drives a six-year-old Nissan 7201, -2.98%. I’d like to get a Tesla TSLA, +4.20%, but I’m conscious that the car I have works and gets me where I want to go.
Am I being unreasonable?
Dear Volvo Driver,
If your wife is Kim Kardashian, does that make you Tiger Woods? I ask because you are both pursuing your respective dreams, and I support you both in your endeavors. Your wife is a stay-at-home mother who has created a successful — judging by her annual income — side hustle selling cosmetics online and teaching French to local private-school students. Plus, she is raising two children while you are working all day. That’s no small feat. Unlike Kim Kardashian, she has a staff of one: herself. I applaud her for entrepreneurial spirit.
“‘Unlike Kim Kardashian, your wife has a staff of one: herself. ‘”
You both have social lives that must be racking up costs. You are connecting with friends and taking time out for yourself on the golf course. An annual membership at a golf club can cost your wife’s current credit-card balance, and I have no doubt that there are other ancillary expenses — not to mention how much it costs to eat lunch or dinner and have a drink in the clubhouse afterwards. My point: You both need to unwind, and you both need lives outside of home and work. You both deserve time out. And you both will benefit from having a community — whether it’s drinks with friends, or golf, or both.
Financially, you’re in good shape. You are pulling in over $200,000 a year jointly, and you have Social Security and a 401(k). Your house will be paid off — presumably before you retire — and when your children get older you will likely have the option of downsizing. I hope you have 529 plans for your kids’ college education, along with at least six months’ worth of expenses tucked away in your emergency savings. You should both pay off your credit cards every month. I assume your wife is planning to do that and is using the balance to boost her credit-card points.
Transparency is important and communication is key to all successful relationships. Rather than snooping on your wife’s credit-card statements — you would probably not like it if she did the same to you and started questioning that $65 dinner-and-drinks bill from the golf club — try creating a joint household budget with your income in one column and your expenditures in another column. That way you can come to an agreement about how much is wise to spend every month, and how much “mad money” you can put aside for leisure activities.
How much of your wife’s income is from her online business and how much is from her tutoring? As part of managing your household budget, enlist the help of a financial adviser to crunch your wife’s business expenditures, and look at the wisdom of putting too many expenses on her credit card. I do have concerns — which may or may not be unfounded — that she has become involved in a multi-level marketing scheme, which can often make big promises to lure people and sell them inventory they have difficulty offloading, as this woman discovered to her cost.
It’s better to buy clothes that you will wear — and your wife may wear these clothes at some point — men generally don’t have the same interest in fashion and clothing as women. It’s not realistic to expect your wife to wear only chinos and shirts from Amazon and Banana Republic GPS, +2.27% for work and play. I’m not trying to reinforce gender stereotypes — but women’s clothing also tends to be, on the whole, more expensive than men’s clothing, and more varied and exciting than the modern man’s uniform of a suit and tie.
An independent financial consultant might very reasonably consider you both to have lavish lifestyles, given that the term is highly subjective. I encourage you both to continue spending time with friends. It’s money well spent. It’s good for your marriage to have time apart and to have your own interests, and having a community and social support is also beneficial for your mental health. COVID took a toll on people’s social networks, and Americans spend more time with their children than previous generations did, and also work longer hours. Men, research suggests, also tend to suffer more from lack of a social network than do women.
“Americans who have more friends report higher levels of satisfaction with the number of friends they have,” according to this 2021 report by the Survey Center on American Life titled “The State of American Friendship: Change, Challenges, and Loss.” The researchers reported: “As Americans accumulate additional friends, their level of satisfaction grows.” Among those without any close friends, only 29% report being completely/very satisfied with their number of friends. A majority (56%) of people with 4 or 5 friends said they were completely/very satisfied. The level of satisfaction rose with the number of friends. Personally, two or three good pals are worth 10 acquaintances.
Help each other and show interest in each other’s work and personal lives and friends. The stronger your social network, the more support you will have. Try not to judge each other. Your wife appears to be doing a great job raising your kids, balancing work with leisure and also turning what could have been a loss-making enterprise into a successful business. There may come a time that you will be very glad you made that comparison. And the next time you tell your friends at the golf club that your wife is New Jersey’s Kim Kardashian or any other celebrity, say it with pride and turn it into a compliment.
Readers write to me with all sorts of dilemmas.
By emailing your questions, you agree to have them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.
The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.
More from Quentin Fottrell: