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I want to propose, but my girlfriend's parents control her money

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 11/18/2019 Quentin Fottrell

Dear Moneyist:

I am thinking about proposing to my girlfriend very soon. However, we come from extremely different backgrounds.

I come from a very successful family that was always keen on teaching my sister and me about how to handle finances. My mother would sit down with us every tax season, and explain why and how everything we did made sense. My dad was an avid investor, always taking our birthday money and putting it in the stock market and showing us how it grows. This has benefited my early adult life immensely as I am now extremely aware of all my finances and different saving strategies.

Now to my girlfriend: Although her parents are also successful — I would estimate that they make approximately $90,000 to $110,000 a year — they are ill-prepared and have taught their kids nothing about finances. They basically told my girlfriend, “Don’t worry about your student debt — just finish school.” She does not have a clue about how much money she owes, which causes huge problems for me when trying to plan for our future.

All of her bank accounts are under her parents’ names. She typically gives money to her parents and then asks them to put that money in an account. If she needs money, she has to ask them permission. They also have not communicated at all about their will or what would happen if they were to pass away. Lastly, they have told me that they have credit-card debt, but they just retired this year and are moving South for the winter.

How do I combat such issues? She is an amazing saver, but she relies so heavily on her parents and they really do not know what they are doing.

Disgruntled

Related video: 5 tips for balancing love and money (provided by Simon and Schuster)

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Dear Disgruntled:

People don’t change, but they do change their financial habits.You don’t give your respective ages or say how long you have been together but, assuming you know each other well enough and there are no other red flags in this relationship, this is a good learning opportunity for you and your girlfriend. It’s one thing to identify a problem, but it’s another to find solutions. Start as you mean to continue. You should embark on this journey to financial wellness together.

It’s crucial to keep the lines of communication open and the reserves of resentment toward your girlfriend’s financial habits and those of her parents empty or, at the very least, at a minimum. None of us navigate relationships perfectly, after all. Tell her you want to plan a future together and suggest that you both open up your finances. It will be a good test for married life: She can learn about fiscal responsibility, and you can learn about what it means to take action toward a common goal.

Related: This couple never talk about money, and they never fight about it either

This doesn’t mean passing judgment or offering commentary on her parents. Let’s assume they did the best they could with the tools they had at the time. Your girlfriend may have done pretty well in life, given the life skills (or lack thereof) she had to work with. It’s always better to stick to your own experience, goals and how you feel about achieving them. Say, “I want us to be on a solid footing so we can live our best lives,” rather than, “You need to stop letting your parents run your life.”

Of course, the end result should be the same. It will make it more difficult if there are hurt feelings, especially if they relate to her parents. I have a golden rule for all my relationships: Never talk about someone else’s parenting skills or whether you think they’re a good son or daughter. Those kinds of conversations never end up in a good place and, crucially, unnecessary conflict will only delay or prevent you both from figuring out the best road map ahead. 

The good news: Your girlfriend is open about her financial situation. That’s an important piece of the puzzle right there. Secrets are bad. Transparency is good. These are skills she can learn in time. Nearly 20% of people keep a savings, credit-card or checking account hidden from their live-in partner, according to this survey. Those kinds of murky shenanigans ultimately spell trouble for a relationship. These are financial issues, as far as we know, not character issues.

More than half of Americans (58%) said they wouldn’t marry someone with significant debt. Your hesitation is not unfounded. I would not recommend your embarking on a marriage together and definitely not co-mingling your finances until you are both sure that you’re on a solid financial footing, that you have good credit scores and that you each demonstrate an ability to support the other in life. Step No. 1: Your girlfriend finally cutting those apron ties.

One final word of caution: It’s time for your girlfriend to stand on her own two feet. You don’t want to become a proxy for her parents.

Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch's personal-finance editor and The Moneyist columnist for MarketWatch. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo. Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used). 

© Wilson Valentin / Getty  

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