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Money Talks: The couple that grew up with very different relationships to spending

The two make roughly the same salary, but their socioeconomic backgrounds inform how they view that money.

Nicole Dieker is a personal finance expert who's been writing about money for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She answers reader questions for Vox's On the Money column.

Welcome to Money Talks, a series in which we interview people about their relationship with money, their relationship with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.

Jessica and Sebastian (not their real names) work in communications and marketing, respectively; their annual salaries are $125,000 and $135,000. However, Jessica, 37, grew up with a very different socioeconomic background than Sebastian, 36. When they met 14 years ago, Jessica had both student loan debt and credit card debt; Sebastian, whose college was paid for out of a trust fund, had yet to open his first credit card. Many of their early financial experiences were still influencing their spending and saving decisions — and not always for the best.

Now Jessica and Sebastian are married and living in San Diego with their 3-year-old daughter. Here’s how life and love have changed their financial perspectives.

Sebastian: We actually met at a Yankees game when we both lived in New York City. My group of friends bought season tickets, and her group of friends also bought season tickets, and they ended up sitting in the row in front of us. After the second week of seeing her there, we started a conversation. That was 14 years ago.

Jessica: Living in New York City, and being an early adult in your first job out of college, you learn a lot about people’s financial status by their living situations. I lived in Queens, I split rent with a roommate, and Sebastian grew up and lived in the West Village. He still lived with his mom, after college, for a few years.

I don’t think I was like, “Oh, Sebastian and his family have a lot of money,” but you start putting the pieces together. When you grow up in the West Village, in a nice building, you probably have more money than I did growing up.

Sebastian: When we were dating, it wasn’t a concern or a factor, but I was casually aware that Jessica had grown up in a different financial situation. It was never something that really occupied much space in my head.

Jessica: We didn’t start talking about our financial upbringing until we moved in together, a year after we met. Sebastian was way more frugal than I was. I knew he was wealthier than me, but that was because a lot of families were wealthier than mine, growing up. But he was also super-frugal. He didn’t have a lot of nice clothes, he wasn’t very flashy. He was really good at saving, and he was always the one who didn’t want to eat out all the time.

Even today, he’s the one who’s better at budgeting and saving money. When we moved in together, it became apparent that he was the one who was really good with money and future forecasting. My whole life, I was never as forward-thinking with my money as he was.

Sebastian: I didn’t get a credit card until after Jessica and I started dating. I liked debit cards because I was only spending money that I had. My first job out of college, in New York City, I was making $35,000 a year — so even though my family had money, I didn’t really have money. For me, having a debit card was a good way of budgeting and practicing financial discipline.

Jessica: I didn’t grow up with the idea of financial discipline. Even today, it’s hard for me sometimes to avoid buying something online just because I can. My mom, when she got paid, her way of showing love to us was by saying, “Let’s go to the mall and buy new clothes.” That’s what I grew up with, and I’m still trying to battle some of those habits now.

My family never spoke openly about money, but I know that was the root cause of a lot of the fights between my parents. I remember our mom giving us instructions to just hang up the phone whenever it was a bill collector — and then when we finally got Caller ID, we would never pick up if it was a 1-800 number. I also remember times where the electricity or water would be shut off because my mom “forgot” to pay a bill. However, my mom would find money to spend on clothes or bags or shoes — I was always dressed well and in premium brand-name clothes growing up. So we’d go shopping at the mall but then come home and the lights might not be on.

Up until recently, I was always nervous about my checking account potentially being overdrawn. It’s only been in the past five years when I’ve felt confident in my money and in my future ability to have money. Until that point, I was always living paycheck to paycheck.

Sebastian: My family’s financial mindset comes from my grandfather. My family owns two buildings in New York City because my grandfather had the foresight to buy them in the ’40s and ’50s. He was born in 1919, so when he grew up, he went through the breadlines and all of that stuff. He served in World War II.

When I was growing up, my grandfather had more money than anyone I knew — but if you looked at him, you’d never know it. He didn’t spend money on clothes. He drove a Buick. He lived in Bayside, Queens. He had wealth, but he didn’t spend it on things that he considered unimportant. Those values were instilled in me and shaped the way I think about money.

Jessica: I forget when it was when I was shocked that you didn’t have a credit card.

Sebastian: It was when we were talking about renting a car because you need a credit card to rent a car. I had never needed a credit card before then because it had never mattered.

Jessica: I was, like, pissed. “What do you mean, you don’t have a credit card?” I put my textbooks on my credit card, and I only recently paid it off. I was so used to paying for things on credit, and I remember being angry that it was on me to use my credit card if we wanted to rent a car to do things together.

Sebastian: My mother never really discussed the importance of building credit with me. She did have a credit card and would put big purchases on it, but growing up in a New York City apartment without a car or a big house, there weren’t too many “big” purchases. When I went to college, I got a debit card that tied to a joint checking account with my mom.

Jessica: Sebastian was super-hesitant [to take out a line of credit] because he didn’t want to buy anything he couldn’t afford, and if he was only buying stuff he could afford, why did he need a credit card? I had to explain to him about credit, and how building your credit score now could help you get a mortgage later. I probably overreacted, back then — it felt like he was only thinking in terms of buying what he could afford, and he wasn’t thinking about what he might need to do to get a home loan someday.

Now that we’re married, we’re sharing finances, but before we got married, Sebastian kept stuff really close to him as well. I didn’t find out until a few years after we were dating that his family owned buildings in New York City. I assumed they owned the unit, not the whole building. I didn’t know that he had a trust that paid for his college. I think he might have felt bad telling me those things because my financial background was so different.

Sebastian: It was also because those were things I hadn’t earned. My grandfather bought the building. My mom was a schoolteacher who got to live there rent-free because she wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise. My family may have been wealthy, but since I didn’t earn any of it I didn’t feel wealthy.

Jessica: Last year, I finally paid off my student loans. It was over $120,000 of student loan debt. I came into the relationship with a lot of credit card debt as well. I was always worried about making sure my credit score was fine, but Sebastian taught me how to actually pay off my debt. He showed me how to pay off the high-interest debt first, and told me that I could call my credit card companies and request lower interest rates. I never had anyone to talk about debt with before. He was super-supportive and never judgmental about it. He just said, “Let’s figure out a way to make it better.”

He pays our mortgage now, and a lot of the spending we do for groceries and child care, he takes a lot of the big-ticket items off my plate, but even more important is all of the financial advice and encouragement he’s given me.

Sebastian: Jessica had this mindset of “I’m always going to have student loans. I’m always going to owe this money.” I was like, “It doesn’t have to be like that.” I told her that I would take on some of the other financial responsibilities, but she would have to pay off her student loans.

Jessica: I would always say, “My grandkids can pay off my student loans for me.” Or, whenever there was a whiff of student loans maybe being canceled, I’d say, “Well, I’m not paying them if they’re going to get canceled!” I would always make excuses about why I didn’t want to make more than the minimum payments. Putting enough money toward your loans to start paying down the principal was a financial tactic I had never considered. I have a college degree, and I feel like I learned nothing about personal finance until very recently.

Jessica: We live below our means, we never feel financially stressed or overextended. Instead of buying a new car, I decided to pay off my car loan, and now I have no car payment. He makes me feel proud of those kinds of milestones.

It used to be that if I had any extra money, I would cling to it or go buy a beautiful dress or something. Now if I have $500 left over, I’d rather invest it and get potentially better returns on it. That’s also something Sebastian has taught me about: I was always scared of investing, but he explained that it was how to build wealth in the future.

Sebastian: I think you had the mindset that investing was like gambling. To a degree, yes, but it’s an educated thing. It’s not a zero-sum game. You can earn 15 percent if you do your research. To some people, earning $150 on $1,000 isn’t a big deal, but that’s how wealth grows.

Jessica: I pick stocks, and sometimes they have, like, a 30 percent return rate, and Sebastian is really proud of me. Part of my job is watching trends and what’s emerging, and I’m really interested in youth culture and the things that they’re investing their time and money in. I give Sebastian a lot of stock tips, and we do really well sometimes.

Sebastian: We do individual stock-picking, which is not the best financial advice, but it’s worked out pretty well for us.

Jessica: I love picking a good one. I try to invest in companies that are ethical and have good practices, and I’m proud when the companies I believe in do well.

Sebastian: My grandfather used to tell me that he’d be driving around and he’d see a truck, and the name on the side of the truck would be something he’d never heard of before, and if he saw the truck three more times, he’d look into the company. Jessica is doing the same kind of thing. She’ll see a product that looks new and interesting, and she’ll figure out who owns it and whether it’s being publicly traded.

Jessica: One of my proudest moments, financially, was when we bought our San Diego home in 2015. It is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home that’s about 1,000 square feet and the purchase price was $540,000. The neighborhood back then was “up-and-coming” but we loved it for its walkability and central location to downtown and the beaches. Sebastian’s mom generously donated the majority of the 20 percent deposit that we had to put down to avoid PMI [private mortgage insurance] fees. We’d love to be able to purchase a larger home, now that our family is growing and there are kid toys everywhere, and rent out our smaller home. That’s a goal I have, and I look forward to making money off the equity we’ve built in our current home.

Sebastian: I think having two houses would be great, but what I really want is the financial flexibility to not have a traditional job. I’d love to have enough passive income to be self-sufficient.

Jessica: I also want to set up our daughter for success — we’re researching the differences between a 529 plan and other options, and I want to make sure we can support her whether she decides to go to college or chooses another path in life.

Sebastian: I was fortunate to be in my financial position, and I want to make sure our daughter is the same way — that she can go to college without that burden. I witnessed, for so long, the toll those student loans took on Jessica.

Jessica: You want to make sure your children have the best and that they’re prepared for life, but you also want to make sure they don’t take anything for granted.


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