Joon, I live in New York City which, as everyone knows, has a very high cost of living. I live in a pretty awful area of it—constant noise, daily aggression, strong smells—because that’s what’s affordable to me.
My dream is to live in a quiet apartment in a safe area, and to save aggressively toward Financial Independence so I can stop working at exhausting jobs I hate. I don’t have the money to do that at the rent rates here.
My job pays $18/hr. I’m been trying to push my girlfriend into getting a different job that pays at least that, but it’s not working. Instead, she seems to be getting more depressed, to the point that she’s freaking out. Between her panic attacks, poor health indicators, and overall resignation, she ends up covering only about 1/6th of our shared bills, and I figure I’ll be covering more -not less- over time. I’m okay with that—we really love each other and even on her hardest days she’s genuinely a great person. She appreciates me as much as I appreciate her, and we do have fun together.
The good news, I guess, is that I’m still managing to cover all my bills, and even save every month, but I’m fucking tired. Please don’t tell me to leave town—after working hard to raise me, my dad really struggles with neuro-health issues and I’m his only real contact now. I’m not willing to abandon him.
Whew. I hear the overwhelm and sense of profound struggle in your note. You sound like a hardworking person with a strong sense of commitment and loyalty. Beautiful! At the same time, I recognize that your experience doesn’t feel particularly “beautiful” to you. You’re feeling frustrated, exhausted, and worried. You want desperately to get out of your current situation, but can’t see a way.
Granted, there are some real positives in your life. You have a job whose income allows you to cover all your costs and to save. Your girlfriend is also lucky enough to have employment. You have a sweet relationship with a person who is fun and truly kind. You have mainstream shelter even in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
But then there are the kickers: You’re the sole source of financial support for yourself, and your income is dependent on hour-by-hour work. You’re also the primary financial support for both your girlfriend (you’re paying 5/6th of the bills) and for your dad (you’re paying thousands of extra dollars in rent each year so that your dad’s needs are met). Your current environment is inflicting sensory overload on you. A safe, quiet home feels out of reach. After struggling with so much for so long, you may be suffering from dysthymia yourself.
You’ll already have heard the standard advice: Cut all unnecessary spending. Move to an area with a lower cost of living. Magically “make” your partner be different (apply for jobs with higher income, etc). The first two are in fact smart, but I’m going to assume you’re already slicing your spending to the bone in order to prioritize your dream apartment, and that you’ll move to a low-cost-of-living area as soon as possible.
So, what else is there, and when?
I see you having the following options right now:
1. Recognize that you are choosing to support not one, not two, but three adults. That’s okay. This decision may meet your highest values, your personal priorities. If supporting these two additional adults does indeed meet your value system—if you truly believe this to be the highest path for your life—this is the right choice indeed. And, if this is the choice you’re making, your financial planning will need to align with that reality.
For example, you will plan and budget per this support of three people. Further, if you feel compelled to compare your financials with others, you will do so with those also supporting three adults, not solo folks. Finally, while supporting three adults, your lifestyle will need to align with that decision, as will any boundaries you set with your loved ones.
e.g., You may determine that support of three adults is a higher priority for you than early financial independence, and adjust your financial goals accordingly. And, to be able to cope with your written budget, you might split your rent into three lines:
- Rent (what rent would cost you if you were solo);
- Parental Support (the difference you pay in rent to be near your dad);
- Spouse Support (the difference you pay in rent to house your beloved).
This logistical change to your written budget can bring relief and clarity, immediately and ongoing.
At the same time, you will be clear with your loved ones about what you can and cannot offer, and about what YOU need, too. For example, until she can contribute significantly to a standard rent, you may offer free rent to your girlfriend only in a house shared with roommates, or in a bachelor suite. Or, you may apply for subsidized housing or for a rent subsidy.
Similarly, you might offer to live in your parent’s city of choice for two more years—no more, no less—such that your parent can begin to plan for other support, or plan for a move with you to an area with a lower cost of living.
If you’re anything like me, you will be tempted to tell yourself you “have no choice” or that you “can’t” relocate, as though there are in fact no choices or decisions involved. There are some circumstances that truly do block some of a person’s choices: enclosure in a jail; residence in a war zone; a cut phone line; wages lower than the cost of daycare. But in most situations, there are choices—even if they are difficult to make, and even if our heart hurts when we so much as allow a mere possibility to flash through our mind.
When it comes to our fellow adults, we need to ask ourselves: Is she choosing to attend or to avoid therapy? Is he choosing to eat Snickers bars all day or rely mostly on plant-based foods? Is she choosing to deny her disability or choosing resources relevant to it? How do the choices he makes subsequently limit mine? How do I feel about that? What limits am I willing to have about how far her choices can narrow mine?
When we adjust our language to align with reality, our internal experience changes. We find a strange surge in personal power when we say, “As an adult in the United States, and not physically bound, I am free to leave. However, it feels more important to me to stay, so that’s the decision I’m making and living with.”
Sometimes our external experience changes as a result too, but often, the change to our inside one is more than enough.
2. If after the above exploration you find you are actually unsure about whether supporting two other adults is indeed the highest path for your life, consider therapy. An effective option for situations like yours is Codependents Anonymous. In this free 12-Step group, we learn how to recognize enabling, how to break our habit, and how to increasingly trust another’s ability to become self-supporting (emotionally, financially, or otherwise).
Two years ago, I witnessed a profound example of an adult male, who had long been deemed (by himself and others) as “incapacitated”, become profoundly capable and active. The change? His primary support person had passed away!
Examining our degree of support for our fellow adults does not demand that we abandon them, criticize them, judge them, or change them. It is only a path of considering our own relational habits and how those affect us, then making new choices that enliven ourselves and give those around us choice.
A healthy support will not urge us to pull the rug out from another. It will help us build our internal understanding and awareness, and slowly but surely learn how to care for others in balance with our care for ourselves.
3. If your partner is debilitated by panic, anxiety, depression, other neurological differences, or other ailments, ask her if she would consider applying for disability benefits, disability employment support, disability therapy, or all of the above.
If there is a serious barrier to an adult engaging fully in life or contributing to her household, disability support is an entirely appropriate path. The resources exist for just such situations. As I implied in my post on labels, “disabled” does not mean inept, stupid, lazy, pathetic, or anything else. It means “having a physical difference that makes some stuff tricky.”
Further, disabled rarely means “unemployable.” Most people with disabilities work, and legally bring in additional income through their employment. Their work is simply appropriate to their disability, and any cash disability benefit either “tops up” their income to a reasonable amount or allows the person to pay for the additional costs involved in maintaining employment while disabled.
Advocates have worked hard over the decades to put in place resources for us. Let’s not waste their efforts by avoiding the resources! Let’s make great use of them so we can help ourselves and then others.
4. Where a partner or parent is depending on us due to disability, YOU will need more resources. Stretching thin your attention, money, time, and concern over an indefinite period is a recipe for disaster. It depletes you (the caregiver) and, taken to excess, the practice can actually interfere with the loved one’s health. Luckily, many resources for YOU exist, too…
…support groups for caregivers. Income tax exemptions, per the cost of those we support (financially or otherwise). Reductions in fees per household (vs personal) income. Free recreational access for a disabled person’s companion. Insurance options for a loved one’s future needs. Networks for new ideas.
Tucking such supports in under YOU can make all the difference. In doing so, your stress reduces, your relaxation increases, your finances stabilize, and your options open up. While remaining loyal to and supportive of the people you dearly love—and whose needs you choose to prioritize—you also move slowly but surely into a place of true security.
You’re in a tricky circumstance, but creating clarity, inviting your beloved to access resources relevant to her, and increasing the support to you in proportion to that which you are giving out can turn this around—all without working longer or harder.