I met a really cool dude while going to private high school on scholarship a few years back. We clicked over similar interests and became very good friends. Then surprise! A few months ago, our relationship turned from a friendship into a long distance romantic relationship. Almost perfect.
Yet due to our different financial situations, the unfortunate reality that our universities are on different coasts, and the fact my parents moved after I graduated high school, I don’t have somewhere to stay in our hometown for breaks, and it isn’t financially viable for me to visit him, at least for the foreseeable future.
I don’t know how to have the whole “I’m paying for my own college, and working all the time, and my life has been kinda different from yours” conversation. He’s not a snob, it’s just both of his folks have high-paying careers and trust me, he doesn’t have a reference point for how broke I am right now. We never talked about money stuff that much before when we were just friends. I think that was mostly because I wanted to save face with my prep school friends in general, and later on there was no good time to say, “Okay I want to kiss you now, time for the sad backstory.” Yet I do acknowledge that it is important to communicate about -stuff- with romantic partners.
However, I am:
Only nineteen and have zero experience with this.
Afraid that if I have to postpone/cancel visiting him, it will jeopardize the relationship. (Not that I can stop him from ending it if he thinks that’s best, but I really care for him and I do want a chance to smooch his face.)
So Auntie how do I gracefully tell my boyfriend about my money problems, hopefully without messing everything up?
Well, let’s start there, Sparkler: if you tell the truth, and it messes things up, that’s not going to be your fault. Your financial situation is what it is, and the obligation to be graceful about it is your boyfriend’s, not yours. You just have to be honest. If he can’t handle the truth, that’s on him. (And while painful, it’s the kind of thing you’re better off finding out about sooner rather than later.)
Not that that is going to happen, of course. There’s no reason why it would! Very few people in this world—let alone a long-time friend who you like enough to date long distance—would be so crass as to break up with a girl just because she’s working her way through college and short on disposable income. Which means that with one or two minor caveats, you could explain your current state of financial constraint just about any way you like—any way that’s comfortable for you—and be fine. (The caveat: I’d probably avoid leaning too hard into the “my life has been different from yours, you have no framework for understanding” stuff, just because giving people the benefit of the doubt that they’re capable of understanding you is good practice that makes for good communication. And not for nothing, most people do have the capacity to empathize with various human hardships even if they haven’t experienced them personally.)
That said, if you’re looking for a strategy, I definitely like the direct approach for this kind of thing—not least because trying to tap-dance around it implies that there’s something weird or scandalous about being a broke college student, when of course there is not! So, here’s my advice: pick a reasonably opportune time (i.e. the next time you’re discussing future plans, maybe?) and broach the topic in a way that’s relevant to your relationship: “We’ve never really talked about this and there’s no non-awkward way to bring it up, but I have to tell you: I can’t afford to visit you on breaks unless you and your folks are willing to put me up in a guest room.”
From there, it’s a natural segue to revealing as much (or as little) about your current financial situation as you want to—although if your boyfriend has been paying attention and is a reasonably insightful guy, he may even have figured out a few things on his own already. And on that note, one last thing: yes, it’s important to talk about “stuff,” generally, with your significant other. But “stuff” doesn’t have to include a deep dive on your family’s financial background unless you want to talk about that, or it comes up in a context that makes it comfortable and natural to open up. And while it’s true that this is something you’ll probably end up talking about (or at least talking around, just in the normal course of getting to know each other more intimately), it’s not information you’re required to reveal—and in the (hopefully unlikely) event that he makes you feel bad about it, you’re also not required to stick around and put up with that kind of nonsense, either. Just saying.
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