Life and Money With Helaine by Helaine Olen

Lean Times Still Haunt Wife Starting New Career

Dear Helaine: I want to know what to do with my small but steadily increasing savings. I'm one year into a new career after staying home with a small child while grinding away at school. My husband supported us so we could (painfully) survive on just his income. He grew up middle class, so he graduated with no student loans and $200,000 from a trust he won't touch. He works a union job that pays OK and has a good pension plan.

We owe $200,000 on our home (we live in a pricey area) and $60,000 in student loans for my education. I made big money mistakes before I married, so I came into the marriage with no savings, no marketable skills and $20,000 in debt. Since I've started working, I've paid off all our credit cards, splurged on a few items, visited family and made donations to my favorite charities. I've also put about 20% of my paycheck into our joint account monthly.

I largely subscribe to the "what's his is ours and what's mine is mine" philosophy because I think I am at high risk of falling back into poverty should anything bad happen to me/us. Is this fair or insane? What should I do with the $20,000 I've saved so far? And should I sign up for my workplace retirement account? -- Now Richer, Not Poorer

Dear Now Richer, Not Poorer: It sounds like you feel your spouse is more financially advantaged than you since he comes from a more monied family and enjoyed benefits from that. But you need to remember you got something from that, too. He supported your family when you went back to school, and he doesn't seem all that concerned about how much money you are now putting into your joint accounts and how much you are reserving for your own use.

Here's where I would start: You and your husband need to sit down and talk all this over. That's really your first order of business. It sounds like both of your habits are good, but you'll do better in the short and long term if you are on the same page with your finances: How much should both of you put in separate accounts? What about the joint one? Do you feel any urge to further merge your finances?

There are no right or wrong answers here -- it's up to you and your spouse. But do it together, not solo. At the same time, you most certainly should sign up for your workplace retirement plan. It will not only give you your own individual savings, it will also allow you to put money aside for your future in a tax-advantaged way.

As for the $20,000, it sounds like a great emergency fund.

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