The year was 2006. Sarah Li Cain had just graduated college… and was in love. Things were a’ changin’. Sarah had accepted a job offer in Australia.
A month after she started her new job in the Land Down Under, her boyfriend of two years journeyed across the pond and moved in. That’s when the money problems began. While he did pay for some things, Li Cain bore the lion’s share of financial responsibility. She paid for everyday expenses such as groceries, transportation, and going out.
At first she offered, mainly because of guilt. “I felt responsible because he moved there to be with me,” recalls Li Cain, who is now 34 and happily married with a son. “I also received a promotion that involved me moving across the country, and he wasn’t able to get a job during that time. So I felt bad about the whole situation.”
Her boyfriend used the guilt to his advantage and Li Cain found herself footing the bill for their expenses as they traveled throughout Australia and New Zealand.
Give an inch, take a mile
The signs that he was using her as an ATM were subtle. “He would complain about money, that he didn’t have enough,” Li Cain recalls. “And when he noticed I was starting to pay for more meals and such, he started asking for more.”
They had awkward conversations about how she earned more than he did. Li Cain admits to feeling so insecure about their relationship that she offered to pay. “I just remember his face and posture, as if he was unhappy, and I blurted out that I’d pay for everything.” One big problem: their lifestyle was above what she could afford to sustain.
After a year in Australia, Li Cain moved back to Canada but her boyfriend decided to stay behind for a few more months. He broke up with her over MSN Messenger (remember, this was about 10 years ago). He said he needed “a break,” but she never heard from him again. Li Cain was distraught, especially when she faced the $9,000 in credit card debt she had amassed paying for everything during their relationship.
Frugal living to recover financially after a heartbreak
Separating the heartbreak from the balance sheet, Li Cain resolved to pay off the debt as soon as possible. She moved in with her parents, and worked two low-wage jobs. She socked away part of her earnings in an emergency fund and saved $2,000 in a few months. The rest of her earnings were applied toward her credit card balance. Because she lived rent-free, she used her “rent” budget to knock down debt.
After a few months, Li Cain got a job teaching in South Korea. The cost of living was low. Free housing came with the gig and her salary was equivalent to what a teacher would earn in the U.S. Li Cain was able to put a great deal of disposable income toward paying off her debt. “I was never a frivolous person, so I didn’t go crazy dining out or spending money on entertainment, which helped,” she recalls.
Improving the emotional relationship with money
To stave off overwhelming feelings of resentment, every time Li Cain made a debt payment, she consciously recalled something fun about her time in Australia, such as exploring new terrain, or meeting dynamic people. “I had to view the debt as something positive,” says Li Cain. “If I only associated it with my ex, I would’ve resented the time I was there.
Within a year her credit card balance dropped from $9,000 to zero. It took longer for Li Cain’s emotional wounds to completely heal. She not only felt resentment toward her ex and the failed relationship, but toward herself over the manner in which she handled her finances during the relationship.
Financial and emotional lessons learned
Li Cain did plenty of soul-searching, eventually forgiving herself for past mistakes and her ex for what happened. She realized that to avoid repeating the same mistakes, the change had to come from within. She worked on developing healthy boundaries in life and relationships. Her attitude toward money changed. “I stopped hanging out with people that weren’t serving [my well being], and those happened to be ones that were careless with their money,” says Li Cain.
Importantly, Li Cain stopped spending to impress or please others. “I used to think that I needed to have an interesting hobby or do cool things in order to fit in, like having a huge record collection, or shopping with my friends because that’s what they did for fun. Once I really figured why I was spending, I stopped a lot of it and focused on things that brought me more joy, like joining yoga classes, traveling more, and reading books. Learning to say no and sticking to it has been one of the best lessons I’ve learned in the past 10 years.”
Li Cain also started a blog, High Fiving Dollars, which shares other people’s personal struggles of money as well as her own.
For people who suspect their significant other may be using them as an ATM, Li Cain offers a few suggestions:
Look for telltale signs
Be on the lookout for telltale signs. For example, your partner doesn’t make an effort to better his or her career or money situation. Instead, your partner subtly—or flat out—asks you to foot the bill. Or, your partner complains about money and expects you to pay.
Assert your boundaries
“It sounds scary, but the best thing you can do is to say no to things that don’t serve you,” says Li Cain. “Practice saying no, little by little.”
Slowly cut off ties
If the person gets defensive or angry when you draw your boundaries, that’s a sign that he or she is not a healthy partner for you.
Don’t beat yourself up
“You might be feeling ashamed, and it’s totally OK to have those feelings,” explains Li Cain. “What’s not OK is thinking or believing you’re a failure or not worthy as a person. You made decisions you thought would make you happy or you thought were best at the time. That is all.” Reflect on the situation and think about what you choices you can make to be happier down the road.
Li Cain hopes her story can serve as a cautionary tale for others. While easier said than done, it’s important to learn how not to be such a lovefool that you can’t see what’s really going on. “I was so obsessed with finding the ideal romantic relationship that I did whatever it took to get it,” Li Cain painfully admits. “Even though that person was obviously not the right one for me, I was just chasing this fantasy because I didn’t believe I was able to find anyone else.”