By Miranda Zhang
Lindsey Armentrout and Troy Skinner
In December 2013, Lindsey Armentrout returned her engagement ring to her fiancé, Troy Skinner.
Armentrout, 25, and Skinner, 31, had been living together for two years. Skinner thought their relationship was based on honesty, until he discovered that their joint checking account was overdrawn by $700.
Although she had graduated from college in May 2013, Armentrout did not land a full-time job until September of that year; and even then, she was earning only a $28,000 annual salary. Armentrout was struggling to pay the minimum monthly amounts on her car loan and four credit cards. Then, her student loan payments kicked in.
Armentrout was ashamed of betraying Skinner’s trust, so she hid her debts from him and hoped he wouldn’t notice the missing money before one of their paychecks cleared the bank. Meanwhile, Skinner kept spending without knowing the truth.
The couple’s debt snowballed until they owed the bank $3,600 in overdraft fees.
The Cost of Financial Secrets
Based in Columbia, Mo., Skinner earns a good salary as a mechanic and Armentrout works as a marketing coordinator for a charitable organization.
Although he made $7,600 that December, Skinner could not afford to buy his daughter Christmas presents because he had to put his paycheck toward overdraft fees and overdue bills.
Skinner took back the engagement ring, but the couple did not break up, and Skinner says he never lost hope in Armentrout.
“I trust her. She has the best heart of anybody I have ever known,” says Skinner. “I know that if we can just get through this rough patch, we will be fine. And I can forget it—I have a very short memory.”
Armentrout and Skinner both grew up in small towns and come from families with lower middle-class incomes.
Armentrout recalls watching her mother grocery shop with a calculator in order to stay within their tight budget. The family could not afford brand-name clothes—Armentrout didn’t get her first pair of Nike tennis shoes until high school.
Skinner remembers watching his father struggle financially to support a wife and six children.
As the oldest child in a Roman Catholic family, Armentrout was cut off by her parents when she moved in with Skinner without first getting married. And then, she began to use credit cards.
“It was just a constant cycle,” says Armentrout, who racked up debt and did not track her spending well.
Skinner says he understands Armentrout's mistake.
“I've learned that it doesn't matter how good or bad of a person you are,” says Skinner. “When it comes to money, it's hard to juggle.”
Obligations and Impulse Buys
And then there were the impulse buys. Armentrout needed a car to get to and from work. Considering her income and existing debts, Armentrout might have looked for a conservative used car that got good gas mileage. But she opted for a Grabber Blue 2013 Mustang, for which she took out a five-year auto loan.
Armentrout sees now that the sleek vehicle was a little out of her league.
“I loved the color of it. It was an impulse,” says Armentrout. “Looking back, it probably was not the smartest choice.”
Skinner's spending includes a monthly child-support payment, which he started to pay in 2011, backdated three years for his daughter from a previous relationship.
“The judge put me in a hole,” says Skinner. “I went to court that day without owing a dollar to anybody for anything. I walked out of that courtroom $10,000 in debt.”
This obligation and his other expenses mean that Skinner has to live on a frugal budget. Having built good credit, Skinner stopped using credit cards to avoid more potential debt. He also has reigned in spending on his hobby—rebuilding domestic sports cars with Japanese engines. Skinner estimates that he has spent thousands of dollars on car parts, but he has scaled back to get his budget under control.
“I could probably go out and buy a new car with the amount of money I’ve spent on parts,” says Skinner. “But that is not my priority right now—my priority is to be financially stable in other aspects of my life.”
Building a Future Together
Since the overdraft incident, Armentrout and Skinner have split their accounts to avoid more financial mishaps. Now, they divide their living expenses, including rent and utilities.
Armentrout says having separate accounts makes it easier to keep track of spending. “Otherwise, the possibility of getting into the same situation is pretty likely.”
Armentrout tries to pay her bills on time. She has stopped using credit cards and reduced the amount she spends on entertainment expenses such as eating out and going to movies. Skinner pitches in for groceries and other small purchases to help out.
Looking to the future, Skinner and Armentrout’s main goals are to get married and to upgrade from their two-bedroom apartment to a house. But Skinner wants to wait until Armentrout is ready.
“Since we are doing the whole splitting-the-rent thing, it would be counterproductive to move into a bigger place and increase [Armentrout’s] half of the rent just so I can have a garage and a bigger place,” says Skinner.
It has been a test for both of them to rebuild their relationship around better financial decisions. One of their strategies is to check their account balances more frequently.
Skinner turns to Armentrout half jokingly and says, “I still don't think you [check your account balance] nearly as often as you should.”
“Me?” replies Armentrout. “Yes, I do.”
“I check it at least every two days.”
“What's it today?” asks Skinner.
“Today? The amount?”
“You want me to tell you right now?”
“It was $680.”
“Are you being honest?” asks Skinner.
“I am being honest,” replies Armentrout.
They both burst into laughter.
[This post was contributed by Miranda Zhang. Zhang graduated from the University of Missouri in May with a master’s degree in journalism.]