Sarah’s Real Money Story: a tale of two relationships

Sarah is a Zopa customer from Staffordshire. She has a job she loves, a comfortable salary and is saving to buy a house with her partner. But her Real Money Story hasn’t always been so smooth. Now in her 30s, she’s still unpicking the financial damage from a relationship she started in her teens...

I was just 18 when I met John* (names changed to protect identity). He was a lot older than me, ran an established business and seemed well off.

Growing up, my family never had a lot of money. I don’t feel I ever ‘wanted’ for anything and I certainly don’t feel that I missed out on anything, but now I know I grew up in a house that had always had financial difficulties. People would knock at the door asking mum for money that she didn’t have. We’d up sticks and move a lot. Looking back, not having money was the norm.

And then John came along and paid for everything – meals out, holidays, bills. I didn’t earn much at the time and the only thing I paid for was our food.

So, I was living the fairy tale. I’d found a knight in shining armour, which, as a woman, I still think we’re conditioned to want. But actually, when the knight in shining armour arrives, he’s just the average Joe down the street who’s got all of their flaws as well.

While we were living a good life, we did have debt – almost £10,000 across bank loans and credit cards. And it was all in my name.

**If I could talk to my 18-year-of self I’d say ‘Don’t do it! Be sensible! You're not earning the same as him. Think about the future.’ **

But at the time I didn’t know anything about money. I think you should start learning about it when you take your GCSEs. Let's be honest, how many people use algebra or pie charts in their daily life? I manage a shop’s finances on a daily basis, but, apart from basic percentages, I don't use any of that maths I was taught at school.

Then things started to breakdown in the relationship and I had to get out quickly.

I left the house, and what I took with me was all that debt and no knowledge of what being an adult costs. I’d been in that relationship - being paid for - my entire adult life. So, it was shock to leave and need to pay for everything. Even to find out how much the basics, like gas, electric and water, cost.

The issues really started when I couldn't afford to pay back what we’d borrowed. And it was my problem because it was in my name.

I had no idea of the consequences of ignoring that debt. I buried my head in the sand and ended up with County Court Judgements (CCJs). And they have long-term consequences.

For example, when I applied for jobs, I was so scared I’d be turned down because one of the CCJs had an attachment of earnings order on it (this means they take the payments straight out of your salary). Even now, I’m saving for a house with my partner, but I can’t get a mortgage until the CCJs expire.

Things couldn’t be more different with my new partner.

I think we first talked about money in the first month. I felt it was important because I was still paying off debt, so if he wanted to purchase a house, it wouldn’t be happening anytime soon.

I think as you get older these things are easier to talk about. Once you get to 30, then everyone's got something in their closet, whether it's money or whether they've had a relationship breakdown.

So early on we knew we were on the same wavelength, with the same goals on the same timeline. 2023 is the year we’ll buy our house. We split costs equally and plan our budget together. We love a spreadsheet.

My partner and I both have a Lifetime ISA. I pay into weekly. We discussed it and even once we have purchased our first home, using the LISA funds as a deposit for the house, we’ll still keep paying into it because then it can go towards our retirement. We both have pensions too.

I will move into my partner's house soon, which will mean we can save even more money. I also got promoted last year and got a salary increase, but I consciously kept my budget the same so I can save the extra money. This mindset was helpful as I’ve been furloughed, so coming down to 80% of my earnings hasn’t been too difficult, particularly as I haven’t been paying for travel.

One thing I’m wary of is joint accounts. We won’t do that until we've purchased the house.

So, I’ve gradually got myself together and the last three years have been a really comfortable stage for me. But it’s been a long journey. I lived in house shares for years. I finally got my first proper education about money when I took a finance module in my degree.

I’ve been slowly paying off my debts and rebuilding my credit profile. I’m using ClearScore to keep an eye on my credit score, and I knew I wanted to take out a credit card to show I can keep up with repayments responsibly. That’s where I saw I was pre-approved for Zopa’s credit card. It’s a sign that my credit report is improving if I’m getting pre-approved for things. My Zopa card’s got a £200 credit limit on it. I use it little and often then pay it off, to keep building my credit file. (Zopa’s credit card had a variable representative 34.9% APR when this blog was published).

Thinking back, it was hard. I didn't speak to anyone about the mistakes I made and it still gives me nightmares. I made a lot of bad decisions about people and money so now I‘m super careful.

Let’s face it, the average person on the street isn't going to go to an island in the sun and meet 15 eligible bachelors who all have really good jobs and then launch a social media career that's going to pay for them for the rest of their lives. That's not how life works, despite what Love Island tells us.

I think a lot of the anxiety and mental health issues are caused by the lack of education on basic life skills. If it was part of national curriculum, I don't think there would be so many monetary issues or worries.

And we need to stop people thinking they can just wait for Prince Charming to come into their life, because that's never gonna happen. It's just not how the real world works.

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