Two Cities, Two Careers, Too Much?
When both of you are climbing the corporate ladder, you may have to live apart to get ahead. But making a commuter marriage work takes time and money.
(MONEY Magazine) – On a typical Monday morning, David Meyer wakes up at 4:45 a.m. in St. Louis and embarks on a seven-hour-plus commute to Providence. During a two-hour layover in Chicago, he grabs breakfast at McDonald's and catches up on academic papers. He won't see his wife, Judith Wangerin Meyer, until Friday, when he completes the trip back to Missouri. The two have been happily married for 40 years, but for much of the time they live 1,200 miles apart: David is a tenured sociology professor at Brown University; Judith is the president of the Lutheran high school association in St. Louis. And neither plans to retire or change jobs anytime soon.
The Meyers, both 62, became long-distance spouses five years ago, when Judith was offered a job in St. Louis. Because it would have been nearly impossible for David to find as good a position as he had, they opted for the commute, despite the emotional and financial costs. The Meyers estimate that they spend $15,000 to $20,000 a year for travel and extra housing, which puts a strain even on their comfortable six-figure income. "We've made sacrifices," says Judith. "But we decided it was important for both our careers to make this work."
One family, two homes: Think you couldn't find yourself living apart from your family, at least for a while? Think again. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 3.2 million married Americans (including military families) live in different homes, a 26% increase since 1999. And it's often for good reason. Employers increasingly expect high-level workers to relocate, says Linda Stroh, a business school professor at Loyola University Chicago, who has studied commuter relationships and their effect on the family. Plus, a greater number of women with high-paying jobs, as well as a growth in late-in-life marriages, when both spouses are well entrenched in their careers, are increasing the likelihood of a temporary separation. "Families today are often dependent on two healthy incomes, so losing one job can have a huge financial impact," says Stroh. "That means more couples are thinking, let's just try the commuter hat on for a while."
But being far away from your loved one can create a host of challenges, from fatigue to financial hardship. "This is an expensive way to live," says Jay Lebow, a clinical professor of psychology at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, who has seen an increase in the number of patients in commuter marriages over the past decade. "You have two homes, travel expenses--even if you are making a fair amount of money, the drain on cash is still considerable." Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the financial damage, as well as the emotional strain.
• Face Up to Higher Costs
The total expense of a commuter marriage can easily cause sticker shock, says Burlingame, Calif. financial planner Barbara Steinmetz, so create a budget before you take the job--and then look for ways to save. Housing is often the greatest sinkhole for long-distance couples, but depending on how many nights a week you spend apart, a hotel or short-term rental may be a cheaper alternative to two homes. The Meyers, for example, found that having David stay in a bed and breakfast near the Brown campus was not only less expensive than paying monthly rent, but also eliminated the need for them to keep a car in Providence or furnish two homes.
Living apart can easily lead couples to blow their budget on smaller items as well, says Olivia Mellan, a Washington, D.C. therapist who specializes in family and money issues. "It's a stressful situation, and when people are under stress they have a tendency to overspend," she notes. Don't use retail therapy to fight loneliness or anxiety, filling your closet with extra clothes and eating nothing but takeout. Do allow yourself extra cash for a second set of toiletries, a set number of on-the-go restaurant meals--or a periodic splurge to keep your marriage healthy. "The ultimate goal is to have a meaningful relationship," says Alison Piepmeier, 32, a college professor in Charleston, S.C. whose husband, Walter Biffle, 37, is studying for a fine arts graduate degree in New Bedford, Mass. "If that means we aren't always frugal, so be it."
• Ask Your Boss to Share the Tab
Workers often assume that their company won't be sympathetic to a commuter arrangement, but employers are frequently willing to pitch in, says Dan McLaughlin, an executive recruiter in Seattle. You're more likely to get a deal if the company has requested that you transfer, but even if you're accepting a new job, it's worth asking before you sign on. "Tell them allowing you to visit your family frequently is the best way for them to make you happy," says McLaughlin.
Companies are most likely to cover travel expenses, but they may also be willing to pay for some housing costs. That was the deal that attorney Amy Krallman, 39, struck when she was recruited three years ago for her current job as a vice president and corporate counsel for a financial services company. Her boss pays for weekly flights home to Long Beach, Calif. to see her husband Stephen, 40, an accountant, and for corporate apartments in both Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., between which she splits her time during the week. "I have to maintain three sets of wardrobes, toiletries and cosmetics, but otherwise there isn't a big financial impact on the relationship," says Krallman.
• Master the Mileage Game
Most airlines offer discounts if you buy a block of tickets well in advance, so book as far ahead as you can, and stick to one airline to maximize frequent-flier miles. You should keep enough miles "in the bank" to avoid paying exorbitant prices for a last-minute ticket. David Meyer, a Southwest loyalist, pays extra for two separate tickets (one from St. Louis to Chicago, the other from Chicago to Providence), because adding a leg to each trip lets him accrue free tickets faster.
• Make Time for Your Money
Money management can become a big headache in a commuter marriage because each partner doesn't always know what the other is doing. Some couples find it easier to keep money in separate bank accounts and pay bills on their own; others prefer to make one person largely responsible for everyday finances. Either way, "agree ahead of time who is going to pay for what, or get at least 90% of the bills to go out automatically," suggests St. Louis financial planner M. Eileen Dorsey. Online banking gives both spouses easy access to the family money. (Technology, of course, can be your secret weapon in a commuter marriage. Piepmeier, for instance, keeps an online blog with her husband. "I log on every day to see if Walter's posted something, and he does the same," she says. "It's a fun way to have a conversation that includes our friends and family.")
Faced with higher expenses and a constant lack of time, it's easy for long-distance couples to forget about long-term planning. Therapist Mellan recommends having a formal sit-down no less than once a month to discuss short- and long-term goals, as well as to make sure you are staying within your budget. "In this situation it won't happen spontaneously," she notes. Sign up for automatic investing in your 401(k) or IRA and contribute as much as you can. After all, if you've spent many of your working years apart from your spouse, you'll eventually want to retire in the same place. Even dedicated commuters like the Meyers are looking forward to the day when they can both settle in the same city. In the meantime, they have no immediate plans to return to a more traditional arrangement. "I love my job," says Judith. David agrees. "It's a balance of career and marriage. I love my wife, and we do what we have to do."