The 20-Minute Financial Talk That Saved My Relationship

“I’m so sick of having the same fight,” I sighed to my girlfriend for what felt like the 100th time, massaging the bridge of my nose and closing my eyes in histrionic frustration. The subject sometimes varied, but the pattern was always the same: without fail, some seemingly insignificant grievance (not doing the laundry or not going grocery shopping, for example) snowballed every month into a dramatic metaphor for our flailing relationship as we transitioned to living together.

It didn’t take my girlfriend, Anna, and me too long to notice that these arguments seemed to always bubble up right after rent was due. We have been living together in Brooklyn for two years, during which we experienced unemployment, a rent hike, increased student loan payments, and unexpected medical bills. And while we pride ourselves (that’s right, never fear: we’re still quite happily together) on an equal partnership, it doesn’t change the fact that our income levels to this day are vastly different. Although both making modest salaries, at the time of our biggest financial fight, I was making twice the income of my girlfriend.

As a couple, Anna and I are definitely a case of Opposites Attract — we have different financial goals, education levels, career paths, and cultural backgrounds, plus have a five-year age difference to top things off. My longer tenure in New York and experience moving from city to city amplified our income disparity, and her emotional awareness and no-games attitude were completely foreign to me. Over the years of growing together, we’ve worked to face every struggle as a team. But time and time again, money matters led to ever-escalating, no-win arguments.   

For all of our smugness when listening to friends in heteronormative relationships complain about struggling with gender norms, Anna and I found ourselves facing several difficulties in navigating finances as an unmarried couple living together. When you both wear the pants, who picks up the check?

Like many people our age, Anna and I didn’t have the most responsible financial role models growing up, with parents from the era of the model of “what’s mine is yours” — including joint bank accounts and joint debt. But according to research, roughly 42% of present-day married couples have separate bank accounts, retirement plans, and credit cards. We wondered: how have couples adjusted their finances to account for this?

True to the Brooklyn model, we were supplementing our income with credit cards, and didn’t dare let the stress of expenses show through while insisting on picking up the check for the third dinner out that week. Of course, we had no budgeting or financial instruction in school, and had both come from jobs in the service industry, where an unexpected expense just meant picking up an extra shift or two.

One thing was obvious: we as a couple had financial issues that weren’t being addressed, and not talking about it was not sustainable. It took an embarrassing amount of time to recognize that, although our finances aren’t joined, they are dependent on each other — just like we are. So as a team, we decided to sit down every month for a 20-minute financial check-in: one where we focused on finding solutions, not pointing out problems.

The structure of the check-in is simple:

  • First, we each take turns talking about how we feel about our current financial situation and why. Anxious? Frustrated? Relieved? By unpacking the sources behind our feelings, we both became far less reactive, and instead looked to proactive ways to address negative feelings and build on positive ones.
  • After that, we each share with the other what we’ve decided our financial goal for the next month is. Our first month’s individual goals were as small as starting an auto-debit savings account for travel (even just $5 a paycheck makes a difference!) and cutting down taking cabs to just once per pay period. Each subsequent month, we asked ourselves whether we both met our goals, how, and what worked (or what didn’t) to set ourselves up for success.
  • Finally, we each named one thing we plan to do over the next month to improve our financial situation. It can be as small as researching Roth IRAs, as simple as creating a budget, or as basic as building a habit like checking your bank account every day.

This structure may seem simple — it is — but its simplicity did wonders for starting a dialogue on an often uncomfortable subject. Our check-in is every month after rent is paid, and has a few simple but incredibly effective guidelines:

  • TALK ABOUT IT (and take notes) — No matter the subject, no good comes from hiding your feelings from your significant other. Talk about it with a glass of wine, or on a walk, or in the small but significant moments every day, when you make financial decisions. Was our argument about not going grocery shopping really about that? Or was it that one of us had to choose between paying a bill on time or going to the grocery store? And as stuffy as it may seem, keeping a record of what you discuss will keep you on track, and keep you accountable to your partner and yourself.
  • FINANCIAL STABILITY IS SEXY — Okay, it’s not all that sexy. But let’s face it, neither is holding back your loved one’s hair when they’re sick from a stomach bug. Still, it’s an important part of any romantic relationship. In the bedroom and in the checkbook, there’s no room for shame or blame. And what is sexy is talking about your future, setting and accomplishing goals together, and maybe even rewarding yourself with lingerie you can actually afford.
  • DEFINE FINANCIAL EQUALITY — Every couple is different, and so are their finances. Does being equal financial partners mean that you both pay half of the rent, or each pay the same rent ratio as your incomes? Discussing boundaries like giving/loaning money to each other, comfortability with picking up the check, etc. is uncomfortable and often uncharted territory, but will help avoid future tension.

Finances ebb and flow, and so have Anna’s and my successes with our financial check-ins. What hasn’t changed is the value in coming to each other as a fellow problem-solver rather than as two people racing against each other to some imagined finish line.

There’s no cure-all for financial hardship, whether it’s individual or shared with your partner. But a frank dialogue means that throughout the hardships, there will be one more person on your side to help you when you’re struggling, and share the champagne when you’re thriving.

Rebecca Stevens is a Brooklyn transplant who divides her time between writing for pleasure and writing for work. Previous publications include Brooklyn Magazine, Bitch Magazine, and GOOD Magazine. Find her on Twitter to learn more.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Rebecca Ann

    I love this idea. I’m single at the moment, and someone who is financially stable is definitely important to me. But when I do find someone to share my life with, I’d love to establish something like this to keep the lines of communication open, to avoid the big money blowouts.

  • nancxpants

    This is a great model for a financial conversation! I would love more articles like this on practical tips to work on finding financial balance with a partner.

  • jdub

    This is so, so important. As a couple my fiance and I have gone through a lot of stuff — both excellent/fun/exciting, as well as stressful/challenging/divisive.

    We take the time to check in with each other pretty much every pay period; we don’t share finances, but we 100% have each other’s backs. If one of us needs some help to cover an unexpected bill, or we are saving for something as a couple and need to keep each other in check, it’s really a huge relief to know that we can both be that person for each other.

    We have never fought about money in the whole time that we’ve been together, and that’s probably because we both used to be so bad with it! Now, we each value having an extra conscience to bring us back down to earth with a simple question of “do you need that right now though?”

    • Anon

      It’s really impressive you can have that conversation with feeling judged. I grew up in the type of house where my mom would say, “Don’t tell your dad I bought this!” It has made me scrupulously honest about purchases with my partner and a little paranoid about being judged. (Though he really doesn’t care.)

      • jdub

        We were best friends before we started officially dating, so neither of us have had a problem with being each other’s “get a grip” friend!
        It was hard to fight the urge to try to seem perfect and flawlessly responsible in the beginning, but we pushed each other to be honest until it became 2nd nature, and now we pride ourselves on it.

  • Jennifer Marie Thibault

    I agree! Having the structure is important so that these conversations don’t just happen when something is wrong. It’s important to have them even when things are going well! I created a template for couples to use to help record all the important passwords/accounts etc. Available for free here: http://www.survivorresources.com/key-accounts