How The Hell To Handle Money In Your Relationship Without Having A Breakdown (Or Breaking Up)
As we’ve discussed previously, the Olde Method for merging finances was simple and straightforward:
The Man and Womyn shall meet when they are idiot teenagers. They shall marrie when they are both seventeen years old, after two weeks of casual dates at the soda shoppe. The couple shall thereafter commence cohabitation. The Man shall seek salaried employment, and shield the Womyn’s eyes from their mutual finances, excepting the allowance to keep herself in straight pins, and the house in mutton, and the sheepe in the oat corne, and the rye corne, and the barley. And i ‘t be true the Husband gambles her dowry hence, the Wyfe might not but wend to Reno and return to her father’s home in shame and disgrace. Oye, oye, oye, forever and ever, Amen.
Mmhmm, yep, that’s just how it went!
Because labor outside the home was classically a masculine burden (at least in the last few centuries and at least for middle- to upper-class folks), salaries and investments were largely the purview of men. Women, conversely, were usually tasked with domestic labor and household budgets.
The history of gendered expectations around money is long and bonkers. It was only in the 1960s that women gained the legal right to open a savings account of their own. Until the mid-1970s, banks refused to issue lines of credit to women without their husbands’ permission—and not at all to unmarried women. This is a great example of a situation where the patriarchy makes life unpleasant for all genders of people: women are treated like idiot children, men are treated like the long-suffering babysitters of their life partners. And it was all within living memory for our parents! Jeeeeezuz.
Point being, it hasn’t been a long time at all since couples were legally forced to merge most aspects of their individual finances. (We also invented gay marriage since then. You’re welcome.)
That means that couples today are almost certainly managing their finances radically differently than their parents and grandparents. We have a very shallow bench of examples to pull from! And we’ve made up individualized systems as we go, aided by technology. Here are the successful ways I’ve seen couples divide, partition, and share their finances.
Step one: figure out how you’re going to share expenses
This is the way you’ll split most things with a roommate. You get a $50 internet bill, and you both pay $25. Boom, done.
Assuming you both come into the relationship with similar circumstances, it’s perfectly fair! Of course, that’s rarely how life actually works.
There are lots of instances where splitting something 50/50 doesn’t make sense. In the above example, you’re paying to have equal access to a needed utility. But how do you divide the rent if, say, it includes a parking spot, but only one of you drives?
It’s usually easiest to come to a gentleperson’s agreement up-front about what feels fair to both parties given your unique circumstances. This means you have to be prepared to negotiate for yourself.
I once had a roommate (not Piggy) who wanted to split our rent based on square footage, because her room was smaller. But I pointed out that my room was a bizarre, asymmetrical L-shape, which made her room much more usable. My roommate backed down and agreed to stick to an even split. But every once in a while, she’d make an odd comment about how “funky and cool” my “big” room was, which I took for evidence of mild resentment. (I offered to switch with her. She declined. Can’t imagine why.) When I moved out, that roommate brought it up again with the next girl, and successfully pressed her into paying more for that Tetris block of a room. Poor thing.
If you want to be successful navigating a usage-split, I suggest being firm up-front, but flexible in the long run. Use it as practice for more important negotiations later, like buying a car or agreeing to a salary. And strive to neither be a passive-aggressive person, nor to live with one.
Scaled to circumstances
The nature of a roommate relationship is probably more businesslike than it is for a live-in partner. That’s because live-in partners come with all sorts of extra bonuses. Like sharing omelette ingredients. And fucking.
The heightened intimacy makes it more likely you’ll decide to scale some expenses based on your respective incomes. If Partner A makes $75,000 and Partner B makes $35,000, it would feel weird for them to split rent evenly. It means that Partner A has extra money for investments and luxuries that Partner B cannot relate to nor share in. Over time, this makes the relationship feel lopsided and dysfunctional.
I would only subsidize my partner if the following two conditions were met. One: I need to believe that their financial priorities are similar to my own. If I’m kicking in an extra $200 towards rent, you better be using that cushion to eliminate your student loans, not buy even moar weed. And two: I need to believe that we’re likely in it for the long haul. It’s a significant investment, so make it a sure thing.
Disclaimer: Don’t stay in sucky relationships because “well, I’ve come this far.” That’s the sunk cost fallacy talking. If you’re not happy, cut your losses and consider the money well-spent figuring out what you didn’t want in your future.
Scaled to effort
When Piggy and I lived together as roommates-cum-crime-fighting-duo, we had a lovely arrangement for sharing our food bill. I bought all of the food, and she did all of the dishes.
I have a feeling that exactly 50% of people reading this will say “Holy shit, Piggy got ripped off!” And the other 50% will say “Holy shit, Kitty got ripped off!” Which is how you know you’ve negotiated well!
This arrangement worked perfectly for both of us. Piggy was a tireless cleaner trying to save money wherever she could. I was a degenerate slob with good cash flow. It made perfect sense for me to pitch in more money, and her to pitch in more effort.
This kind of arrangement may seem unusual, but I can attest to its awesomeness. It streamlined a lot of unnecessary stress and resentment out of living situation, and we were both perfectly happy. It’s a great demonstration of the reality that equality is adaptive, not identical. (Piggy note: It was through this arrangement that I was introduced to the life-changing-yet-affordable wonder of Trader Joe’s frozen bison burgers.)
Step two: figure out how you’re going to share surplus
I think this step is the hardest part of figuring out how to share finances.
When a bill comes up, it’s not that hard to come to an agreement about how to split it. But what do you do when you have significant money left over? When does yours and mine become ours? And does it have to?
My blanket advice is to never, ever share your surplus with anyone without making a mutual meaningful long-term commitment. Getting married was a no-brainer to me, but the idea of merging finances made me balk like a Shetland pony asked to take a Normandy bank jump. I got there eventually—necessity is the mother of acceptance—but it was hard. And it should be.
After all, money is freedom. And hearts mend faster than credit scores.
But when the time is right to share, here are some options.
Yours is yours, mine is mine
Many couples persist in keeping completely separate accounts long into their relationship. After all, it’s easier than ever to shuffle money around. It’s not like you have to write checks to each other, an insane thing my grandparents still do.
There’s something to be said for keeping accounts completely separate, and each handling their own expenses, but selecting targeted areas to mutually invest in—an apartment, a pet, some furniture, etc. Adults with a strong foundation of trust should be able to commit to such things with a plan for how to divide them if things don’t work out.
Some people scoff at the idea of keeping separate accounts. Like it’s unromantic for everyone to retain their independent financial personhood, or something. But lots of people do it, and they’re also less likely to divorce! Shook emoji!! So if it works for you, haters can make an orderly single file line to the left.
Couples who want to keep separate accounts often find it easiest to put a set amount into a joint checking account for shared bills, and oversee the rest as they see fit.
Mine is yours, yours is mine
Some people don’t want any walls between them. They might feel that keeping separate finances feels deceptive or uncooperative. I get that. I initially kept separate accounts from my husband, but gave up when it no longer felt useful or necessary.
A complete merger of finances has great risks and great rewards. Your savings and investments can compound faster. You can work together to pay off debts more quickly. Some bills are cheaper, like phone plans. And you have full visibility into all the information you need to budget together.
But the obvious downside is that people use and value money differently. Before you merge finances, you should have a deep understanding and acceptance of the other person’s spending habits. You don’t have to be on the exact same page, but you must at least be in the same chapter. A quarter of marriages end over issues related to money.
If you and your partner share core money values, merging finances can work great. If you’re thrifty and your partner isn’t, it’s pragmatic to design your financial arrangement to circumvent as many future fights and disappointments as you can.
In this method, couples agree to a budget that accounts for individual tastes and interests. Both people have a set amount of “fun money” set aside each month. They can do absolutely anything they want with it (including letting it compile for a bigger-ticket purchase) and neither one gets to say shit about it. It lets everybody get on with their personal hobbies and feel a sense of some privacy and autonomy without letting it spiral out of hand.
Pay per chore
Divisions of household labor and emotional labor are still overwhelmingly gendered. Which means it’s not a bad solution that the person who performs the most work for the household to get more discretionary spending as a reward.
This can be done formally, with the help of a chore chart or an app that tracks household contributions. It can also be done informally. If I busted ass all day in the yard adding value to our biggest shared asset (our house), I have earned the right to spend $20 on a burger and a small aircraft carrier’s worth of fries at Five Guys. #treatyoself
Let’s take turns
Life deals out good luck and bad luck in turns. Maybe one partner is laid off, or pursuing an advanced degree, or is too sick to contribute meaningfully to the household, or wants to care for dependents on a full-time basis. These things happen, and committed partners may find themselves temporarily carrying the other financially.
This is a very easy way for one person to take advantage of another. Therefore, I advise a whole lot of caution.
I’ve been with my husband for eight years. And when he wanted to take time off to work on changing careers, I buckled down in a job I didn’t like to support him. I did that because we are family. We’re committed to sinking or swimming together. And I know that it’s very likely that one day I’ll need his support in the exact same way. But it took many years to grow that close. If we’d been in the same situation when we were one year into dating, I would’ve said, “Fuck naw.”
If a situation arises where your partner needs money, take serious stock of the state of your relationship first. Evaluate your partner’s credibility and trustworthiness. Money is to relationships as icebergs are to feats of engineering hubris. If you have doubts, exhaust every avenue of resolution before loaning or giving it to them. It does not make you a bad partner to be cautious and stay inside your comfort zone.
Whose job is it?
Never cede responsibility of your finances to anyone. Not your partner, your parent, nor even a financial advisor. It doesn’t matter if you’re committed like Penelope at the loom. No one and never.
Imagine a situation where the IRS contacted you about unpaid taxes. Or a credit card company started sending you threatening letters about a card you’ve never heard of. Saying “But, but, my spouse handles all that stuff!” is not going to make those nightmare situations go away.
Even worse, what if the spouse who “handled things” became injured, or sick, or even died? I hate to point it out, but as mortal creatures, there is literally a 100% chance of that happening at some point!
Regardless of who handles the day-to-day financial chores, both partners should know:
- What’s the family’s net worth, right now?
- What does your budget look like, if you have one?
- What’s the general trend of your net worth? Are you growing slowly, or bleeding money?
- How much money do both partners make, including bonuses or other significant financial perks?
- How much are you each contributing to your retirement?
- What do your taxes look like, and where are the copies of your past returns?
- What are your major shared assets?
- How much debt do you have, including student loans, car payments, mortgages, and credit cards?
- What’s the login for every credit card, bank account, brokerage account, and retirement account you share?
- Who are the beneficiaries in your wills?
If you couldn’t answer all of this information in an hour, what you’ve got is a fucking financial independence emergency. Fix that shit right now.
Friends and readers, I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive. How do y’all share finances with your respective henny pies? Tell us what works (and hasn’t worked) for you in the comments below!
Kitty and Piggy are head bitches in charge of Bitches Get Riches, a blog about finance, feminism, and fresh af RuPaul gifs. Sometimes they write about guinea pigs and video games. You can follow them on Twitter and Tumblr.
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