Monday, March 21, 2011

Money and Marriage

Sometimes, one of the hardest things to negotiate in a marriage is money. This can definitely be a struggle in any relationship, but marriage can add the complex layer of fully joining finances (or not). And as it so happens, money is also one of those things that polite society just doesn't talk about. It can be tricky to talk finances with family and friends and I've noticed that, at least in my own life, when it is discussed people tend to paint broad strokes and avoid getting down to the nitty gritty details.

This hesitancy to divulge makes total sense. The number in your checking account or on your credit card bill is personal. Plus, because people rarely talk about this there is also the nagging fear of whether your numbers match up with what everyone else has. And god forbid they don't. What does that mean? I know I can get anxious just thinking that maybe everyone else on the planet is saving gajillions more dollars than me or that my credit card balance is exponentially larger. Yikes. Makes me nervous just to think about. Given this money shroud of secrecy and all of the feelings wrapped up in what each number means, it can be HARD to talk money with your significant other. Damn hard.

No wonder people fight about it, right?

So, I thought I'd share with you the money history of my relationship with Neill. I'll be detailing how we handled finances throughout our relationship and how it has changed over time. 

When Neill and I first started dating we each had a personal checking out and a personal savings account. I had some small mutual funds that were set up for me by my family and Neill had a retirement account started. Neill had a job and I was a college student who worked during school breaks and got money from my parents. Neill lived in his own apartment and paid his rent and bills, while I lived in a dorm and was on a meal plan that were both paid for by my parents. Obviously, we started in very different places!

The first two years of our relationship we dated long distance. While only seeing each other every other weekend sucked, I think living in different cities protected us from dealing with money issues early on in the relationship. For example, I don't think we talked about how much money we had saved, if we had credit card debt, or Neill's income. And we certainly didn't have to talk to one another before deciding to buy something. When we saw each other, Neill usually paid for dinner or whatever we were doing. But, once in a while I would use the cash I had to pick up the tab. As you can see, money between us has never been fifty-fifty.

A few weeks before I graduated college Neill officially became a homeowner and when I was finished with school I moved in with him. I think we had some general discussions about what he was expecting financially from me, but the expectations were pretty low. We knew we wanted to live together and so we figured we would make it work somehow. At this point, Neill paid the mortgage and all of the bills. I, on the other hand, was an unemployed college student with my eye on graduate school. I wanted to find a paid position working on a research study, but I couldn't find anything. So in order to get the experience necessary to be accepted into a clinical psychology doctoral program, I started working on a volunteer basis in two different research labs. Yup. You read that right. Volunteer. As in for free ninety nine. As in Neill was pretty much completely supporting me, with a few hundred dollars from my mom every once in a while.

While this arrangement let me build my CV, living completely on Neill's dime brought up all sorts of weird feelings for me. For example, I remember when we would go grocery shopping I felt like I had to ask Neill's permission before I put anything in the cart. Plus, with taking on a mortgage Neill's monthly expenses went up. Even though Neill has always been EXTREMELY generous and never once made me feel like he differentiated between what was his versus what was ours, I hated feeling like I didn't have any cash to burn.

Thankfully, after six long months I finally got a job. I wasn't making much - but at least I had a full-time salaried job and I was earning an income! Neill still made about five times my salary, but bringing home a paycheck made me feel good about being able to contribute to our household. It was during these few months that we made our first household budget -- an excel document that I still have saved to my desktop.

In my next post, I'll share how we made our budget and how we decided to open our first joint checking account. Until then, I'd love to continue this discussion in the comments. How did you and your partner handle finances in the early stage of the relationship? Have you ever been in the position of not earning an income or being the breadwinner? Is it easy for you to talk about money with family and friends?


  1. Well peter and I have a similar story, he has the mortgage on our house because it is VA loan approved and we are not married yet. But what we did was tally up all the bills plus the mortgage and we each contribute the same percentage to the house. Since I am a full time student and make 3 times less than he does I contribute less but still 30 % which equates to him paying the full mortgage ($1250/month) and paying me $280 at the beginning of the month to help with bills (it use to be $320 but he pays my car insurance because its cheaper thru the VA). I do not think we will ever have joint accounts because I do not want to fight over the things mentioned above and I like spending MY money.

  2. I love that you're talking about this. You're right, not enough people are comfortable sharing, and I think we have a lot of unhealthy stigmas attached to certain money-related issues.

    We're in a tough place financially right now. R makes more money than I do, so he takes on a heftier portion of the bills although our money is pretty communal - if a bill is coming up, and I have more money, I'll pay it, but he handles more of the groceries, etc. It's even harder since I'm trying to start a photography business, and it takes a lot of scrimping to rent equipment for the few shoots I do have, and buy the basics for everything else. I think we handle our discussions on money well, but we don't have enough of a system down and so it's still stressful. Until the day when we aren't so paycheck to paycheck, I'm afraid that won't be going away!

  3. Steph - Thanks so much for sharing! It sounds like you guys have developed a system that works well for you two. I have thought about doing the math to figure out how we might be able to each contribute an equal percentage of our income, but it seems like for us it would require a total restructuring. I'm curious though - without a joint account how do you decide who pays for things you do together?

  4. Anni - There is a lot of stigma! I hate it! Unfortunately, I think talking about money is always stressful. But - you are right, it is way more stressful the months when money is tight. I think you are so brave for atarting a photography business! I can't imagine how stressful that must be. But you are so talented! I've been trying to come up with excuses to schedule a shoot with you :)

  5. Great start of the series-- I'm looking forward to the next bit. It's been my observation as well that people are generally hesitant to volunteer specifics about these kinds of things (and it's definitely taboo to ask), so I really appreciate you sharing your experience.

  6. We opened a shared checking account as soon as we moved in together (we weren't married yet), and we each contributed the same amount to the account each month to cover rent, utilities, groceries, dining out, etc. Then we kept our own accounts for savings and other spending. Since we got married in November, we've shifted most of our money into shared accounts for living and paying down his student loans, but we each keep a little cash in our own accounts for our own hobbies.

    Looking forward to hearing more about how you manage the budget!

  7. Sounds like we've had pretty similar experiences! Jason's older than me, so while my dad has been lending me money for my undergrad degree, Jason's been paid through grants for his PhD research.

    Now, though, I've graduated and I definitely feel the guilt of neither being employed nor in school. It's tough to get a job in the architecture field right now; if worse comes to worse I may have to find a volunteer position to build my resume like you have.

    Thanks for starting this interesting conversation! Looking forward to hearing more.

  8. i am very curious about your budgeting.

    talking money is an issue for me. and taking into consideration our cultural differences, the whole thing seems even more complicated.

  9. Kurt ~ Well I appreciate the comment! You are right - it is more taboo to ask about money than it is to volunteer information!

    Allie S ~ Your situation sounds somewhat similar to where we are now, except our financial isn't 50-50 likes yours. Thanks for sharing!

    April ~ We have had similar experiences! Neill is older than me, which has a lot to do with why he was already financially independent when we met. Although, I'll still be a poor graduate student when I hit the age he was when we first met. We have 7.5 years between us :)

    Anna ~ Thanks for stopping by! Talking money is really difficult and I can't even imagine how cultural differences add to the complexity! What has your experience been like?

  10. We are actually in the midst of combining our finances, as we get married this Saturday. While we've been basically transparent with one another, there's still part of me that's a little ashamed at my CC balance and savings account... It's difficult to feel as though you aren't contributing enough. I imagine this will be a larger struggle for me when we have children and I stay home with them full time. Yikes.


    All This Grace and Charm

  11. We take turns paying for things, like when I have the money or want to take him a date I do it. Usually he pays for most things we do together though. I don't mind and neither does he.

  12. Carly - Congratulations!!!!! That is so exciting! It is hard to be fully transparent - I think that is part of the reason Neill and I keep separate checking accounts.


Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Every comment brings a smile to my face!