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3 couples on how they make financial decisions together

“If we had kept that credit card and added all our finances together, I honestly don’t think we would still be married,” one couple told us.

3 couples on how they make financial decisions together
[Photos: jansucko/iStock; nevodka/iStock]

Perhaps you’ve heard money is a major stressor in romantic relationships. That’s why, even in 2018, it can be uncomfortable—or even strain relationships—when the woman in a heterosexual relationship makes more money. And when two people in a relationship come from diametrically opposite socioeconomic backgrounds, it raises all sorts of difficult conversations about how you should spend and earn money.

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But as more women earn more and with most women working full time, even after they have children, some couples have opted out of a traditional marker of marriage: combined finances. These days, young couples—whether they are married or simply living together—are more likely to keep their finances separate, or at least partially so. When I talked to three couples about how they handle their finances, I found that none of them pooled all of their money in one account, but each couple had a different approach and outlook on their money. Here’s what they had to say.

When couples kind of combine their finances

It was sheer laziness that led Alli Owens, 28, and her husband Matt, 29, to keep separate bank accounts. The couple tracks those accounts through a joint Mint account, so in many ways their finances are merged. “When you’re having discussions about who’s going to pay for what, if you’re looking at it as a whole, and [your] accounts are considered a part of that big pot of money, then it’s not really important where that money is coming out of or where it’s going into,” Matt says.

Even prior to getting married, they didn’t have “clearly defined boundaries” with respect to money, he claims. It helped that as engineers in Bakersfield, California, their earnings were comparable. But earlier this year, Alli and Matt quit their jobs to focus on starting their own businesses, which has understandably changed how they talk about money. Though they planned for the change in employment, the couple couldn’t account for getting hacked and losing $17,000 in cryptocurrency. “We had that hack happen, and we still aren’t making as much money as we expected to in our businesses,” Alli says. “So I feel like we now have more realistic finance conversations that are actually really hard and kind of stressful.”

On a day-to-day basis, each of them consults the other if they want to make a non-essential purchase that costs more than $15. And every month, Matt pulls their Mint data into a spreadsheet, and the two of them take stock of their cumulative expenses—and savings—from the last 30 days. Neither of them feels the need to keep personal purchases private. “Some people do need their own money to spend however they please—psychologically, they just need that,” Alli says. “But I’m confident that whatever I ask [Matt], he’ll say yes. I’m not going to ask him unless it’s something I need, or something I’ve wanted for a really long time.”

Alli admits she is the bigger spender, in part due to her upper middle class upbringing, but she has since adjusted to living more frugally, both through Matt’s influence and to support their entrepreneurial ambitions. “I felt like when I graduated high school, I didn’t really understand the value of the dollar,” Alli says. “My parents tried to tell me I needed to go into engineering—which I ended up going into—so I could afford the same lifestyle that I had [growing up]. And it didn’t really make sense to me. I was like, ‘Well, what if I don’t want to do that, and I want to do something else? What kind of lifestyle is that? If I make $40,000 a year, am I not going to be able to afford rent?'”

She claims that Matt, who got his first job at 13 and describes both his parents as frugal, had a better baseline understanding of finances and money management. His approach has convinced Alli to cut back on extraneous expenses that add up—say, a coffee every day—if it means saving more in the long run for things they both want. “We’ve gotten really clear on what we want our ideal life to look like, and how our finances are going to fit into that and create that life for us,” she says. “I’ve really bought into the vision and the bigger picture. So the little expenses I would have previously spent money on, I just don’t really want anymore, because I see the delayed gratification.”

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When couples don’t combine finances

Twenty years ago, when Wendy Underwood, 43, married her husband Kurtis Kolt, 44, the couple opened a credit card together. “We thought that was the sort of thing married people should do,” she says. “We learned pretty quickly that we both had very different approaches to money. I was brought up to believe you do without everything to be able to pay off debt. My approach to that credit card was, I’ll have beans on toast for a week to make sure I pay off that balance at the end of the month.” Her husband’s outlook was more “casual”—he would make a payment but didn’t feel compelled to pay the full amount.

That card wasn’t in use for long. “If we had kept that credit card and added all our finances together, I honestly don’t think we would still be married,” Underwood says. “We just saw very quickly that it was a big source of tension for us.” It didn’t help that at the time, they were both young—in their early twenties—and still learning how to manage their personal finances.

So they created a new account solely to hold money for joint expenses like mortgage payments and utilities. The couple tracks those expenses alone in a spreadsheet. (“The secret to a healthy marriage is spreadsheets,” Underwood quips.) But with the exception of those big-ticket items, they keep their money separate.

Underwood is quick to note that for her, maintaining separate finances is “not a substitute for being transparent” when it comes to finances. “I can honestly say I’ve never hidden a purchase from my husband, unless it was a gift for him,” she says. “I’m not someone who has gone out and blown $600 on a pair of shoes and then hid them in the back of the wardrobe.”

For other couples, however, that can sometimes be an argument in favor of keeping finances separate. “I definitely have those moments where I’ll go on shopping sprees and don’t necessarily want to disclose how much things cost,” says Rachel Gianfredi, 27. “Or when there’s a frequent cadence of packages arriving at the door, there are certain times I’ll hide them from [my husband] or put them away before he gets home. But I think that’s just a matter of my own buyers’ guilt and something that I put on myself.” Gianfredi notes that despite keeping most of their money separate, she and her husband are fairly transparent about major purchases and trust that the other person won’t spend irresponsibly. But that doesn’t mean she knows how much money is in her husband’s checking account.

One reason the arrangement has worked for Underwood and her husband is because they value the same things, from travel to gourmet food. It’s a function of personalities and circumstances, too: Underwood and her husband are both fiercely independent and don’t have children. “I think I work really hard for my money, and I don’t want someone else telling me, ‘You should reconsider spending on this thing,'” she says. “I don’t want someone having that much control over my money.” It also helps that they are both self-employed and have similar incomes. “I actually do think it would be harder if Kurtis was earning a lot more money than me,” she says. “Then we would have to adjust our approach . . . but I do think we would still keep our money separate and just come up with a workaround that works for both of us.”

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For Gianfredi, the decision to maintain separate accounts was influenced by her upbringing as well. “We definitely talked about combining and not combining, and I was a little bit more guarded about that,” she says. “I think whatever your relationship with money has been in the past dictates a lot about what you feel about money. Personally, I had been making my own money since I was 14 years old. I’ve been working for a very long time, and I’ve always been in charge of my own finances.” Her husband, who came from more money, felt less strongly about how they split their finances.

Underwood is of the opinion that pooling all your money should not be the automatic solution (even if, for many people, it might be the obvious one). “People sort of know us as the people who keep their money separate,” she says. “We feel like it has been such a benefit to us that we do feel a bit evangelical.” She likens the decision to combine finances to the decision to change your last name (which she also opted against). “I absolutely agree that there are some really great reasons to change your last name,” she says. “I just think it should be a considered decision.”

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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