The Other F-Word

Finances. Unless you’re in the financial industry, you probably hate dealing with finances, period. But you probably hate even more to discuss those finances with your significant other. As I’ve watched my friends join me in coupling off, I’ve noticed that one of the hardest things for couples to figure out is how to warm up to the concept of “our money.”

The reason “our money” is so hard to adjust to is because it’s likely that your whole life, you have been dealing with “my money.” As a child, you may have had an allowance that was correlated with the chores you did. Your elders did this to a) get you to pitch in on chores and b) teach you the value of working for your money. So, from a young age, that five dollars (or whatever it may have been) was yours and you could do what you wanted with it.

As you got older, you became old enough to start babysitting, perhaps, or to rake leaves or shovel snow for your neighbors for extra cash. By the time you hit high school and/or college, it was set in stone. I work. I get the money. Maybe you got a few roommates, and while you shared the rent and utilities, you probably were concerned about who was eating your food, who broke your lamp, whether people were nosing around in your room.

This is not only the norm, it’s totally healthy. Working for money, and having a sense of ownership over your space and your belongings, is an excellent source of self-worth (as long as there is proper balance, your stuff doesn’t end up owning you, and so on). It’s why so many Americans continue to spend so many hours of so many days at a job they don’t love: because it’s what you do. You need the money to live, to buy food, pay for shelter, and occasionally splurge on some fun stuff.

That’s why it is so hard to cede any ownership of “your money.” It has been your money for so long. But, as your significant other becomes more and more significant, it is essential to a healthy relationship. It’s one thing to mark “Hattie’s!” on the milk carton, or to divide up the rent among roommates based on who has the biggest bedroom, but if you still do it with a live-in love, it can become problematic. Even the closest friends and roommates still don’t have the same shared responsibilities that a live-in or married couple has. It’s a mindset shift that is very hard to make.

Trust me, I wasn’t always on this side of the fence. My husband entered our marriage with student loans, while I was fortunate enough to have had college paid for in full. I, however, made significantly less than he on my nonprofit salary. And, due to having learned about money very differently from our respective sets of parents, we had different attitudes about saving vs. spending, retirement funds vs. paying off current debt. I felt that, since our financial situations and goals were so different, maybe we should just keep our current bank accounts and money habits as they were, and just sort of co-exist.

But it didn’t last long, for two reasons. One, it felt completely ridiculous, especially as we got closer to getting married, to go to the grocery store with separate lists, pay separately, and then come home and unpack everything into the same pantry and refrigerator. It felt weird to write my almost-husband a check so we could “split the rent.” Then we started getting wedding gifts or checks, and things got even murkier.  So this was “our” stuff, “our” money? We opened a joint account for the wedding money, and then argued about whose blender we were going to throw away to make room for the new one.

Second, and more dramatically, we moved to a new city (for his job), and I became unemployed. Nothing illustrates the team mentality of a committed or married couple like one member losing their job. Suddenly, it wasn’t about two separate people. We were a team, and we had to figure out how to work like a team. We couldn’t keep up the his money/my money charade anymore, because I didn’t have any money. (Do I even have to tell you that we merged our accounts and stopped “splitting” everything?)

It shouldn’t take a big event to inspire couples to have the “our money” discussion. There are so many ways to work on merging your money that still allow both individuals to retain their sense of independence. You could have a joint account and your own separate accounts. You could come up with rules about how much each can spend without needing the other’s approval.

Fun, right?! Ugh, not at all. But it’s an important step, and the sooner everything is out on the table, the better.

Leave a Reply