…and “it” is money.
I was talking to a good friend of mine a couple of years ago, and she pointed out that there are two major topics that everyone is always in some sort of tizzy about, and they happen to be the two topics that we all have to deal with in some way, at some point: sex and money. In general, our education around these things is briefly touched upon in school, but mostly left up to our parents, and often parents don’t know how to talk about it, either because it’s awkward or doesn’t come up. So for both issues, we are left to figure things out ourselves. Which, if I may say so myself, completely sucks.
You make a lot of mistakes and have to do a lot of experimenting to make things work for yourself and for your partnership. No one rule works for everyone – and that is really frustrating. Why can’t someone just give me all of the answers?
Another friend emailed me recently and said that a lot of her couple-friends are keeping their finances separate, even after they marry. I think these were all straight couples she knew, and she was wondering how that worked for us. So here you go: a peek into the great money issue of Bird and Turtle.
Here is our background: I make very little money. I qualify for the state-sponsored health care because I am so poor (but I get better health insurance through work, so that’s what I do*). Turtle was making about twice as much as I was when we first got together, and even after she left that job and was receiving unemployment, her income was quite a bit more than mine. To even things out, we split our rent unevenly – she pays a little bit more and I pay a little bit less, and we are both saving about the same percentage of money now compared to what we were paying before we moved in together. For everything else – utilities, groceries, Zipcar – we decided to split things evenly.
And therein lay the problem. We ran into “I’ll get this one and you can pay me back,” and “Can you get Zipcar for my job? I’ll pay you back” and so on, but we only remembered to settle up every couple of months, and then we were a little freaked out because “You owe me a thousand dollars!” sounds like a really big deal. Even if it evened out (which it usually did) and one of us only owed the other one ten dollars or something silly like that. It was a huge stressor in our relationship.
So I got us a credit card. An REI credit card, because we like to shop there, it’s a co-op, and we thought we would get some fun rewards from it. If you already shop there a lot, it’s totally worth it. And this made things so much easier. Groceries? I’ll just put it on the card. Gas? That goes on the card too! Out for dinner (back in the day)? REI card! And once a month we sat down and paid the whole thing off.
Besides that, we have a joint checking account that we don’t really use (since we each just pay off half of the REI card) and a savings account that we’re using for wedding savings. Other than that, we keep things separate. I have my cards for certain things, and I have my systems for transferring money into savings (I set up an automatic transfer every month, then move it if I’m desperate for it) and she has hers (not entirely known to me, but that’s okay).
I suspect that once we’re married, things will merge a little bit more, since we’ll be saving for even more things together. It seems to me that figuring out money is a huge part of having a non-stressful relationship, but also something that we’ll be constantly working on as job situations change (she should be getting a first real paycheck soon, and I will go back to school full time in a couple of years – big adjustments!) and life goals change (pay off the car, buy a house, move across the country, get five more puppies, adopt one well-behaved puppy).
One point in all this that has been a big struggle is something that my therapist finally hit on the head after a year or so of talking about it: for me, money is a way to safety, a means of security; for Turtle, it is a way to comfort, and a means of self-care. These two approaches often cause us to butt heads – I say things are tight, and to feel better we need to save; she says things are hard, and to feel better we should go out for a nice dinner. We’re working to find a balance, and now that we have named this, it is easier to understand, but again, I suspect it is something we’ll be working on for awhile.
I have absolutely no idea how this compares to anyone else. What have you done in relationships, financially? How do you balance things and not feel taken advantage of, or like you’re not pulling your own weight?