My partner and I were together for roughly five years before we moved across the country together. Before we moved we kept a fairly meticulous list of who owes whom what and would pay out at the end or beginning of each month. When we moved, even after buying a car for the move, we never discussed any other financial plan. Then reality hit. I was making double her income working ten to fifteen fewer hours a week, and we had to have our first real discussions about finances that were not just, “Hey you owe me this.” We wanted to do things as a couple and needed to figure out a system that kept some sort of balance around money despite an unequal income.
As discussed a number of times on APW, finances are less than sexy. Unfortunately, finances become a whole different ball game when the federal government sees you as no more than roommates, when marriage isn’t a tangible marker of relationship stability, or if you aren’t down with marriage at all. We had to come up with our own way of dealing with money.
I was terrified because even the act of tallying what we owed each other was abhorrent to me. It was the opposite of the care and generosity we show each other. To add fuel to the fire, I grew up with a horrible model of finances. My parents fought when my dad made more money than my mom, they fought when my mother made more than my dad, they fought when there was no money and when there was lots of money. I wanted a different pattern of existence around money when I grew up.
Addison, on the other hand, grew up with her mother in control of the finances and significantly fewer battles in the house around money. I had always liked the idea of pooled money, but I was afraid of being taken advantage of, or worse, letting my mother down because she worked so hard to keep her finances her own.
What I found was…it wasn’t awful! Combining our finances meant we both have so much more room to breath and make big decisions together. Our way of combining finances also took into account the cultural mania around money, even in intimate relationships. Both of us come from women and gender studies backgrounds, so we started every conversation with what makes both of us feel the most valuable, from there we got the following setup.
- Our accounts stay separate, but we have a joint credit card. This allows us to surprise each other and treat ourselves sometimes. Eventually (when we have more money all around) we want to be able to have a truly pooled account and separate fun money.
- In order to make the separate account situation work we have a single spreadsheet of all family incomes and expenses. The money we make is in separate accounts but tallied as one amount when talking about what our finances look like.
- Addison is in charge of our budget. This worked out nicely because 1. She is good with money, and 2. It gives her added control over our finances so it doesn’t feel like my decision matters most because I make the money.
- I pay upfront bills, like rent, so that by the middle of the month we switch to relying on her money. It seems silly to set up a system where I have to ask for money, but it does wonders for balancing both of our feelings of contribution to the household.
- Lastly, we both put in work to recognize the non-paid labor each of us does. Chores like cooking, cleaning, and errands shift to the person working the fewest hours, and we thank each other regularly for doing that work. Knowing and appreciating unpaid labor has had an enormous balancing effect in our partnership.
A big portion of our success probably comes from the fact that we talk a lot about the power imbalance in unequal wages, and we like to spend money in similar ways (we don’t eat out all year so we can go on vacations frequently). We also have very similar expenses, so we don’t argue about the imbalance of one person’s expenses. Tallying all expenses and all incomes in one place might make up for unbalanced expenses like cosmetics and hair grooming, but we haven’t had to deal with that yet.
At the end of the day, separate but joint finances work for us because we are both committed to the idea that we are in this together whether or not we are married. We know that experiencing life together is more important than whose bank account is financing the adventure.
To be honest, our friends think we are nuts for figuring out this system. Most of them, even the gay ones, are waiting for marriage as a marker to start merging finances, but I am here to say it doesn’t have to be that way! Combining our finances was a way to have and share more and to be brave, because let’s face it…shared finances with no contract saying you can’t walk away with your other half holding all the debt can be scary! We face that fear every day, though, and come out knowing that our commitment is more than a slip of paper. Our dreams and our relationship can’t wait for federal approval, so why should our finances?