In 2009, my husband was not yet my husband but we had been living together for four years and engaged for one. Yet we had a familiar ritual when the check landed on the table after every meal out: We both reached into our wallets, pulled out our debit cards, and split the bill.
We divvied it up evenly, right down the middle, not entree by entree and appetizer by appetizer. Does that, somehow, make it better? That we didn’t force one another to cough up extra based on who had soup and who didn’t have dessert? Maybe.
Handling money within a relationship is tricky business. It has a way of feeling unfair, no matter how you do it. We split all of our expenses this way, not just dinners out, so we were constantly owing each other $14.71 for groceries picked up on the way home from work and $44.32 for your share of the electric bill and $7 for the bottle of wine from Friday. At bars, we started separate tabs and we even, on occasion, mailed two separate checks to our landlord to cover the month’s rent.
At that time, I had been a reporter covering money for three years so, yes, I knew there was a better way. Plenty of better ways. But I’d been a very tight manager of my money since I got my first job, at Dairy Queen when I was 15 (I was paid minimum wage, then $5.15 an hour, and ended every night with a thick coat of ice cream and M&M shards on my arms from the spaz of a Blizzard machine).
I hoarded change in an Atomic Fireballs container, had a passbook savings account, and thought the stuffed chicken pita at Wendy’s was a splurge (RIP).
My husband has always been a bit more loose. While he has gotten better over the years, mostly because I am an effective nagger, he will always be a spender rather than a saver. He is also, in his words, not a “numbers guy.”
Back then, I no doubt had countless reasons why segregated bank accounts were best; today, I’ll just be honest: I didn’t want his spendy fingers on my money.
But there comes a time in a relationship when paying each other back starts to feel wrong. Almost dirty. Did I really want to spend the time collecting that $7 for wine? Was it fair that some weekends, I could afford to go out to dinner but he couldn’t -- or vice versa, since though he spent more money than me, he also made more money than me?
It seems our engagement would’ve been the breaking point, but I held out, almost until we married, which -- in hindsight -- is probably a mistake, though in the end we merged things (rather) seamlessly. I actually think that you should probably start this intertwining process earlier, so you can practice, learn how the other person manages things -- or doesn’t -- and, yes, jump ship if you feel like things will never align.
How you go about it is personal. But there is certainly strategy involved. The best method treats both parties like the adults they are; that is to say, even if your partner can’t add, much less multiply, and spends most of his money on video games and illegal substances, he should have some control.
In the real life example that is my marriage, we have four accounts between us. We each have individual accounts, so we can buy the things we individually want and enjoy. For him, that means underground hip-hop tracks (I so do not want and enjoy them that I just had to ask him if “underground hip-hop tracks” was the correct way to describe them; I was told no and that they are free) and whiskey. And for me, it means Kindle downloads, and tiny, virtually unusable bowls from Anthropologie.
We have a joint savings account, so one of us doesn’t have to get a second job if our dog gets sick, and a joint checking account, that we use for boring things like the mortgage, electric bill, student loans and groceries. We discuss this account often, so much that it seems like a third person in our relationship -- the Joint.
We wonder whether he has enough extra cash to take us out to dinner, or buy that lamp we need so we can actually see the food when we eat in our own dining room, or add HBO to our cable package ("Girls"!).
The way to do this fairly, so everyone wins, is to deposit all of your money into that one shared joint account, then pull out a set amount or percentage -- I try not to think of this as an allowance, but let’s be honest, that’s what we’re talking about here -- for each of you.
You might be thinking this is restrictive, but it’s a relief, really -- you have a pot of money you can spend however you want, knowing that bills, groceries and even savings are already covered. You don’t have to explain why you bought 14 bottles of nail polish last month (it’s a compulsion). He can spend hundreds of dollars on fantasy football (and lose every year). It’s guilt-free spending! What’s better than that? This is what I proclaimed to my husband when I laid out my plan.
How do you figure the amount of your spending money? Add up all your monthly expenses -- round those that fluctuate month-to-month up -- budget for savings, put in a cushion of $100 or so just in case, then subtract that amount from your total monthly income. The rest you get to spend. Easy.
And to make things really simple, you can just divide by two without worrying about percentages and decimal points. If you’re into nickel and diming, you can figure out a fair breakdown if one of you earns much more and therefore feels he or she should get a larger share. Or, simply reverse the system: Have your individual paychecks deposited into your own individual accounts, then transfer enough into the joint account to cover your half, or an agreed upon percentage, of the joint expenses. Anything left is yours.
The change I would make to this method, if you’re not married or otherwise committed long-term but, say, living in sin, unsure about the future and wanting to make your life easier, is to save separately. It’ll be easy to split apart what little money you have in your joint checking account if you break up -- it’s all earmarked for expenses, anyway -- but it’s harder to break up the savings account between you, particularly if one of you earns, and therefore contributed, more. If you have a shared emergency that requires a dig into savings, you can split it from your individual accounts.
You’ve heard that money is the number one thing couples argue about. I’m not going to promise this is a magic solution; you’re still going to throw down from time to time. But it will free up your crazy so you’ll have more time to devote to important battles, like that time you danced on a table (and, apparently, which side of the bed you sleep on).