At the airport a while back, I went to go fill up my water bottle and asked my partner, Dustin, to watch my stuff. “I’ll be back,” I said.
“You better be,” he called after me. We were laughing and sort of manic after taking our infant son to visit grandparents for the holidays.
“Oh my God,” I said. “What if I just got on a different plane and you never saw me again?”
“I’d have to get a better job,” Dustin said. I told him I would leave him a few grand in the checking account but then he’d be on his own.
If nothing else, having a joint checking account has made our hypothetical-breakup jokes much more complex. Also, it is great never having to dig my wallet out of a tote bag to pay for anything: His is right there in his pocket.
We were together for years before we combined our finances, but we had been talking about it since the beginning. By the time we moved in together, we both had jobs we loved, but I was in better shape financially. I worked at a tech start-up and was earning enough to max out my 401(k) contributions and transfer 20 percent of each paycheck into a savings account. Dustin worked in the bookstore where we met, doing work that was a big part of why I fell in love with him, but he was accruing credit-card debt and ignoring his student loans.
We both knew I made more money than he did, but Dustin insisted that we split everything down the middle. We wrote two checks for rent and took turns picking up the tab. I paid for the internet and gas; he paid the electric bill.
By the time I got another raise, our relationship was getting more serious. I put my foot down. “Just think,” I told him, “if we put all of our money in one account, we could pay down your debt and save for trips and still have plenty of money leftover.” We both worked hard; we both did well at our jobs. Why should I get new shoes while he ignored calls from Sallie Mae?
“No way,” he told me. “I don’t want to take your money. It’s your money.”
But I wanted it to be ours. We talked big talk about being a team, but to make a budget together, to pay down debt together, to save up for things we wanted to do together — this, for me, was true romance.
Or it was, that is, until we met up at a credit union a few days later, over our respective lunch breaks, and I panicked as soon as we walked in.
“Look at that chair,” I whispered to Dustin, pointing to a gash in the pleather seat that was covered in duct tape. “I don’t know if we should put our money here.” He looked at me and tried not to laugh while we both listened to a bank employee patiently help someone apply for a loan.
“Well, okay. But you know, I feel like that’s a good thing, like maybe they aren’t charging ridiculous fees and using our money to buy new chairs?”
“I don’t know,” I said, buying myself time while I rifled through my tote bag to find my I.D. The bank manager offered us empanadas to celebrate the new location they’d opened up in Harlem. “Oh shit,” I said, “I left my driver’s license in my other bag.” I added an extra “damn,” but it was unconvincing.
He suggested we talk to the teller anyway, as long as we were here. The lump in my throat rose and the tears started flowing.
We’d been planning this for weeks and I’d mentioned it to a lot of my friends. I was excited. It felt like a milestone. “But what if you break up?” my friends had all said when I told them, and their response was now ringing in my ears. Money is such a source of anxiety for people, and so rarely talked about. Add to that the unknowns of a romantic relationship and you’ve got a recipe for crying in the lobby of a credit union.
Tears aside, I wanted to do the right thing for our relationship. I just wasn’t sure what that was. Why didn’t I know what that was?
“I think it comes with being a woman in the first generation where no one necessarily expects you to rely on your husband entirely,” my friend Rebecca, 34, who lives with her partner of six years, told me. Women my age are making this up as we go along, devising rules according to our own values — and our own hang-ups. I knew avoiding resentment should be a priority, but it was so easy to say we wouldn’t resent each other, wouldn’t become our worst, smallest selves if things went south. I wanted a way to share a life but still be safe. I wanted, I suppose, to find a vulnerability work-around. I wanted to beat the system.
That day at the bank, though, I just wanted a rain check. When Dustin saw I was crying he grabbed my hand and suggested we go get lunch instead. (Mistake No. 1: attempting to combine finances on an empty stomach.) After that day, we steered clear of the subject for a while.
Anna, 27, is in a long-term relationship but so far, she’s avoided discussing the issue with her partner. “It’s such a serious commitment,” she told me. “And in thinking about it you have to consider what happens if you break up, and then the romance is dead and everyone goes to bed in their T-shirts and sweatpants.”
Personally, nothing feels so feminist to me as being able to support my partner financially. I feel proud and powerful. Rebecca makes more money than her long-term partner too. And while she will cover plane tickets for him and is willing to help him out when he’s in a bind (“the way I would any person I loved,” she says), they keep their money separate. “I think it’s just more important to me to feel like I could leave tonight if I had to,” Rebecca added. I thought of my own savings account, and how safe it made me feel.
After all, if the roles were reversed, I suspected Dustin would have no such hang-ups, and I would have plenty. Being trapped with a man you’re financially dependent on is one of the cautionary tales of second-wave feminism. I love the idea of sharing everything, yet can’t escape the idea that dependence would feel retrograde, and a little embarrassing.
When Dustin and I did finally march down to the bank together and open a joint account, it was more than a year after our first attempt. It was also, not coincidentally, about a week after we had our first kid. After many conversations, we devised a system that suits our needs (and fears, and hang-ups). Each month, we deposit our paychecks into a joint checking account that we use to pay all of our expenses. That monthly budget includes everything from rent to cell-phone bills to our trips to the laundromat. It also includes a set amount of “fun money” we pay ourselves each month. That fun money, or “discretionary income,” as some couples call it, gets put it in our own private bank accounts. We can save it, use it to buy drinks with friends, new shoes, or gifts for each other. We can watch it grow and comfort ourselves with the idea that if we needed to, we could leave at a moment’s notice. But it’s our own money, and this feels important.
Ultimately, sharing a life, to me, means sharing a bank account. It’s one way of many that we take care of each other, and it works for us. Building a life together in this concrete way feels vulnerable — no work-arounds — but I think that’s right.