Natasha and her husband are great for each other in many ways, but they’re polar opposites when it comes to money. She enjoys spending what she makes, and he can be a tightwad. They moved in together two years ago (he’s 35, and she’s 33), and have managed to avoid larger financial arguments by splitting their living expenses down the middle and having a City Hall wedding last winter (no fights about budgets!). Besides that, they keep everything separate.
Natasha definitely could save more money, but overall she’s in pretty good shape: She has a 401(K), and she’s not in debt. Meanwhile, her husband comes from a family where money was tight, and he saves as much as possible. The thought of him knowing how she spends her money is uncomfortable. Her own parents pooled all of their accounts in their early 20s — but she doesn’t want to.
Her husband recently brought up the idea of getting a mortgage to buy a home, and she’s terrified that they’ll need to start reviewing their finances together soon. She values her financial independence and wishes they didn’t have to change or combine anything — but that seems unrealistic. Will their opposite outlooks ultimately harm their marriage? Can they continue to have a fulfilling relationship, as they currently do, without blending their accounts? Or is their marriage in trouble?
A friend of mine and her husband — both doctors — used to squabble over shared expenses. Like you, Natasha, they met in their 30s; they’re compatible on many fronts, but money was their marital Achilles’s heel. Their arguments were relatively small, but my friend was concerned: If they couldn’t agree on grocery bills, she figured their long-term prospects couldn’t be good.
Then they invented the most clinical solution imaginable, which they’ve used for years since: Once a month, they sit down with printouts of their respective credit card bills, highlight all the expenses that they’ve classified as “shared” (if anything merits a debate, they hash it out then), and tally them up. Whoever spent less writes a check to the person who spent more, so they’re even. And that’s it. “We swore not to talk about it outside of those kitchen-table meetings, and the arguments stopped,” she said.
I love this weirdly civilized system because it requires neither party to concede; they found a way to accept each other’s spending habits and accommodate their month-to-month idiosyncrasies. And that’s the crux of your dilemma, Natasha: You’re afraid that your well-meaning husband might not be able to stomach the way you manage your money, and that you’ll have to change your habits to make your marriage work.
As a society, we’re often fed an idealized version of marriage in which couples are on the same page about everything — and if they’re not, they’re screwed. Meanwhile, we’re constantly bombarded with studies showing that money is a leading stressor in relationships, and are warned that financial incompatibility is a bellwether of marital dissatisfaction (and divorce). What’s more, oft-quoted research by Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of Happy Money, indicates that pooling finances with your spouse correlates with domestic bliss — not the most encouraging news for those who prefer a separate-account situation.
Sonya Britt, an associate professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University and former president of the Financial Therapy Association, points out that the process of sharing expenses can be a healthy exercise. “It’s hard to say which comes first, but merging finances requires constant communication that helps build trust and intimacy with your partner,” she says. But what if you’re not lucky enough to marry your wallet’s soul mate? “I think opposite spending personalities can still have a successful relationship. It will just take more work for them,” she explains.
More work or not, times are changing, and couples in our generation are choosing to lead more autonomous financial lives. “Increasingly, what we’re seeing among women younger than 35 or even 40 is that she may have a shared expense account with her partner, but other than that, she takes care of her own money,” says Sallie Krawcheck, the founder and CEO of Ellevest, an online investment platform created for women. “She’s a professional, she has her own paycheck, and she likes to manage where it goes.” This same generation also gets married later, so we’re more likely to establish financial habits on our own rather than molding them to a partner’s.
Count me among these women, almost to an extreme: From a monetary standpoint, my husband and I behave more like roommates than spouses. We Venmo each other for rent, alternate paying or split the check when we go out to dinner, and divvy up home-related expenses (he takes care of the cable bill; I pay for Amazon Prime and Netflix). I don’t hide any of my personal expenses, savings, or investments from him, but I do consider them mine, not ours — and he does the same. Sure, we’ve had our spats about money, but we’ve found a system that works for us.
For some couples, it works best to keep money out of their romantic lives entirely. Amanda Steinberg, the author of Worth It: Your Life, Your Money, Your Terms, and her boyfriend of six years, Jordan Shapiro, are in a committed partnership but have no intention of merging homes or finances (they both have children from previous marriages). “For a lot of people in long-term relationships, there’s an aspect of co-dependence, which can be a beautiful thing,” says Steinberg. “In our case, we have emotional co-dependency, but not financial. We get to run our lives the way we want to run them, and come together in all the ways that work and not in the ways that don’t.”
Still, this doesn’t mean that they don’t talk about money. If anything, they’re even more open about it. “Whether your finances are combined or separate, relationships require a certain level of acceptance that the other person will spend money a certain way, no matter what. And that’s a different kind of trust,” says Shapiro, a psychology professor. “It’s not that I trust that Amanda’s going to do what I want. I trust that Amanda’s going to do what’s in her best interest, and that’s not dangerous to me.” Of course, that level of enlightenment doesn’t just fall from the sky. “I don’t want to give the impression that we’re these super-evolved individuals,” he adds. “The way we got here was through lots of fighting and struggle, until we settled in a place that worked. Our first rule was no apologizing.”
Natasha, you’re wise to initiate these types of no-apology conversations before major financial decisions become pressing. Your husband is far less likely to stress out about your differences when he isn’t breathing down the barrel of, say, your first mortgage paperwork. But you still want to tread lightly. According to Dr. Brad Klontz, the founder of the Financial Psychology Institute, a good first step for dealing with financial anxiety is to simply ask about where your husband’s deep-seated financial assumptions (he calls them “money scripts”) are coming from. “So many of our attitudes about money are unconscious,” he says. “Just start with questions: Where do you think your beliefs about money came from? How did your family handle it growing up? Did any major incidents affect you? Those answers help put these things into context.” You should answer these questions, too — the more you understand each other, the more empathetic you both can be, and the less you’ll worry about him wanting you to change.
Klontz also recommends helping your husband examine the difference between what you can afford versus what you “value” — another cornerstone of trusting each other’s financial decisions. “A lot of people with financial anxiety will have this belief that they can’t afford something,” he says. “You can modify that to say, ‘I don’t want to spend my money on that,’ which is a very different experience. Choosing not to spend your money on something is very different from whether you can afford it.”
Ultimately, these talks will lead to more concrete long-term strategies that you can both agree on, which may or may not involve merging anything. Chances are, Natasha, your spending habits will shift over time as you and your husband create bigger shared goals (a house, for instance), and your marriage will be better for it. But meeting in the middle doesn’t mean you need to give up your autonomy — or your own bank accounts.