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It was a cold night in February, and my boyfriend and I had just finished dinner in the West Village. My feet hurt, and I was tired. The restaurant was only four subway stops from our apartment, but a cab would be so nice and warm. “The train will make me grumpy,” I said. “Fifteen dollars worth of grumpy?” my boyfriend asked. He had a point. Subway it was.
Now, we’re married and I look back on that night’s exchange as the template for our financial conversations for years to come. It seems like an obvious process — quantifying the cost of an impulse, and then evaluating whether you want it that much — but encouraging each other to do so has saved us thousands over time. “I want more flowers at our wedding, but will I notice the difference between $2,000 and $3,000 worth of ranunculus?” (Answer: Yes, I really did. But he didn’t, so I paid for them myself.) Or, “Are you $15 worth of thirsty for another cocktail?” Or, “That shirt looks nice, but not $200 worth of nice.” You get the idea.
With finances, your partner can be your best advocate, your worst enabler, or just a general pain in the ass. And the reality is usually somewhere in between: Every couple wants to be financially secure, but also struggles with individual values, dry periods, imbalanced incomes, and the desire for their respective contributions to be recognized and respected. Here’s how four of them pull it off.
Brie, 32, and Jeremy, 24
Respective jobs: Senior editor at a women’s publication; bowmaker for string instruments
Gross salaries: $90,000 and $40,000
Home base: Nashville, TN
What they argue about: Brie’s spending. She will spring for plane tickets even when they can’t afford it.
How they save: Although Brie is the breadwinner, Jeremy manages their money — otherwise they wouldn’t have any, he says. “My strategy is to save money and not tell her about it, because then she’ll want to spend it on a trip.” Throughout their 20s, they lived in New York; two years ago, they had a baby and realized that Brooklyn was no longer sustainable. “The mortgage for our 4-bedroom house in Nashville costs less than the rent for the one-bedroom shoebox we had in Bedford Stuyvesant,” says Brie. Their current childcare costs also pale in comparison to those in New York.
Current savings: Brie contributes to a 401(k), and Jeremy keeps separate accounts for emergencies, home improvements, and taxes.
What they don’t spend on: Material things. “I don’t really buy makeup or, I don’t know, what do people shop for? Purses? We haven’t even gotten a real bed yet,” says Brie. “My mom has this big house full of so much stuff, and I never want to end up like that.” Adds Jeremy, “This year, I bought a pair of pants!”
Annie, 32, and Thomas, 33
Respective jobs: Brand manager at a large corporation; director of operations at a start-up
Gross salaries: $140,000 and $142,000
Home base: Manhattan
Major expenses: Last year, they bought a modest apartment and had their first child. “Without a doubt, our baby is our biggest expense,” says Annie. “Childcare is basically like paying for college every year. But we want to have enough money to stay in New York for as long as possible.”
Current savings: Both maximize their respective companies’ 401(k) matching programs, and put additional money in an investment account. “Our salaries are similar, so our contributions are pretty level,” says Thomas.
What they argue about: How to invest. “If Annie had her way, she’d put everything in a savings bond and wait until it matured. I prefer finding outlets that have the potential to give us a higher return, and we like debating about them,” says Thomas. “Don’t even get me started on crypto-currency. I can hear her screaming into a pillow.”
Stressors: Annie still has outstanding student loans. “When we were first married, Thomas was making a great salary and I was going into debt at business school, and I felt tremendous guilt over the inequity,” she says. But Thomas felt the opposite: “I actually felt really grateful, and even proud — am I allowed to say that? — that I was able to help her decide to go to school because she wanted to, and not just think about whether it was financially the right choice.”
Splurges: It’s all about the little things — they don’t have an extravagant lifestyle. “I realize this sounds insane, but about once a year, I throw out all my socks and get new ones,” he says. Do I need to? Of course not. But it feels a little bit indulgent, and makes me happy.”
Liz and Aaron, 34 and 29
Respective jobs: Human resources manager and actor
Gross salaries: $30,000 and ranging between $19,000-78,000
Home base: Brooklyn
Financial goals: They haven’t really decided. “There’s no specific action plan,” Liz says. “We both work our asses off and save whatever we can. There’s no paperwork involved — just trusting each other and checking in,” says Aaron.
Stressors: As an actor, Aaron contends with inconsistent paychecks, but is starting to break into higher-paying roles. He’s also learning to “get through” leaner months with more stable jobs outside the industry. He and Liz also come from contrasting financial backgrounds — his parents were relatively affluent, and money wasn’t a topic of conversation in their household the way it was in hers. “This isn’t usually a big issue, but it does come up from time to time, and we try to discuss it,” he says.
How they save: As a rule, they make their coffee and lunches at home, and consult Groupon for any bigger purchases. When things are tight, they’ll plot out their spending week by week and scrap discretionary expenses like Hulu, Apple music, and other subscriptions. “I’ll even sell things I don’t need,” Liz says.
Financial outlook: Optimistic. “I haven’t been stressed out about money in a long time,” says Liz. Adds Aaron, “We’re very lucky right now. We don’t have a lot of money, but we’re able to live a great life. If we’re anticipating anything, it would be children — I hear they take a bit of an investment! Also, a future home for our post-renting life.”
Mary, 33 and Sam, 40
Respective jobs: Psychotherapist and writer
Gross salaries: $140,000 and $30,000
Home base: Arlington, Virginia
Shared financial goals: They’re saving up for a home and hope to take more frequent, longer vacations — ideally, they’d like to take the whole month of January off every year.
Stressors: Mary has a medical issue that has previously drained her savings and still requires expensive treatments from time to time, meaning that her default mode is to scrimp (she and Sam still share a studio apartment). Sam struggles to make money off his writing, but they both agree that it’s better for him to continue it than take a job he hates. “Honestly, we make enough now that I don’t have to worry as much as we used to,” says Mary. “Still, it’s hard for me to buy a dress or something without feeling bad. I’m trying to remove the stick up my ass.”
Current savings: Each have their own retirement accounts, and they’ve pooled the rest of their money. “Every time either of us buys something, it comes out of our joint account. No ‘your money’ or ‘my money,’” says Mary.
Splurges: Last summer, they took an impromptu trip to England; things felt a little tight when they got back, so they decided to not eat out for a month. “It wasn’t a big deal, but it helped a little,” says Sam.