After years of scraping by, my boyfriend and I are both finally making decent money. And following a very fun and hedonistic summer of enjoying that money — taking our first international vacation in years, going out all the time, etc. — we’ve realized we need to sit down and actually get more thoughtful and organized about our spending. That has meant figuring out our own individual budgets but also keeping better track of our shared expenses. We’ve been living together and splitting expenses for two years, but we usually just tally up our respective costs in an email every now and then and settle up with Venmo. Now I’m trying to be stricter about categorizing transactions in Mint and using Splitwise to figure out what we owe each other.
But I’m still finding it hard to really keep track of what I’m personally spending when I’m sharing most expenses with my boyfriend and have fallen down a rabbit hole of reading Reddit threads on how to split up and categorize expenses in Mint. Is there an easier way to do this? I know some couples just use a credit card for shared expenses, and, of course, there’s always the option of opening up a joint bank account; are those things we should look into? It would probably make sense at some point down the line, but for now I just want control over my money and want to keep track of what I am spending on things.
Splitting expenses with your partner is an imperfect art, but it sounds like you’ve already weathered the trickiest bit: agreeing on which costs to share and how you’ll divide them. Still, this will be an evolving process. Your respective incomes will change, and the world will serve up new stuff for you to spend yours on, both together and apart. You’re wise to figure out a good system now.
It’s one thing to hammer out the emotional aspects of sharing expenses and what you each value spending money on. (For a guide to that process, read here.) It’s another thing to figure out the mechanics of it. If you each buy groceries, how do you keep track of what he’s spending in addition to what you’re spending so that you have a ballpark idea of whether you’re on track for your budget? At best, it’s a lot of annoying math. At worst, you’ll get lost in minutiae and squabble with your partner about it.
While you start exploring solutions, I recommend that you and your partner set up a regular meeting to go over your finances together. Ideally, you could begin by doing it once a week, even just for a ten-minute “How’s it going?” conversation (maybe set a timer to add structure, and make sure that you each get equal airtime). If you sit down and there’s nothing to discuss, fine! But giving yourselves a dedicated “safe space” for the topic will prevent it from leaking into other conflicts.
On to the meat of your question: I wish I could give you a brilliant app that would organize your expenses and divvy them up neatly. The closest I could find is Honeydue, which is similar to Mint but is specifically geared toward couples, in that it lets you track joint and individual expenses simultaneously. It also allows you to open a joint bank account through the app if you want. Overall, it looks promising but would require you and your partner to adapt a whole new system.
Another possibility, as you mentioned, is opening a joint credit card for shared expenses. The upside of doing so is that it’s relatively easy to keep track of your split costs — they’re right there, on one card, and you simply settle up when you pay the bill each month. There are some significant potential downsides to this, though. One is that if you and your partner open a credit card together, it can be extremely difficult (or even impossible) to take your name off the account, should you ever want to. To do so, you’d probably have to close the card entirely, which would have repercussions for your credit score. From a liability perspective, it’s not ideal. (A joint credit card can also be a little messy to sync with your Mint account if that’s your budgeting tool of choice; Mint doesn’t offer joint functions.)
This brings us to the next possibility: simply opening a joint checking account for your shared expenses. This is a favorable option to a credit card, in that there’s less risk to both parties if one of you goes rogue. Most couples manage this approach by each putting a predetermined amount into the joint account at the beginning of the month and then using a debit card linked to the account for their joint spending. From a housekeeping perspective, this may be easier to integrate with Mint or an equivalent system since you’ve split the costs on the front end.
As for the cons of a joint checking account: Debit cards don’t offer the same perks as credit cards (miles you could use on fun vacations, etc.), which isn’t a big deal but still something to consider. And if one of you had serious debt problems, a collector could go after the contents of your joint account. But for the most part, there’s limited damage you could do to each other besides draining the account and racking up some overdraft fees.
A quick word on pooling your money, more generally: I understand if you’d prefer not to do it, even if you trust your partner completely. It’s hard enough to monitor the comings and goings of your own bank account without adding another person’s cash flow to the mix, particularly as we navigate this weird transition of spending more on the various fun things we couldn’t do these past few years (which I’m glad you’re doing!). For what it’s worth, my husband and I still don’t pool our finances even though we have a baby and a mortgage — more on that in a minute.
That said, research has shown that couples who pool their money (either partly or entirely) tend to make better financial decisions, says Megan McCoy, a licensed marriage and family therapist who also teaches and researches financial planning at Kansas State University. “More specifically, people are less likely to buy unnecessary purchases, or at least think twice about unnecessary purchases, when their finances are pooled,” she says. The main reason is that they’re more mindful of how their spending impacts their partner.
Still, there are other options for managing joint expenses that don’t involve sharing an account, an app, or a credit card. One of them is to split the “big stuff” down the middle — rent, utilities, etc. — and then establish more creative guidelines for other categories. For example, when my husband and I first moved in together, we alternated who would pay for date nights; whoever’s turn it was would also pick the restaurant. We had a similar rule for weddings (a significant cost in your late 20s and early 30s): Whoever was the primary friend of the couple getting married — my husband or I — would pay for the hotel and the wedding gift.
These policies continue to serve us well because they allow us to divide and conquer certain major line items. For instance, my husband is in charge of researching and paying for our health insurance, while I buy all our groceries. He replaces nonfood household items (soap, detergent, random attachments for our vacuum cleaner), and I handle our baby’s clothing. We break somewhat even, I think, but at this point it’s more about efficiency — I know what my budget has to cover, and so does he. Most important, it feels fair, at least the majority of the time.
Alternatively, a quick poll of my friends found a surprising number of couples who still deploy spreadsheets to keep track of household expenses and then settle up in an email at the end of the month. My husband and I have done this for more complex, expensive projects (mostly involving home stuff), but it can get awfully tedious, so I wouldn’t recommend it for the long term unless you really love Excel.
Again, none of these options is perfect. But with some trial and error — and a lot of communication — I hope you and your partner arrive at a system that works for your relationship and your budget, both individually and together.
The Cut’s financial-advice columnist, Charlotte Cowles, answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to firstname.lastname@example.org
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