my two cents

‘Do I Need to Pay My Husband Back for My Medical Bills?’

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My husband and I have been married for two years, and money has been a source of conflict from the start. Early on in our marriage, I had a bunch of medical issues that wound up requiring surgery. I was on my husband’s medical insurance but the bills were still pretty costly (about $3,000 in total). My husband paid for them because he was making more money than I was at the time. I told him that I would pay him back, but we never really talked about it after that. He works on commission, so his income isn’t regular, but he made around $90,000 last year, while I made $60,000.

Last month, I started a new job that pays me $85,000. It’s a great position and I’m really happy about it. However, it’s led to a lot of fights with my husband about who should pay for what. His paychecks have been lower lately and he keeps saying that I should cover more than half our expenses. (Part of me thinks he also isn’t working as hard because I’m making more money, but maybe that’s an unfair assumption.) Last week, he told me that I still owed him money for my medical bills that he paid last year.

I feel like we should split things 50/50. He thinks that isn’t fair, because he paid for more when he made more. I also think I shouldn’t have to pay him back for the medical bills, but he said that’s going back on what I said when he first paid for them. What’s the right way to settle this? 

Nobody wins while you’re each counting each other’s money and griping about who owes what. Instead, you need to back up and overhaul the big picture of how you’re thinking and communicating about finances. This will be essential to making your marriage function, so your husband must be onboard, too. You can’t fix things on your own, nor should you feel like you have to.

Talking about money is hard and awkward, which is why most couples avoid it and then wind up fighting. The key to getting out of this pattern is to recognize that discussing finances — especially with a partner — is a skill. Nobody knows how to do it innately. It takes learning and practice and patience. It also requires a willingness to make some mistakes, acknowledge that they happened, validate each other’s perspectives, and then (most importantly) move the hell on.

To start building this skill, you and your husband need to table your arguments. Imagine for a moment that they never happened and you’re starting fresh. In this ideal world, how would you two talk about money? How would your bills be split, who would manage what, and what kinds of habits and discussions would you have? What would make you each feel secure and cared for and appreciated?

I recommend that you each take some time to think about these questions and then choose a date to discuss them so that you can both come prepared and no one feels ambushed. It also helps to add structure — I’m a fan of setting a timer to let each person have an equal number of minutes to speak, uninterrupted. (I have many more thoughts on how to make money talks less fraught; see here for a longer guide.)

Be realistic — this isn’t a time to fantasize about being married to a billionaire. Rather, you want to imagine a smoother-running version of your existing lives. And steer clear of bringing up past examples of things that didn’t work, which can come across as critical; you want to focus on the future. As financial therapist Amanda Clayman says, “When people feel shamed, they shut down; when they feel connected, they open up and are more willing to listen.”

It’s totally normal that you and your husband will have some different ideas. The point of this discussion is to find common ground and rally around a shared picture of what you want your future to look like. Once you’ve each said your part, stop. Don’t try to hash anything out yet. Instead, make another date to revisit and clarify these topics. You’ve both been vulnerable; bask in your mutual support and then give each other a few more days to reflect.

After that, there will come a time to talk numbers. You can’t live in the abstract forever, and you have bills to pay. Once you’re feeling more on the same page about how you might want to share them, try to apply the same clean-slate energy to the process.

There’s a method of sharing household chores popularized by Eve Rodsky, the author of Fair Play, that I believe can be applied to money, too. It involves both partners making a list of all the tasks it takes to run the household, refining it, and then re-assigning them based on personal preference, skill, and circumstances. The idea is for everyone to be on the same page about who’s doing what so that “invisible work” gets seen, responsibilities are shared, and resentment doesn’t build.

Here’s how to translate this model to finances: You’ll each bring a list of costs that you consider “shared,” put them together, and talk about the best way to manage them. Maybe you’ll pool a portion (or all) of your paychecks and pay bills out of the collective pot; maybe you’ll divvy up expenses and each take care of the ones you’re responsible for. Make sure to continue to meet regularly to discuss how it’s going. This system should be flexible and evolve to meet changing needs.

I know that managing shared expenses is tricky when one person’s income is variable, like your husband’s commission-based paychecks. I don’t have a magic solution for this, but one idea is that you could both agree on a base-level amount that you each contribute to your shared costs every month, one that’s within what he usually makes. That way, anything extra he brings home is gravy.

As for the medical bills: I don’t think you don’t owe him any money. And I bet he knows, deep down, that it would be ridiculous of him to harp on this. But it is important to acknowledge that you told him you would pay him, and you haven’t. This, to me, is a perfect example of things people say when they don’t know how to have money conversations that aren’t just transactional, as most are outside of the household.

You both made mistakes here. Now is the time to acknowledge them, validate each other’s points of view, and then talk about how to move forward. What your partner might actually want is gratitude and recognition for supporting you during a difficult time. However, he might also be bringing up these bills because (as you suspected) he’s made less money lately and is feeling strapped. Ideally, when you create a new system around your household finances, it’ll alleviate some of this pressure and show your willingness to be accountable. I can’t say for sure, but that’s a good place to start.

I hope that these steps — zooming out, connecting over the big picture, and trying new methods of sharing financial responsibilities — will help stop the fighting and create space for your marriage to feel more secure. But I also want to acknowledge that your husband might not respond to them, in which case you have more difficult decisions to make about the relationship. Arguing about years-old bills is no way to live, and it’ll only get worse if you don’t address it now.

The Cut’s financial advice columnist Charlotte Cowles answers readers’ personal questions about personal finance. Email your money conundrums to

‘Do I Need to Pay My Husband Back for My Medical Bills?’