My Partner and I Have Completely Different Financial Styles—Here's How We Bridged the Gap (and You Can, Too)
If life were a rom-com, the film about my wife and I meeting would have have ended with us overcoming our shyness (and closeted-ness) to find true love and pursuing our dreams side-by-side. Life, however, is not a rom-com. Just because we'd found one another didn't mean everything was sunshine and daisies. Like any other couple, we've faced challenges—a major one of which had to do with money.
Dealing with money together—where it comes from, how we spent it, how to save, if we should save—was a challenge for us. Once we moved in together and began to share expenses, it seemed like every day presented more opportunities for conflict. We had each been raised in homes with different financial traditions, and the two of us had very different ideas about what money meant and how it should be treated. Plus, it turns out: Money can be a metaphor for almost anything. The problem was that, despite this being a major source of friction, we didn't have the language with which to speak about it productively.
Many cultures tend to treat finances as a taboo topic, not to be breached in polite conversation—and the United States is no different. A 2018 study found that 39 percent of Americans feel that salary and household income are off-limits for discussion with peers or friends. The same study shows that Baby Boomers are less likely to feel comfortable talking about money, and that comfort levels are slowly rising with each generation. Still, the fact remains: Many of us get itchy when we have to talk about how much we do or don't make, how much we've saved, and what we're spending money on.
When you begin to cohabitate, that can be a big problem. In fact, a 2018 study by Fidelity Investments found that 72 percent of millennial couples like us who are concerned about debt argue "frequently or occasionally about money." If that weren't bad enough, a 2012 study found that financial disagreements were the "strongest disagreement types to predict divorce."
While my partner and I may have thought that we were the only ones arguing about dollars and cents, this was far from true. The good news, though, is that we've figured out some tactics for putting an end to the arguments—and, even better, to help one another grow in the process. Here's how we did it, and how you can, too.
Ask yourself: Is it really about the money?
One thing that we realized pretty early on, and that came up in my conversations with other couples who had struggled as well, was that money can serve as a sensitive trigger for a variety of other issues. Security, for example, or trust.
"In a family-oriented culture like mine," explains Yaren Fadiloglulari, a blogger from Cyprus, "it's a sign of intimacy to take turns paying or [to not make] a problem out of a small amount of money." When Fadiloglulari's non-Cypriot boyfriend, Antoine Corbillet, wanted to count nickels and dimes for each purchase, she found it hurtful and cold. The two had to have some open conversations, during which they each recognized the cultural and behavioral differences between their attitudes towards spending.
"Having this conversation helped us to set up the dynamic in our relationship, [first] with financial matters, and then with our way of dealing with problems or other cultural differences that might arise," Fadiloglulari continues.
It's not just trust between people, either. The security that comes with knowing that you have a financial cushion to use in an emergency is not something to scoff at—and it's something many Americans lack.
My parents always taught me to keep a strict budget, to pay myself first, and to put aside money (even a small amount) each month—because you never know what might happen. My wife, on the other hand, wasn't taught to be aware of saving or budgeting and, as a result, found my financial style stifling. I, meanwhile, felt insecure and anxious not knowing how much I was spending or saving. Something as simple as going to the supermarket became a point of contention for us—one that worsened when we got married and opened a joint account. Like Fadiloglulari and Corbillet, we had to have a series of very vulnerable (and uncomfortable) conversations about what the act of spending represented to us and how we might go about finding a happy middle ground.
Take the long (and wide) view.
Learning to zoom out when you're thinking about money is a truly revolutionary shift in perspective—and it's hard to do. Despite the difficulty, though, it's been one of the most helpful things for my wife and I. It's absolutely worth the initial discomfort.
After all, you and your spouse have likely decided to spend the rest of your lives together, and that's a long time. How much you earn, how much money you have, what you save, what your assets look like—all of these will change over time. For my wife and I, we know there will be months and years in which I'm the main breadwinner—and vice versa. When we think about things with a long-term view, they become more palatable in the short run.
This wasn't always easy for either one of us to stomach. When I quit my job in 2017, my wife became the main wage earner, and that was hard for me to accept. For me, money represents more than trust and security; it's a metaphor for worth, and a source of pride as well. Our society tends to—however reductively—measure a person's worth by how much they have in the bank, and I had taken on that attitude; I felt useless when I stopped contributing funds to our household. During other seasons, such as when my wife took on an unpaid internship, she ended up feeling similarly.
We both had to change how we defined the idea of contribution to the household. We learned to include contributions such as cooking, logistics, and personal growth into the overall picture—alongside any monetary value we brought in. We reminded one another that life is long, and that we each bring ourselves, with our specific challenges, to the table. We also remembered that we have plenty of time to contribute in myriad ways to the home we're trying to build. We're a team—not competitors in an unrelenting game of Who Can Earn More.
Decide what isn't up for negotiation—and what is.
Emily Bond, a literary publicist who is based in Houston, says that she and her husband "don't debate over necessities like childcare, internet costs, insurance, energy bills, [and] those sorts of things. That's after fighting about all of those things and realizing, with childcare especially, that it's better for everyone to have these things fully covered and not debated. We discuss big purchases before they happen, but do not go over the smaller day-to-day [expenses]."
Bond describes how, because they came from different financial backgrounds as well, her husband had been more of a spendthrift than she was. But living through the Great Recession, Hurricane Harvey, and the pandemic together have led the pair "adapt to one another over time," Bond continues, noting that the two of them have "taken on a similar idea of what things cost, what our financial goals are, and how we're going to get there."
We often treat everything as though it were of equal importance—but not every dollar spent weighs the same. Only you and your partner can decide what's going to make your top 10 spend-worthy list and what will fall by the wayside. Laying out the priorities of a household together is harder than it sounds, and the results will look different for each unique family situation.
My wife and I have also adapted to one another, over time—and our household priorities have come into sharper relief as we face the challenges that life throws us. We, like Bond, don't compromise on childcare. But we happily buy generic items in bulk instead of brand-name ones to save on costs. Knowing that I feel more comfortable being aware how much money is coming in and out, my wife and I devised a color-coded budget sheet where we track expenses together. She also knows that discussing big upcoming costs (a car repair, for example) in advance helps me prepare myself, so I'm not as uncomfortable when the big spend happens.
I've taught her to compare prices and be on the lookout for sales and deals; she's taught me that the cheapest option isn't always the best one. Actually, sometimes it's better to spend a little more (if you can) and get something higher-quality that will last longer and likely save you money in the long run. By encouraging me to be a little less tight-fisted, my wife has taught me to enjoy the small, everyday pleasures in life. She's made our lives more joyful.
We've had to realign our priorities at various junctures, such as when my wife lost her job mid-pandemic while I was staying home with our baby. Suddenly, we had to cut costs dramatically, and finding innovative ways to do so (buying in bulk, relying on local Facebook groups, and more) became a joint project. Having laid the groundwork by talking about financial comfort and expectations pre-pandemic made that a whole lot more comfortable.
Change your mindset.
"The attitudes that we have towards money and what we believe about money are made as we grow up," says Lisa Johnson, UK-based business strategist and entrepreneur. She explains that growing up she frequently heard phrases such as, "money doesn't grow on trees."
"That made me think there wasn't money anywhere," Johnson explains. Similarly, because her single dad had three jobs to get by, Johnson assumed "money is hard to get," she explains. Today, however, "my job right now is passive income," Johnson says. "I work the least I've worked in my life, and I earn the most, so that wasn't true. But we take on attitudes from other people as we're growing up. The money mindset that I had, for a long time, [was stopping me] from being able to make millions. I told myself things at the back of my head like, people from where I come from [in public housing] don't earn seven figures. We can tell ourselves things about money that simply aren't true."
Learning to know your worth—and request appropriate compensation for your work—can be a steep learning curve. It was for my wife and I, but it was crucial, considering the fact that we're both freelancers. Women are notoriously uncomfortable when negotiating salaries—and this discomfort with money contributes to the infamous and ongoing gender wage gap. Equally important as having the conversation, though, is the shift in mindset that allows you to stop thinking about money as something embarrassing or shameful. Taking a more matter-of-fact approach to how and what you earn or spend allows you to manage an ever-shifting financial situation.
As freelancers, my wife and I both have a certain amount of inherent financial risk in our chosen careers. Truth be told, however, not many jobs are secure these days. Most of us will likely find ourselves staring down the barrel of a payment we can't make—whether it comes in the form of tuition, a utility bill, medical expenses, or something else. How can you be expected to face these challenges, and to surmount them, if you can't even talk about them without getting all flustered? (Answer: You can't.)
Taking the sting out of the nettle that is money talk, then, puts the power to navigate a money-driven world back where it should be. Away from the misguided understanding that money is equal to self-worth, and back into your hands—and into the hands of the person with whom you're traversing this complicated terrain.