How an Unmarried Couple Manages Their Money

unmarried but committed

A marriage may or may not be a union of love, but it is always a union of property. No matter how you conduct your affairs—joint or separate checking accounts; rooms, even homes, of your own—the state regards you as a unit. The day you sign the license, you and your spouse are taxed as one. And if you break up, you become half of one: it divides your wealth in two. Prenuptial agreements can prevent the foregoing, but prenups are not always enforced (and they never supersede child-support laws). Anyway, lots of people find prenups distasteful. Marriage, they feel, is about love, not property.

Paul and I have been together for 17 years. Neither of us has ever been married, and we don't intend to marry each other. There are no practical reasons to do so—no kids (unless you count our elderly diabetic cat, Julius), no employer-paid health insurance—and several tax-related reasons not to.

The reasons we've resisted marriage differ. Paul's are fairly straightforward. Periodically, he's looked around at married couples and found them no happier or more committed than unmarried couples. My own reasons are more ideological, but the ideology has a burning strain of emotion. An old-fashioned anarchist-feminist, I despise the idea of the state legitimizing my personal or sexual liaisons. I'd like the state to get out of the sexual-licensing business altogether, actually, for couples gay, straight, bi, or none of the above. But as long as all of the above can't take advantage of the institution, I won't either.

I don't want to oversimplify marriage or romanticize living together. The former isn't a static or mindless category of the unexamined life; the latter isn't a full-time orgy of keeping love alive. But marriage, to me, offers a ready-made commitment I'd rather go without. I prefer having to make the choice to be, or not to be, with the person I am involved with, to remember, without the aid of a gold band or the vision of dueling divorce lawyers, why I am with that person.

Mainly, though, my aversion to marriage is about love and property. Marriage creates a kind of human property. Women may no longer be chattel; in spite of ongoing wage inequality, most wives are neither their husbands' emotional slaves nor their economic dependents (thanks to feminism). Still, marriage implies ownership: each spouse owns the other. I have never craved an identity or a relationship that can be named only in the possessive: "my husband, my wife."

As for material property, I'm uninterested in forming a limited-partner corporation in bride's and groom's clothing. And just as I don't want the state blessing my union, I'd like to avoid it dividing the spoils should that union fail. A love relationship between unmarried people who live together is not legally a partnership of property, and that's how I like it. 

Paul and I met in 1991. Like any new couple, we each paid our way. It was simple. We each had a car and a home with a mortgage, taxes, and maintenance to support. When we bought groceries to cook together, when we ate out or went to the movies, we split the cost down the middle. Since we earned about the same amount—he as a nonprofit political and energy consultant, I as a writer and editor—what was simple was also fair. And since neither of us earns a lot and our incomes fluctuate from year to year, our consumption styles were also compatible. We both have learned to keep the overhead low, the financial view long, and the gratification delayed.

These facts were additionally important for us, even at the start. We were both thirty-nine, living in two states—I in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York, he in a house in northeastern Vermont—so whenever we were together, we were living together. Those periods together got longer fast. The first year I spent the whole summer in Vermont; soon I was spending a couple of months in the winter there, too, and Paul was coming to New York often. In both places we work at home, so when we are together, we are rarely apart.

With so much proximity, our stuff began to merge. The little things were the first to do so. For instance, I had six green-and-yellow 1950s highball glasses. One by one they broke, until there were two. One afternoon, browsing a crockery store, we came upon some jaunty tall polka-dot glasses on sale. We picked up four, one of us paid with plastic and wrote the sum in our cookie-jar tally. When we settled up, the cost of the glasses was added in along with bread and rice and movie tickets. Now, many years later, we have six tall glasses. Do the green-and-yellow ones still belong to me? Or were they grandfathered in under unspoken joint-property bylaws?

Our books, CDs, dishes, linens, tools, plants, and furniture mingled too. Some of the books are obviously his (anything about electricity or Vermont politics); some are clearly mine (anything about feminism). But what about the bird guides, the Thai and Jewish cookbooks? To whom did the Beatles' White Album CD belong? Who paid for the tablecloth in Lisbon? Who can remember?

Business expenses started bundling: pens and envelopes, a cell phone contract, a DSL line. Each purchase requires calculation. Is it practical (is this expense best kept separate, for accounting purposes)? Is it fair (will s/he use the cell phone much more than I do)? Each asks for a measure of generosity (so what if he uses the cell phone more than I do? I use more envelopes). Each needs to trust that the other will not overspend his or her share.

But a hundred-pack of envelopes is not going to break the budget for either of us, even if the other person ends up using ninety-nine envelopes. It was not until my car died, then, that generosity and trust truly were tested. My eleven-year-old Volkwagen Golf, with 166,000 miles on it, broke irreparably. As it happens, I was broke too. I considered borrowing money for a new car but was already almost eight thousand dollars in debt. Paul had money in the bank. He offered to buy the car. We found a four-year-old Honda Civic in good shape, for sixty-five hundred dollars. I put in a thousand dollars. He picked up the rest.

This decision wasn't automatic. Paul had to think about making the offer, and I had to think about accepting it. Would there be a quid pro quo? Would I feel perpetually guilty or he resentful if I never got around to returning the favor? We couldn't be sure. Still, talking about the car gave us an opportunity to talk about money, which we had rarely done. Paul knew I worried about money, but until that moment I don't think he was aware of how alone I felt, or how often I panicked. We were in this together, he reassured me; he would not let me go under. Now here was concrete proof.

The car meant more to me than it might have if we were married, because it was a gift, not an obligation. But it did not signal that everything would change. Paul wouldn't let me go under, but neither was he indicating that I could blithely dive in over my head and expect him to save me from drowning every time. I felt relieved but not rescued, grateful but not complacent.

A year later, I bought an apartment, and my lawyer suggested I write a will. Just doing so, he said, was a chance to think about what and whom I cared about, in the form of where I wanted my property to end up. I gave a few pieces of art and furniture to friends and set aside some cash for my niece and nephew, as well as several political causes I feel passionate about. The rest of my money and the apartment—my only real and valuable property—I left to Paul. Eventually, Paul wrote a will too, leaving his house, land, and cash to me.

We had not vowed to stay together until death us do part (in fact, we had only been together seven years when I bought my apartment). Yet our wills were testament to that expectation. 

We are still working it out, this tricky interaction of love and money. Paul has suggested a joint checking account, which he sees as a way to further our unity. I see it as a means of surveillance and a potential source of bickering. How much independence is healthy? What abets commitment, what undermines it?

When Paul bought me the car, I felt saved but not entirely safe, like family but not quite. Maybe that's a good thing—better than assuming a future that is by no means guaranteed. After all, parents do not always bail out their children, adult children do not always take care of their aged parents. Divorced women often end up poor. How much security is reasonable to expect?

These days, divorce courts rarely calculate the dollar value of pain. In divorce, the judge splits the joint wealth down the middle. If there are children, the judge looks at the income, earning potential, and expenses of each parent, then calibrates child support.

What if the stresses and disappointments of the coupled life threatened to overwhelm Paul's and my love? What would hold us together? We have no kids. While we'd forfeit some of the comfort we now enjoy, both of us would be able to support ourselves, as we did before we met. We have 17 years' history together, and that is nothing to sneeze at—but we also, I hope, have decades ahead of us.

The questions are the same as they were in the first years of our life together. What is practical? What is fair? And they are different. Should Paul and I aim for perfect financial equality? Or does that quest betray—or even encourage— the suspicion that one is putting in more than her share and the other taking advantage?

It is still not easy to answer these questions or even, after fifteen years, to talk about them, because for Paul and me, as for most of us, money has a childhood history; it represents identity, status, independence, security, and—when exchanged or shared between intimates—love.

We will probably never finish working it out. In the meantime, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, we are pulling tighter the knot we never legally tied.

This story was provided by our content partner, YourTango, a digital media company dedicated to love and relationships. No matter what love stage our users are in — single, taken, engaged, married, starting over, or complicated — we help them live their best love lives. Written by Judith Levine. 

More from YourTango:
6 Tips To Make Marriage Counseling Work
The 50 Best Marriage Tips, Ever
Love: Tips & Expert Advice

Join the Discussion