We Break All the Money Rules (and It Works for Us)

The Beatles were only half right. While it’s true that money can’t buy you love, what John Lennon and Paul McCartney forgot to mention is that financial woes can foretell the end of a relationship. Numerous studies and surveys have shown that finances are not only the leading cause of relationship stress, but that arguments about money are also the top predictor of divorce.  

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I was exposed to this unfortunate reality early on. One of my most vivid childhood memories is the day my parents sat down at our kitchen table to pay bills. Once or twice a month, when my dad was home from the frequent long-haul trips he made as a truck driver, my mother would present him with a stack of bills that had arrived during his absence. She dictated the amounts due as my father dutifully wrote out check after check, a process interrupted only when the checkbook ledger read $0 — and they had to decide which creditors could be kept at bay in favor of buying food or keeping the electricity on.

The arguing (and, sometimes, crying) that accompanied bill-paying day gave me a nagging sense that talking about money with your partner was something to be avoided at all costs. And while there were many reasons behind my parents’ eventual divorce, I believe their money struggles played a big role in the demise of their marriage.

So when my partner, Amanda, and I decided to move in together, and it came time for us to have the “money talk,” I adopted a two-pronged strategy that any financial planner would advise against: avoid and deny, then repeat as necessary.

" When deciding how to approach your finances as a couple, it’s fine to reject the traditional rules."  

During talks about what we could afford in rent, I dodged perfectly legitimate questions about my existing debt and salary. Amanda earned an above-average income working for a Fortune 500 insurance company, whereas my work as a journalist and freelance writer brought in significantly lower pay. While she never made our income imbalance an issue, I was embarrassed to share the exact numbers because of my own insecurities.

Even after we signed the lease on a two-bedroom house, I warded off future inquiries by insisting we keep our financial accounts separate and split the bills 50-50. I made less money, sure, but it was important to me that I contributed equally to all household expenses — even if it meant I had fewer funds to pay my own bills (including significant debt), let alone save for retirement.

Eventually I decided to ’fess up about my money situation, including my income and debt levels. It wasn’t as simple as a one-and-done confession, though. There were several occasions in which I’d get into a financial bind and resort to less-than-wise solutions (think payday loans), rather than swallowing my pride and asking Amanda for help. Feeling guilty, I always confided in her sooner or later, promising I’d come to her if I found myself in another crunch.

It’s something I still struggle with, but after many tear-filled conversations over the years — exactly what I wanted to avoid — we’ve developed our own system of paying bills that, thankfully, doesn’t involve the tension or hostility my parents faced.

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