What Happens When You Break Financial Rules

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.  

breaking rules
Getty Images/iStockphoto

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.

Every month, I write Amanda a check for my portion of the mortgage, cell phone, and car insurance bills, which are all auto-debited from an account in her name. Instead of splitting every household bill down the middle, we’ve assigned them to a specific individual. For example, I’m responsible for paying the water, cable, and Internet bills, while she pays for both gas and electric. This means that during certain months, one of us pays more than the other, but we no longer split hairs over the difference.

When my erratic freelance income means I’m short on cash, she doesn’t hesitate to front me for groceries and other day-to-day living expenses until my outstanding invoices are paid. I pay her back whenever possible, but sometimes so much time passes that one or both of us forgets — and it’s no big deal. It took us a long time to find an arrangement that works for us, but we did.

Amanda and I have been together for nearly eight years now. We own a home and are in the midst of planning our wedding — the cost of which she’s footing entirely, with the exception of some generous family contributions. We continue to keep our overall finances separate, but I’ve since become more comfortable with the fact that she earns more money and probably always will. As a result, I’m more likely to ask for support when I need it, which prevents me from turning a minor financial blip into a catastrophe.

"We’ve developed our own system of paying bills that, thankfully, doesn’t involve the tension or hostility my parents faced."  

We catch a lot of flak from friends and family who think our separate bank accounts are leading us down a dangerous path. "Aren't you worried about keeping money secrets from each other?" they ask. "Doesn't keeping your accounts separate make it harder to pay bills and plan for the future?" Their concerns are in the right place, since for a long time I did keep money secrets from my soon-to-be wife — something that would send most people running.

I imagine our style will continue evolving, especially once the wedding’s over and we turn our attention to saving for retirement. But our focus on open and honest communication — despite my occasional, uncalled-for awkwardness — will serve us for life.

I think that’s the key for people in relationships, unmarried and otherwise: When deciding how to approach your finances as a couple, it’s fine to reject the traditional “rules” and find a way that makes sense for you, even if it doesn’t work for your brother, best friend, or neighbor. If you want to adopt the conventional “one pot” approach and pool all your money, that’s great. Keeping your financial identities completely separate, or even stashing some cash in an account only you can touch, is okay too.

So long as you’re both involved in the process and tell each other the truth along the way, you can experience financial success in your relationship no matter which path you choose. After all, it (eventually) worked for us.   

You Might Also Like:
How to Deal With Financial Rough Patches in Your Relationship
Why We Won't Ask Our Partners How Much They Make — and How to Get Over It
6 Factors That Could Make or Break Your Relationship