In the fall of 2018, two unprecedented things happened in rapid succession. First, I got engaged. Then, I bought a car. These are perfectly normal grown-up enterprises, but for me, a person who’d lived her entire adult life in New York City, both carless and single—and who didn’t necessarily see the need to ever change either of those things—it was kind of like I’d been picked up by a tornado and planted somewhere Technicolor. Or maybe it was vice versa, and now I was in Kansas. Anyway, here I was, a grown woman with both a fiancé and a Subaru.
Before the car purchase, on the way to the dealership, my fiancé and I had a quick conversation about money. What was the max I wanted to pay? I gave a number; he gave a lower one. Yes, paying less would be great, I said—but why did it matter what I paid when it was my money? I could always work more and find a way. What I thought, but didn’t say, was: Who are you to tell me what I should, and shouldn’t, spend?
Happy couples discuss their finances a lot. On the other side of the coin are those who not only aren’t talking, but are also keeping stuff secret from one another.
This is, in some form or fashion, the thorniest issue when it comes to marriage and long-term relationships: money. Each generation teaches the next about its value, and how it should be handled. In my case, my mother and father had a fairly standard, seemingly equitable “share the pot” sort of financial arrangement, one that exists to this day. But my mom had been married before she met my father, and money, she says, played a big role in that relationship’s demise. She and her first husband both worked full-time and pooled their cash. She saved, while he “always had something he needed—luxury-type stuff, excessive stuff,” she says. He’d use their joint money to buy what he wanted, which bred resentment. “A lot of times he’d ask to use it on something, and I’d say no, we were just going to have to wait. He didn’t know how to manage money for anything.”
It’s been more than 50 years since my mom’s first marriage ended, but disagreements around money are still a leading cause of breakups among couples in the US. Happy couples discuss their finances a lot—90 percent of them talk money once a month, reports TD Bank’s 2017 Love and Money survey. On the other side of the coin are those who not only aren’t talking, but are also keeping stuff secret from one another: that’s 41 percent of American adults who combine finances with a partner or spouse, per a 2018 survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the National Endowment for Financial Education. And according to a recent CreditCards.com poll, “19 percent of US adults who are in live-in relationships—which equates to 29 million people—are hiding a checking, savings, or credit card account from their partner.” (More on that later.)
It’s hardly as extreme as hiding finances, but equally important: these days, a lot of millennials don’t believe in merging finances at all. “Call me greedy, but I’ve never wanted to share my money with my husband,” Evie Carrick wrote in a 2018 article for Vice about why she keeps her income completely separate from her spouse. “Why should I be expected to fork over half of my take-home pay just because I’m married?” In her piece, Carrick cites a 2018 Bank of America report about the money habits of millennials, noting that “28 percent of millennial couples keep their finances separate, while only 11 percent of Gen Xers and 13 percent of Baby Boomers do,” attributing this to “changing relationship dynamics and the empowerment of young women.” (It’s hard to argue with that. Remember, as recently as the ‘70s, some women couldn’t even get credit cards in their own names.)
Twenty-five years ago, merging money entirely was the default position in marriage, says Manisha Thakor, vice president of financial education at the wealth-management firm Brighton Jones and founder of MoneyZen Wealth Management, a female-focused investment advisory firm. Now, 20-somethings might enter into marriage with mortgage-sized student loan debt, forcing conversations about assets and liabilities, and generating new methods of sharing the financial load. It makes sense that millennial couples would want to be forthright about money, given the historic problems with patriarchal gender norms, and the consequences of one partner having all the economic power. Times are decisively changing. But wanting to talk about money, and actually talking about it, are two different things. How do you come to an agreement about how you share cash when the old models no longer seem relevant—or remotely desirable?
Families today look a lot different than they did for my mother’s, and before that, my grandmother’s generation. For starters, a married couple isn’t necessarily a man and a woman. And while the gender wage gap persists, more and more women are working than ever before. This is thanks to strides in equality, leading to more and better-paying jobs for women, but there’s a dark side, too: Increasing costs of living, health care, and debt mean that in a lot of families, both partners simply must work—a reality that has long applied to those outside a certain sphere of privilege and media attention. After all, throughout history, women of color have frequently worked outside the home while also taking on child-care and other domestic duties. The idea that a man would hand off the money in an “allowance” to his wife was a concept that found purchase in mostly white affluent homes.
Today, the kind of middle-class household in which I grew up, with the stay-at-home mom and the professional dad, feels increasingly like a luxury from another time, especially in urban areas; who can afford that? Single-parent households are far more common than they used to be. And according to 2015 research from the Center for American Progress, “regardless of household composition and whether parents are married, the vast majority of adults with custodial children are in the labor force.” In fact, 40 percent of households in the US, millennial and otherwise, have a female breadwinner, according to statistics from news and fashion website Refinery29 and bank JP Morgan Chase. But cultural stereotypes remain: approximately 71 percent of adults still believe it is “very important for a man to be able to support a family financially to be a good husband or partner,” according to a 2017 Pew Research study.
“So much of how we go about managing our money and the rules we set are dictated by tradition and culture and how we were raised,” says Farnoosh Torabi, 39, cofounder of Stacks House, a touring financial education pop-up that promotes financial independence for women, and the author of three books. “My parents are from the Middle East, my mom grew up in a wealthy family, and when she got married at 19, her assumption was your husband takes care of you.” When Torabi herself got married seven years ago, she says, the biggest source of stress and self-doubt was her parents, especially her mom, who was very skeptical about her being the primary breadwinner. “She was worried that I would have a ‘tough life’ for taking on too much responsibility,” says Torabi, who was then prompted to write the 2014 book When She Makes More. “I asked myself what was the number-one issue that I personally was experiencing with money in my life.”
My grandmother, who married in early adulthood and stayed at home to raise four kids while my grandfather went out to work for the railroad, could not have imagined a world in which couples Venmo each other for the previous night’s takeout. (She probably couldn’t have imagined Venmo, period.) But current technology makes it simple to split pretty much everything, and for two adult earners, there may be no point in ever creating a joint account for anything, particularly if the couple doesn’t have kids. Meanwhile, the idea of an “allowance” has broadened in concept. (Although apparently a “wife bonus” is still a thing among certain members of the monied upper class.) Traditionally given to the nonworking (typically female) spouse, what would’ve once been called an allowance is now a gender-neutral and even egalitarian move: it’s money each person in the relationship can use as they see fit, or a way to even the playing field when one spouse is out of work for some reason—be it maternity leave, disability, or choice. In some cases, regularly distributed money from one partner to another can provide real autonomy and possibility. But when a financial imbalance isn’t redistributed fairly, or discussed openly, relationship wounds can fester.
In 2005, Melissa moved from New York City and her media-based career to a rural area in a Southern state for her husband, whom she’s now been married to for 12 years. They have two kids, aged five and eight. In the early years of their marriage, Melissa had her own money from the sale of a book; after she and her husband had children, she stayed at home taking care of the kids, and didn’t make an income for a while. Now, she explains, “I earn a little bit, not very much. It’s been very difficult to make a living here.” Her husband, on the other hand, is a contractor with a successful business, taking in revenues of almost a million a year. He pays the bills and the mortgage and puts the rest of the money in his LLC, spending down as much as he can to avoid a tax burden—because everything he buys is a business expense, she says. “He will put money in the joint account when he thinks about it, or he gives me an allowance if I really beg for it. There’s a double standard in what’s an acceptable purchase for him versus one for me. It’s created this weird, gross, disgusting dynamic,” she explains. “It’s pushed our marriage to the breaking point. He has the best of everything, all the tools and equipment he could need, he buys himself new clothes. I never have money. Never!”
They’re in couples counseling. “If we survive, I would be shocked,” she says. “I didn’t think I was marrying [someone like] that, but you don’t really know. When you boil everything down, for me it’s about an unwillingness to be a true partner, and to me that’s not a real marriage.”
Sharing in a relationship matters, whether it’s actual dollars or something more symbolic. Nicole Cardoza, 29, is the founder of the website dahla, which she hopes will help support women in having the hard conversations about money. She grew up in a household in which her dad made six figures. He also had a gambling addiction. Her mother, a stay-at-home mom, didn’t realize the depth of the debt until it was too late. When Cardoza was 16, her parents divorced. Her mom ended up with the house—but also the mortgage; the family has had to foreclose on the house three times. “I’m trying to step in to help her now that I have some money,” Cardoza says, adding, “A lot of people are trying not to be their parents. It sounds harsh, and I don’t mean it that way. But a lot of moms are trying to be financially literate and teaching that to their kids, because a lot of them had moms who didn’t understand finances.”
Cardoza was previously engaged, making more money than her boyfriend, who wanted to be a stay-at-home dad. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “But he had a different perspective. His grandparents paid his student loans. And I was like, ‘I have to take care of people!’ He even wanted my parents to pay for our wedding. It was just a mess.” She describes their breakup as partly related to money. He was more conservative around money, and more risk-averse, but he also had more financial security. “And I wasn’t in a place to put our marriage—wedding, kids, etc.—first financially.”
Sharing a state of mind about money matters. Today, Cardoza’s dream relationship would involve someone who can talk about money openly and honestly. “My financial state is part of my identity,” she explains. “It doesn’t have to be all open on the table, but in surveys done with happy couples, it’s all about transparency.”
Sometimes it takes a wake-up call to get there. Samantha and Alexa Lemley met and fell for each other as teens; now 47 and 44, they’re married and own several small businesses together, including the ketogenic foods website, KetoLuxe. They’ve always merged their money, but Sam was usually the one in charge of the finances. Then, in April of last year, she was diagnosed with severe type 2 diabetes, a warning signal to the couple to get things on track—not just in terms of their physical health, but their financial health as well. “We were broke for a really long time,” says Sam, who made it official with Alexa in June 2014. Now, five mornings a week, they sit down with their bookkeeper and talk about where they are, where they’re going, and where they want to be. “There’s so much talking!” says Sam, laughing. “We make an effort, just like we make an effort when we go to the gym together. We do money every morning. Five days a week, that’s our ritual.” And it’s helping, Sam says. “While we're not perfect, our relationship with each other and money is constantly evolving for the better.”
Aditi Shekar and her husband Dalmar Hussein are making it their business to help other couples on their mutual money journeys. Before they moved in together in 2013, the couple dated long-distance for six years. He was a PhD student at the University of Chicago; she worked at a tech startup in D.C. They split everything 50-50 and got a joint credit card to track shared expenses, which “made it so much easier than Venmo-ing back and forth.” As they built a life together, Shekar started reaching out to other couples for tips on how to best to handle shared finances—but she found it hard going: “I tried talking to a friend of mine who physically broke out in hives!”
In 2017, Shekar, then 32, founded Zeta, a personal-finance site designed specifically to help modern-day couples share financial information and get access to advice. Shekar and Hussein—who works as a user research director at a tech startup in San Francisco and co-owns 50 percent of Shekar’s share of the company—also interview guests for their podcast, The Money Date. "Our mission is to ‘help love thrive,’ Shekar tells me. “Money is the number one thing that stops it from thriving.”
“My financial state is part of my identity. It doesn’t have to be all open on the table, but in surveys done with happy couples, it’s all about transparency.”
If you make talking about money a priority in your relationship, it seems, it really will pay off. Carey, 35, grew up in a household where her family lived paycheck-to-paycheck. She was motivated to become financially independent by age 17, and wanted that same sort of financial conscientiousness in a partner. Two months into dating a new guy, she moved from her job at a nonprofit into the tech world, which netted her a “pretty big raise.” She told her boyfriend what she was making, and in return he shared his lawyer salary for the first time—less than hers, but “there was never a twinge of jealousy or annoyance or gaslighting,” she says. “That started a conversation about our values on savings, spending, all of the baggage that comes with money.” Eight months in, they moved in together, prompting another financial state of the union. “It seems like money and religion are two of the things I need to know pretty early on for me to fall in love,” she says. “I think that being financially transparent in a relationship is more intimate than sex.”
Inspired by Carey’s story, my fiancé and I sat down the other night to talk more about our money plan. Neither of us can build a cash-flow model, but I do love a spreadsheet. (I created a color-coded one to help us easily view our regular purchases and payments, as well as our assets.) We realized that it suits our style to have a loose structure, something that provides a framework—but not so much that we rage against the rules. We decided that we’ll each take money out of our individual accounts and combine it for big projects, like home renovations and furniture and vacations; we’ll Venmo each other when necessary to even things out; we’ll alternate organically when buying dinners and other day-to-day things.
The fraught nature of finances is hard to avoid, though. In the course of reporting this story, I spoke to my parents about how they handled money. It turns out that when my mother married my father in 1969, she had an undisclosed $10,000 in the bank—money she’d gotten from selling the house she’d owned with her previous husband. As an engineer, my dad made about three times what my mom did at various part-time jobs; he had no idea about the stashed cash until he put together their tax filings for their first married year. “I showed him the bank book, and you could see he was shocked,” she tells me.
My dad didn’t have much else to say at the time, other than that they had to declare the interest. What was hers was theirs, and the money went into a joint pot. Later, when they had kids, my mom stopped working outside the home. “But that never changed how we divided money,” she says. “We put it in an account and took out what we needed. I had spending money, he had spending money. Everything was always in both of our names.” My parents eventually used the $10,000 to put a down payment on an apartment in Chicago. They remain married to this day.