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Here's How Real Couples Manage Their Money

Ludmila Leiva

Finances are complicated. Figuring out how to manage credit card or student loan debt, save for emergencies, future goals, and retirement, and still manage to have a comfortable life in the present can be a tall order — something that many young Americans are struggling with.

And as if these challenges weren't already enough, the pressures that come with financial planning are affecting the way many millennials approach their romantic relationships.

The fact is, millennials have a lot of debt. A recent NBC News poll found that 62% have more debt than they do savings. And according to a 2019 Bankrate survey, just 40% of Americans are prepared to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense. This shaky financial footing means that millennials often approach partnerships much differently from how their parents did. Today, millennials are increasingly postponing marriage, and financial instability and student loan debt have a lot to do with it.

When it comes to figuring out how to organize not only your but your partner’s financial health, things can get tricky. Building a financially sustainable life isn’t cut-and-dry — every couple’s circumstances are different. For this reason, we asked ten anonymous individuals across the country to open up about how they approach finances in their relationship, what's working, and what they wish things would look like.

From enmeshing finances to secret bank accounts to resentment around debt, these couples illustrate just how varied millennial finances can be — and shed much-needed light on how we might have more candid conversations about money with our partners and, in doing so, build sustainable relationships with sturdy financial futures.

Age: 24

Location: Denver, CO

Income: $60, 000

Partner’s income: $50,000

Relationship length: 2 years

How open are you and your partner about money?

“We are incredibly open about money, with the exception of my credit card debt, which I hate talking about. I relied too heavily on credit cards and am aggressively paying them off currently to save an extra $350 a month.”

How do you feel about your financial situation?

"I feel perpetually anxious that I am not saving enough. My boyfriend is $110,000 in debt, and it honestly freaks me out. With that much debt, it makes me question what a viable future is as far as marriage. I don’t want what is his to be mine if it means I have to take on that load of debt.”

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

“I pay more in rent because I make more money, but he pays for everything he wants to do that I am dragged into. I get frustrated with our payment model, because I understand for him, he needs to start saving, and adding further financial pressure doesn’t allow that.”

Do you and your partner track expenses?

“Yes, we both use Mint.”

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

“There has been an overall lack of education. I believe that I have had to teach my boyfriend about the intricacies of finance, and I feel as if his family never set him up for success in this realm.”

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

“I absolutely wish we did things differently. I want a 50/50 split and the understanding that the amount of debt he carried directly correlates to the success of our relationship. An ideal situation would look like us both being debt-free and able to funnel our income into a home, what we love (dogs!), and more.”

Age: 30

Location: San Jose, CA

Income: $52,827

Partner's income: $505,000

Length of relationship: 1 year

How open are you and your partner about money?

“We had to have the 'talk' when he asked me to move in. We have separate accounts but will run our bigger purchases by each other, just for transparency. I'm more private than he is. Maybe out of insecurity.”

How do you feel about your financial situation?

“I'm proud of him, and he rightfully deserves the salary he makes. I'm a social worker, and it can be disheartening knowing I will only ever make a fraction of his salary, but his job is challenging.”

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

“We do not split anything 50/50. I moved into my boyfriend's home, which he had purchased before we started dating. We split household expenses by using Suze Orman's method, where each partner is responsible for an equal percentage of the bills rather than an equal dollar amount.”

Do you and your partner track expenses?

“My partner is very diligent about tracking his expenses. I am in my own way, but I refuse to use apps as they stress me out. I keep track by reviewing my finances via my bank account at the end of every week.”

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

“Sometimes I feel a little guilt about how much I contribute monthly. I only contribute $400 a month to our household costs. My boyfriend assures me that this is fair, but I'm not used to paying so little. Most of the 'financial challenges' are my own insecurities, where I wonder: If he could be with someone who makes as much as him and pull almost a million a year, why is he with me?”

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

“Overall, I'm content with how our finances play out. I really do appreciate my boyfriend being aware of our vast differences in salary and figuring out a mathematical formula that allows me to contribute in a way that is equal, even if it doesn't feel that way sometimes. There is no pressure on me to pay for more meals when we go out, pay for more grocery shopping, or take care of household tasks. I appreciate that my boyfriend reassures me I am equal in our relationship, despite our salary and household contribution differences.”

Age: 34

Location: Portland, OR

Income: $41,000

Partner's income: $140,000 + $60,000+ in stock

Length of relationship: 14 years

How open are you and your partner about money?

“Our finances have been fully joint for the last five years, so extremely open. I do sometimes wish we’d set up private personal accounts instead of allowance budget categories in You Need A Budget (YNAB), since this means I see all the transactions, so any stealth romantic purchases are thus not really a thing."

How do you feel about your financial situation?

"Our situations are meshed, but I definitely have angst about our earnings disparity, but my partner doesn’t give it much thought. I made more than him for the first nine years (partly because he was going to school to get his current lucrative situation), and the breadwinner flip-flop is still echoing in our dynamic."

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

"Everything goes into joint accounts and comes out of joint accounts. I deal with bookkeeping and bill paying and getting insurance quotes and comparison shopping — basically all the financial-health stuff. He’s totally capable and equally a finance nerd, but gets a kick out of having someone else take care of it. Besides, I would suck at letting go and mostly enjoy it."

Do you and your partner track expenses?

“YNAB! I categorize all the transactions as they come in, and we both check category balances before spending on the app on our phones. We have a budget date about once a month where we check in on longer-term priorities and allocate dollars accordingly. We also chat about things as they come up, and we have some pools of money, like for clothes and home goods, where we usually check in before spending, since the plan is to have dollars there but they don’t actually have specific jobs."

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

"My partner's workplace has a big going-out-to-lunch and having-coffee-together culture and mine doesn’t. I definitely struggle with a sense of unfairness around that, since we categorize meals eaten alone and meals eaten socially differently. We recently switched to funding his lunch-out category quarterly instead of monthly, and it’s done me a world of good not to see that balance dipping toward zero every damn month. My family is super into being thrifty, and his is not. Even after all of these years, we still argue about repairing and making do versus replacing. We also talk a lot about marginal utility (yeah, we met online through a common interest in economics #nerdlove)."

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

"I think we’re close to ideal. I like the idea of more privacy, but then again I like having all the data in one place more than I want privacy (how many times did one or both of us go to the bakery last year? 53). I’m super thankful to our 20-year-old selves for talking so much about financial values, logistics, and long-term goals so early in our relationship (we literally started in our first date). I really like the feeling of sailing forward together on one ship, instead of trying to drive separately in the same direction."

Age: 29

Location: Seattle, WA

Income: $82,500

Partner's income: $32,000

Length of relationship: 2 years

How open are you and your partner about money?

“We recently opened a joint bank account, so I know how much he makes, and his student loans are a fraction of what mine are, but I don’t know the total. I’m embarrassed about my loans, so he doesn’t know the total, he just knows it’s a lot. I have around $45,000 left on my student loans, and it makes me ill to think about it."

How do you feel about your financial situation?

"I suppose I feel fine. I know he was struggling financially when we met, but with our joined finances he’s more at peace. He’s about to start grad school, so that worries me because he won’t be working as much, but his tribe is paying for the school, so I feel great about that! My job pays well, but when I see my friends going on vacations overseas is when I start to feel poor. We have a joint airline credit card that I manage and pay off every month, so we can hopefully one day afford a vacation."

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

"A Google spreadsheet. Every two weeks I manually log our joint expenses. He can see it but never looks."

Do you and your partner track expenses?

"We use math! And a Google spreadsheet. I divide his income by the sum of each of our incomes to get the percentage he contributes to our bank account. So instead of 50/50, he pays 34.79% and I cover the rest. Then I made a spreadsheet totaling up all of our bills, general grocery cost, a little fun money, and got a total amount that we need in our joint bank account each month. Then I used that percent to determine the dollar amount he should contribute. Then we both set up our paychecks to deposit only those amounts into the joint account, and then we each keep whatever is left in our own separate accounts."

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

"In a past relationship that was very unhealthy, my ex would pay for things like dinners, eating out, and trips, and at the time I thought it was fair because of the gender pay gap (and really, he was emotionally abusive and that was my way of getting justice for myself — a lot to unpack there). But ever since, I’ve demanded things be split equally in relationships because I never want money and emotions to cross paths again."

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

"I think we’ve reached a comfortable setup as far as sharing expenses, but ideally he would have a higher salary, because like I said, I want things to be equal."

Age: 21

Location: Prescott, AZ

Income: $23,000

Partner's income: $2,400

Length of relationship: 7 years

How open are you and your partner about money?

"We are open with each other when it comes up, but are both uneasy about what the future looks like. Our financial arrangements changed when my husband left active duty in the army and became a full-time student. I didn't work when he was in the army, and now I work full-time while he goes to school full-time. We have separate spending accounts."

How do you feel about your financial situation?

"I worry my partner's not strategic with his money. He isn't a frivolous spender, but he lacks sustainable plans for saving or getting out of debt."

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

"We have a joint checking account that income goes into and all bills come out of. We have separate spending accounts that are allocated the same small amount every month. Each partner can choose to treat themselves that month or save the monthly allowance for something big that otherwise wouldn't be in the budget."

Do you and your partner track expenses?

"Yes, but we use a spreadsheet instead of apps."

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

"When we got married two years ago, most of our wedding costs went onto credit cards. We had a great budget and were able to build savings and cut down our debt effectively. But now that my partner is a student, our income through the school year fluctuates greatly, and it's hard to plan and budget."

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

"Strategy, strategy, strategy. I wish we felt more in control of our money and confident that we are on track to accomplishing our financial goals. Right now it feels like we're looking at each other, shrugging, saying 'We'll see!'"

Age: 28

Location: Minneapolis, MN

Income: $27,000

Partner's income: $36,000

Length of relationship: 2 years

How open are you and your partner about money?

"We have open discussions but both struggle to record expenses and do not discuss purchases that we make for ourselves. We've had discussions about how I want to see my partner not live paycheck to paycheck and start saving. We both know what we have in the bank, but we don't do anything with this knowledge. We're not mutually saving for anything together."

How do you feel about your financial situation?

"It can be difficult to save and make plans for the future, whether that be a vacation or buying a home. Not to mention paying off student loans. I feel anxious, impatient, and negative — but hopeful."

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

"We spend separately, and we don't share food. We share shelter-related expenses equally, but we have an upcoming move to a new apartment, and we plan to share them proportionately once we move. I also have additional expenses that he does not have, like car insurance and loan payments."

Do you and your partner track expenses?

"Yes, I use Google Sheets. I have a fixed expenses list and add variable ones to them. It's very basic."

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

"This winter I had my hours temporarily cut at work, to the point where I would spend more than I make. My partner offered to pay half of the cost of parking in my neighborhood, which eased the strain a bit. We had a discussion a few months ago in which I laid out some ultimatums. I said that I wanted to see him saving, spending less, and following a budget in order for us to continue living together. The outcome of this discussion was positive, and we didn't have conflict. He's aware of changes he needs to make without me bringing them up. When I moved into my boyfriend's place about eight months ago, we split the cost for necessary furniture, like a bigger bed, but I paid up front and he paid me back."

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

"I wish we worked in more lucrative fields. We both plan to keep finances separate for the future and plan savings together as needed. I wish we shared individual expense spreadsheets together, but I suppose first he would need to keep one. I do think that we've been open about money with each other, and this is the way forward."

Age: 25

Location: Temecula, CA

Income: $49,920

Partner's income: $50,000

Length of relationship: 2.5 years

How open are you and your partner about money?

"I am very open about how much I save monthly and what I make, because I feel I am great with my money. My boyfriend has been more private and not told me how much his loans were or how much he had in savings. He has more expensive taste than me, and he would rather spend his money on things he wants first and then save whatever he has left at the end of the month. I am the opposite."

How do you feel about your financial situation?

"I feel great in terms of my spending-to-saving ratios. I always worry about my finances and check my account at least every other day. I would say I am on the extreme end of the saver spectrum, but I believe while I am young this is the best time to save before I have a mortgage and other big monthly bills. I stress too much about my boyfriend's financial situation, and he gets mad at me. I sometimes want him to be just like me, which I know won't happen. I wished he budgeted better, but I do think he is slowly learning. His parents help him out, and sometimes I wish he knew that if he were to live on his own without his parents' help, he wouldn't be able to afford the lifestyle he has now."

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

"We don't live together, so we don't have any bills together or anything like that. We are long-distance and only see each other on the weekends. We do date nights on Fridays and switch off paying every other week."

Do you and your partner track expenses?

"We do not use any apps. I do keep a spreadsheet of my monthly bills and savings accounts."

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

"My partner feels that I meddle because I think he is not smart with managing his money, which isn't true. We are still working on it and are trying to meet in the middle of saving the right amount and also enjoying our money. We are trying to save for our future right now and want to buy a house in the next two years. Sometimes I feel as though I am saving more and he isn't, which can be frustrating."

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

"An ideal situation would be setting our money priorities first with bills, mortgage, and savings, then managing the rest for fun money like shopping, entertainment, and travel. I think once we are married, we will be able to do this."

Age: 33

Location: Oklahoma City, OK

Income: Unemployed, living off of severance

Partner’s income: $10,000

Relationship length: 9.5 years

How open are you and your partner about money?

“It's mixed; we are both very private about our bank balances and individual debts, but we do discuss how much we each make and what bills look like.”

How do you feel about your financial situation?

"Things could be worse, but they could also be a whole lot better. I wish my husband had steadier income so that we could depend on it each month. This said, he's doing work he actually likes, so I'll take a happy husband over a higher income (usually).”

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

“I pay the bills, and we split rent 50/50. Expenses such as alcohol, dinners out, and trips to the farmers' market flip back and forth between us.”

Do you and your partner track expenses?

“I'm trying to use Mint, but it's slow going. Usually, we just look at how much we've spent and compare to previous months."

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

“I was laid off two months ago. Luckily, I got a severance package, so we're okay for a few months and I'm collecting unemployment. I'm job hunting as hard as possible, but I had to borrow money from my parents to pay for part of our COBRA expenses. We can't afford to have a gap in insurance coverage, but COBRA is so expensive. I wish we had savings to rely on.”

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

“I wish we had several months' worth of expenses saved and more set aside for retirement. I think we're getting to a better point — we just need to have more conversations about money. It's hard because we're both so private about our personal finances. We did set up a shared bank account, but since I took over paying all of the bills, we only use it to pay rent out of. ”

Age: 23

Location: Portland, ME

Income: $55,000

Partner’s income: $0 (student)

Relationship length: 5 years

How open are you and your partner about money?

“We are very open and discuss our expenses without secrecy. We split our rent and utilities and always try to balance out payment for groceries and eating out. We don't openly talk about exact numbers in the bank, but we also don't hide it from one another. I've learned from my (now divorced) parents how damaging it can be to be secretive and uncommunicative about money.”

How do you feel about your financial situation?

"I am more in control of my finances than I have ever been, but know I have a lot to learn. My parents never taught me how to budget or save, so I was completely clueless in college and took out student loans without understanding what they were. Now, I am learning about investing, saving, and budgeting as much as I can and trying to pay off my credit card and build an emergency fund. My partner's parents have always supported him financially, and sometimes I feel jealous. He realizes how fortunate he is, but sometimes he complains about spending so much money and I get frustrated since his parents always give him money. I know it's not his fault, but it can be hard when money has been one of my biggest struggles since high school."

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

“We split all living expenses 50/50, which includes rent, Wi-Fi, and utilities. We usually split groceries in half, unless we both buy items for just ourselves; then we will go through receipts. For meals and other activities, we usually just take turns paying or send each other money."

Do you and your partner track expenses?

“I use my banking app to keep track of what I'm spending and recently started looking at a template each month that shows my monthly expenses versus income. My partner doesn't track his expenses through any apps, just his investments."

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

“Our biggest issue has been the fact that his parents pay for everything and my parents do not. Sometimes I feel like I have to work ten times harder than him for everything, and I don't feel that he respects that. When I get stressed about money, he tells me it's 'not a big deal,' and I have to explain that he can't tell me that since he doesn't understand how it feels to have financial issues. Overall, we come from two very different families and are trying to be understanding of each other's financial past without judgment.”

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

“An ideal setup would be to have a joint banking account used for expenses we both are responsible for, where we contribute the same percentage of our paychecks each pay period. Our personal spending would be our own deal, but we could still discuss our spending as needed. Having secrets, arguments, or stress around spending is a recipe for disaster, so I hope to always have an open relationship with money. I believe my partner and I are doing our best in our current situation, where one of us has a salary and the other doesn't. Once we are both supporting ourselves completely, I hope we can make our way to this ideal financial setup."

Age: 31

Location: Somerville, MA

Income: $55,000

Partner’s income: $120,000

Relationship length: 4 years

How open are you and your partner about money?

“We are very open about our expenses. I have a general idea of what he has, and he has a general idea of what I have. I deal with the majority of our expenses, so I have a better idea of how much is coming in and going out.”

How do you feel about your financial situation?

"I feel good about my financial situation. My partner makes a lot more than I do annually and has never lived a lavish lifestyle. And since he didn’t have any student loans or credit card debt, I never had to stress about his finances."

How do you and your partner handle your finances?

"We deposit 60% of our incomes into a joint checking account, and the remainder goes into our individual checking accounts. The joint account is where we pay our rent, utilities, cable, and our joint credit card bill. We put all of our joint expenses — like groceries, gas, eating out, and trips — on our joint credit card and pay the balance in full when it's due. At the end of the month, I also add up the total of what came into our joint checking account and transfer 20% into our joint savings account."

Do you and your partner track expenses?

“We don’t use any apps. Most months I just go through our credit card statement to get an idea of where we're at. We absolutely need to be better about tracking expenses."

What are some financial challenges you face in your relationship?

“My husband makes more than twice what I make, which can be frustrating at times, especially when we first started living together and were splitting everything evenly."

What would an ideal financial setup look like in a romantic relationship?

“Every couple is different and so is every financial situation, so I don’t believe there is any perfect, ideal way of setting up finances. It’s a lot of trial and error to see what works best. At the moment our setup works for us, but it took a while to get here. This said, we are both open to changing how we do things if and when we feel it’s necessary."

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