It’s no surprise that lots of couples fight about money – around half of them, depending on which survey you read. But what about the other half, the ones sailing through life without squabbling over spending and saving? They probably have trust funds or six figure incomes, right?
As it turns out, these non-money-fighting couples exist at every income level, young and old, from the newly hitched to the marriage veterans. I know this because I recently asked people to share how they successfully manage their money in a relationship.
Here’s what I learned about the secrets to keeping the peace.
If you have shared accounts, you need shared values
Lots of couples choose to completely merge their finances. The advantages of this are simplicity and transparency. People I spoke with liked having everything in one place, and the fact that both people had access to the full financial picture.
One common piece of advice you’ll read about when it comes to joint accounts is to establish a dollar threshold for “big purchases” that need to be agreed upon jointly. When I talked to real couples, though, it was less about limits and more about shared values.
One friend told me that she and her partner are more than happy to splurge on an anniversary dinner at a fancy restaurant or a great vacation, but they still wear the clothes they wore in graduate school. In other words, their shared value is putting experiences over things.
You don’t need to share everything
Most couples with whom I spoke had at least one joint account because being married or living together comes with joint expenses and planning. A common system, though, was to contribute to that account based on percentage of income or another formula while also maintaining personal accounts for individual spending or saving.
This is the system my husband and I also use. It gives us each autonomy over part of our financial lives, which we value, and allows us to surprise each other with gifts – because finding spontaneity in marriage is hard enough!
This system works best if both parties have an income source. However, even in relationships where one person didn’t work outside the home, most people I spoke with had at least one personal account or credit card just in their name.
Everyone I spoke with who was happy with their financial system was an active participant in it. I get it – dealing with money can feel overwhelming, especially if you’ve made mistakes in the past. Avoiding the topic, though, only makes it worse.
Play to your strengths and come up with a team approach. Many couples had responsibilities that broke down along the lines of day-to-day management of bills and expenses versus long-term planning. Maybe you’re good with details, so take charge of tracking expenses and mapping them to a budget. Or maybe you’re future-focused, so walk through the calendar for the next year and figure out what’s on the horizon that you’ll need to save for (holidays, vacations, etc.).
In our house, I manage regular bills and short-term budgeting, while my husband takes care of college savings plans and other longer-term needs. This works for us, but the point is to do something that helps you feel ownership over your joint financial future.
Allow things to change over time
Many people reported overhauling the way they managed money once they had kids, or as they progressed in their careers and made more money. For others, life events forced change – like going back to school or an unpredicted health issue.
Switching up how you manage money together can be hard initially, especially if you’re moving from a “me” to a “we” system. That was the case for my husband and me. We each brought our own complicated financial lives to the table when we got married, so we sailed along separately until we had our son. When we merged our finances, it was a bumpy transition.
It took some time (and some fights) to figure out who was responsible for what and how to manage the inflows and outflows of two people on one account. We kept communicating and tweaking the system, though, until we found what worked for us. All this to say, even if you’ve never fought about money in the past, proceed with caution if you’re planning differently for the future and prioritize communication over assumptions.
Remember that it’s personal
Money is emotional, no matter how you slice it. In all the conversations I had, there was a broad understanding that our personal financial behaviors have a lot to do with what we witnessed growing up.
One person told me that although he loved his wife and trusted her with his life, it took several years before he was able to trust her with their money. Growing up, he’d watched his own mother blow through their family bank account time and time again. It wasn’t until he shared this history with his wife, though, that they were able to stop having the same fight repeatedly and craft a new financial approach together.
The lesson here: we all have a history with money and strong emotions that accompany it. Being open with our partners about what we saw growing up or past mistakes from which we’ve learned can help lay the groundwork for a successful joint approach.
When I put out a request for people tell me about their financial systems, I honestly expected an empty inbox in return. It’s a highly personal topic that I didn’t think people would be willing to talk about. To my surprise, many were quick to share what works and doesn’t. What’s more, there was lots of curiosity about how other couples navigate this issue and whether a “perfect” system exists.
My takeaway from all this is that no one has it figured out. There is no perfect system that will keep you and your partner from fighting about money. Rather, the secret seems to be in how you create the system – with open communication, joint accountability, acknowledgment of the past, and the flexibility to change as your future does – much like, well, a marriage.