Who picks up the dinner check in your relationship?
There are many different considerations when bringing each others’ finances into the relationship.
Step One: Know Thyself
Who makes more income? Are the income streams steady? What are your spending habits? What are theirs?
All these questions should be answered before you start merging accounts together. Your relationship with money will have a huge impact on the success of combining your finances. Understanding how you operate with money will help you avoid some of the more common relationship landmines that explode some couples’ futures.
And that’s no understatement. David Ramsey’s team turned up in studies that money issues are the second leading cause for divorce, only just barely beat out by infidelity.
Assuming you’ve got a solid grasp on your own psychology of money, you can move to step 2.
Step Two: Communicate, And Trust
After you know yourself; how you feel about money, how you envision this major step playing out, now it’s time to speak to your partner.
The first of many such conversations.
The key to most things in a successful relationship is communication. Finances are no different, and are perhaps even more important. Especially with the emotions often tied to the almighty dollar.
Have regular, honest and open talks about money. How much do each of you have saved? What are your financial goals? What are your life goals, and how does money impact them?
Getting on the same page will help you work through any difficult times that come up.
Step Three: Pick a Playbook
Now that you’re on the same page, you need to decide together how the next chapters are going to play out. And to do that, we fall back to how we started.
Who picks up the dinner check?
As there is no “one-size-fits-all” in relationships, there are a few commonly utilized “playbooks” for how couples approach this topic.
One approach takes the view that both parties are equal. A joint account is established that each person contributes the same amount into. Any shared expenses are paid from by this account, meaning each person is contributing the same financial resources to the relationship.
Why does this Work? For couples who earn the same amount of money, this approach avoids any disputes about who is picking up the dinner check. Or the cable subscription. Or any one of the numerous other expenses incurred. Each person is paying 50/50 for their usage.
When might this fail: The flip-side, if couples aren’t on equal income levels. This approach can lead to one person contributing far more, as a percentage of their earnings, to the shared expenses. Ultimately, this means the lower income earner has less money for themselves, and resentment can start to form at lavish spending from their partner.
Similar to the “Half-the-Pie” approach, the equal slices approach involves setting up a joint account. But instead of each contributing the same dollar amount, each partner contributes the same percentage of their income.
Why does this Work? Especially useful when there is an income difference, this approach has each person contribute based on their earned income level. This is especially helpful in relationships where one person’s income is variable, either from work fluctuations, or as they start a new business/career. By splitting costs by the percentage, rather than raw dollars, one person isn’t unduly penalized for those income fluctuations.
When might this fail: While each partner is contributing the same percentage of earnings, that doesn’t always equal the same number of dollars. Any spending from the lower-earner can cause the high-income partner to question those expenses. The concern here is that someone is “free-loading”, again causing resentment.
Often seen when a couple first starts dating, this approach alternates picking up the tab for things. Your partner pays one dinner bill, you pick up the next one.
Why does this Work? Best used at the early-relationship phases, this approach doesn’t place too much weight on any one transaction.
When might this fail: This unstructured approach works well in the dating stage, but starts to fall apart when you start to intertwine your lives more completely. Some bills, like hydro, internet, rent, etc. aren’t well suited to a tit-for-tat style of treatment. On top of that, sometimes the bills aren’t seen as equivalent. A quick pizza order might not be seen as the same as that nice steakhouse meal last time.
What’s Yours is Mine, Baby
This approach joins everything. All accounts, all debts, everything.
Why does this Work? This approach takes the individual out of the equation. Everything becomes about the couple, and all incomes and expenses are shared.
When might this fail: The loss of some financial autonomy can be difficult. In this playbook everything is shared, meaning hobbies and individual purchases are made from a joint account. Her love for baking might not be on the same scale as his love for motorcycles. And no amount of brownies can bridge the gap between a bag of flour and 800 pounds of chrome and gasoline.
This approach sets a scenario to live out before it becomes a reality. The most commonly seen scenario comes with the decision to raise children. Many times, this is a long-term reduction, and sometimes elimination of income from one partner. Learning to live on one income is a large adjustment for some people.
Your scenario is yours to imagine, as you test out your ability to do it. Maybe it’s starting a business. Raising children. Retiring at 30. Or taking a year to travel the world. Testing your scenario first gives the confidence to pursue your dreams.
Why does this Work? Whatever your reasons, whether it’s parenthood, starting a business, or just the financial freedom, this exercise can show some incredible benefits. Living on one income, for example, can help jump start your financial foundations with extra investments and the development of a solid emergency fund.
When might this fail: This might fail if your lifestyle doesn’t adjust to allow for your scenario. Often we allow our lives to scale as our income grows, and living out any hypothetical scenario usually involves an income reduction, temporary or permanent. If your scenario is ambitious, it might take a few tries to get this right.
Step Four: Establish the Ground-Rules
Once you’ve selected your playbook for combining your finances, it’s time to lay down some ground-rules. Here are a few important ones:
Maximum Dollar Spend / Personal Discretionary Funds
No matter how you decide to combine and split your finances, each of you will inevitably want to make a purchase the other might not appreciate the same way. Having the autonomy to make those purchases without fear of judgement is important. For those purchases, you need an “allowance” over which you have free reign.
Want those new shoes? That’s what your allowance is there for.
Whatever the dollar value, each person needs to have a spend limit where they are authorized to buy without consulting the other. Over a certain dollar value though, either you need to save your allowance, or you need to consult your partner. The limits are yours to set.
Saving for the future is important. There are tax advantages of having each partner possess a healthy retirement savings account, despite lifetime income limits.
Setting these expectations in the ground-rules is important. How much risk to take in the investments? How much should be funded every year/month?
Adequate preparation in this area will put you well ahead on the road of life. Have your partner keep you accountable.
The final ground-rule to lay before combining finances with your partner is when and how to accept debt. Whether it’s a new credit card, or even student loans, these decisions have major implications on your financial health.
These decisions are too important to not be talked about.
Combining finances with your partner is a big commitment, but one that affects all of us as we invite others into our life's journey. Knowing who you are is an essential first step, checking the ship for seaworthiness before inviting someone else aboard.
Communication and trust cannot be overstated, as any playbook falls apart without those two elements.
Combining finances with your partner doesn’t need to be complicated. The right ground-rules to keep you out of trouble, and you and your partner will be in a better place.
Stay together. Stay happy, stay healthy, stay wealthy.