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From the moment I met my husband, James, everything was on the table. I fell in love with his honesty and open communication. During one of our first conversations, I asked him what he considered the biggest betrayal in a romantic relationship. I assumed I already knew the answer: infidelity. He said that, although infidelity is up there on the list, financial infidelity would be the quickest route to breaking his trust. Taken aback, I asked him to elaborate. That moment helped reshape my own ideas and create a healthier sense of money within relationships.
My mother-in-law loves telling this story about my husband: when he was about three years old, she was trying to teach him how to add numbers together. In French, she asked, “what’s two plus two?” James would respond with a blank stare. She altered the question slightly: “what’s two Franc plus two Franc?” With excitement, he would yell, “four Franc!” From the time James was tiny, he was aware of money. As he grew, his father showed him how to review bank statements and accounts, confirming that payments matched receipts. He engrained in James the importance of saving, and its connection to becoming independent.
While James was in France becoming financially astute, I was on the other side of the Atlantic receiving a very different message. I grew up in a household with my parents, three siblings, a Great Dane, and a dozen cats. Us kids had everything we ever wanted. We were spoiled on birthdays and Christmas, we had the best costumes at Halloween, and a whole new wardrobe every year for school. Our toybox was bottomless, and yet there were days we had no electricity. I would wake up Monday mornings not knowing if our phone had been disconnected that week. At fourteen I started my first job. If I didn’t spend my paycheck, someone else in the family would. Saving was no option for me, and bank accounts became communal. Our house was full of love and things, but money was scarce.
When James and I moved in together, he knew I was broke. How did someone so conscious of money marry a person with an empty bank account? Simple: he inspired me to grow. Don’t get me wrong, as a result of my upbringing I developed a major complex around money. Living with a family like mine, in a country that lives off credit and debt, money was a major source of stress and anxiety. There were moments I walked out on James in the middle of a financial conversation because I could feel a panic attack coming on. There were many tears in the first couple of years of our relationship, but he saw the effort and my openness to find a healthier way.
James and I met in an amusement park in Toronto, where he was studying. Thinking about it now, we owe our meeting to the value he put on money. He had enough savings to travel and study in Canada, and, later, to take me to France for two months on his dime.
“Money is freedom.” It’s a bold statement, but that’s what James believes. Money provides independence and opportunities. It is also one of the main reasons for divorce, which is exactly why financial consciousness is so important; it is vital to our wellbeing and can be easily overlooked.
Whether your start in life was like mine or my husband’s, there are ways to build your financial awareness and create a functional relationship between you and your wallet.
Financial compatibility is important. Knowing a person’s lifestyle and priorities will help determine if that compatibility exists between you. This isn’t to say that two people need to love working numbers to have a successful relationship. In fact, James is the number “nerd,” whereas I’m more of a “free spirit.” Between the two of us, I’m more inclined to spend, while he’s happy eating pasta for weeks if it means extra cash in the bank. It isn’t personal differences that necessarily cause the issues; the issues occur when there is no conversation when one or both partners feel unheard, or if financial infidelity occurs. Like any other critical conversation, it’s important for all parties, to be honest, give feedback, and be aware of the financial situation they’re in.
How We Do It
Growth starts with a choice. In our first year together, James and I were nowhere near where we are now. It is my hope that I’ll look back in ten years and feel the same. Continuous development is something we both value. We made the choice to grow together and be the best we could be for ourselves and each other. At the end of the day, we are a team! Below I have outlined some wonderful ways we’ve made our finances work. Think of these as guidelines, not rules, and a place to start the conversation.
James and I typically have four accounts:
🖤 Individual savings accounts
🖤 Common checking account
🖤 Common savings account
The personal savings account is to individually build up our finances. The purpose for these accounts is to have access to money for separate spending (e.g. night out with friends), saving up for something specific (e.g. a new pair of shoes), or treating the other (e.g. birthday or anniversary gifts). This is where each person can focus on their own priorities and lifestyle needs. As much as we don’t have access to each other’s savings accounts, conversations about this money are not off the table. For example, when we want to make a large purchase, we discuss it. If the item will be used by the two of us (e.g. a couch), we will ask for feedback. If the item is for the individual purchasing it (e.g. a new computer), we will make the partner aware.
The common checking account is used for bills and groceries. We always anticipate our bills a month or so in advance (where possible), and therefore have overage in our accounts. It’s our second safety net.
For James and me, the common savings account tends to be for common interests, such as travel, and security (e.g. the car breaks down). We always put a certain percentage of our paycheck into the common savings account. Because our families live on two different continents, having access to money means having access to them, whether it’s an emergency or for leisure.
For us, money is a topic as common as sex. Not everyone functions this way but speaking about it on a weekly basis, at least, keeps stress down. James checks his bank accounts every night, whereas I check mine a few times a week. We update each other if we notice anything odd happening and get in touch with the bank right away. Luckily, this has only happened once since we’ve been together. For me, checking my accounts regularly played a huge role in strengthening my connection with money. It also deterred me from spending, as I fell in love with watching the numbers climb.
If you are in a new relationship, pay attention to the subtle (or not-so-subtle) habits of your partner. If your relationship has matured, it may be smart to decide how and when it makes sense to join accounts. First, check-in with yourself and decide what a comfortable timeline is for you, and then open the discussion up. Some experts suggest that waiting until marriage eliminates the risks and hardships of breakups. James and I joined accounts once we moved in together. There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. Find your comfort level, and then explore your partner’s.
Coming from a family where most things were shared, creating financial boundaries was a difficult process. James was very patient, but I know it has been one of the more difficult things for him in our relationship. Part of connecting with money is not feeling guilty when you have it. I’m still working through some of that guilt today. What helps is knowing that certain relationships within my family will be stronger for it. Also, my relationship with the self is stronger because of it. Accepting that my money is mine and that it’s directly linked to my independence, has made it easier to create boundaries. James and I are also not afraid to tell friends and family when we simply can’t afford something, or that it’s not a priority for us. When you can eliminate pride around finances, you’re less likely to give in to pressures.
Enemy or Friend
Money can be your enemy or your friend. I will argue that two of the most important things in life are money and relationships. When you have the security of financial wellbeing, stress dissipates and opportunities open, including a healthier relationship with your partner. Choose financial well-being today for yourself and for your partner. Remember, you’re on the same team!
Learn more by checking out these resources:
Why Didn’t They Teach Me This in School? By Cary Siegel
Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin
Best for Beginners: Broke Millennial by Erin Lowry
The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey