When we imagine the difficulties we have to overcome in relationships, we often focus on the emotional hotspots: commitment, cheating, emotional availability, the whole nine yards. And while these issues do often come into play, there’s another major source of conflict in relationships that you may not see coming: money and finances. Up to 42% of US couples say they fight about money, and as many as 27% say these fights happen monthly or even weekly. Finances are stressful for everyone, and even more so when the economy is struggling. But they get even more stressful when you and your partner have different viewpoints or values around money: you have very different incomes, or one of you comes from wealth and one doesn’t; maybe you have extremely different spending habits or financial planning approaches. How can you build a healthy, low-conflict relationship despite these differences? Here are my recommendations.
Communicate upfront about money — and keep doing so
Talking about money can be incredibly uncomfortable in many US cultures — we even have an explicit social rule around not discussing salaries or payment. But we also know from experience that avoiding this topic can be toxic — avoiding discussing salaries can enable wage gaps, for instance. The first step in a healthy relationship with money for you and your partner is to be able to talk about it openly.
Some of the topics it might be useful to discuss: how much do you each make? How much have you historically made? What was your family’s relationship to money growing up? Did your parents feel comfortable with money, and did they have a solid financial education, or were they often winging it? What lessons, explicit or implicit, did they pass on to you both about money?
How much do you feel comfortable spending on recreational activities — eating out, travel, discretionary shopping, “little treats” — and how much do you feel compelled to save? Do you have significant debt, whether it’s student debt, credit card debt, medical, etc.? How does that debt impact your life? Are there major life goals you’re looking forward to that have a significant financial component — like saving to go back to school, in vitro fertilization, eventual immigration to another country, or major medical expenses? Is there an expectation for you to financially support other family members, now or in the future?
This can feel overwhelming, and certainly, you don’t need to run through all of these questions rapid-fire on a first date. However, on the other end of the spectrum, it’s all too easy to find yourself head over heels for someone.
Decide your boundaries around money
One of the hardest lessons to learn about relationships in general is that you can’t control what the other person does — only what you do. It may drive you crazy that your partner seems to want to order out for every meal or buy clothes and jewelry as soon as they get their paycheck each week. These things are certainly worth talking about if they point to larger issues in the relationship, but the goal should never be to convince them to change their behavior or understand that your way is right.
Instead of trying to get them to change, think about what boundaries you want to hold. Do you need to set a budget for eating out each month, and if they want to eat out past your allotted spending, they have to go by themselves or with friends? Are you excited to go on vacations, but only want to do so in cities where you have friends you can stay with? Similarly, if you make more money than your partner and feel an obligation to pay when you two go out or make plans, consider setting a monthly budget for discretionary spending you’re willing to do for both of you, and practice getting comfortable saying no when you hit it.
It’s especially important to set these boundaries for shared financial decisions, like joint investments, travel, major expenses, etc. Maybe your partner is dead set on a brand-new apartment complex with all the latest amenities, and you’re worried it will cost your entire paycheck to live there. Having previously set a boundary — and communicating clearly — that you are only willing to pay 25% of your monthly pay for rent helps manage expectations about your role in the renting process right from the outset. It doesn’t mean you and your partner can’t still live in their dream apartment — as long as they’re willing to pay the difference. (This is also why having talked openly about money is key; it helps you both address head-on whether an arrangement like this would cause resentment or guilt.)
Consider what financial decisions you want or need to make together (and which you don’t)
There are a lot of assumptions we’re encouraged to make culturally about what a long-term relationship should look like. One of them is that if the relationship is healthy and both partners are serious about it, then every possible commitment is made and everything is shared: you’ve moved in together, you sleep in the same bed, have all the same friends, spend all holidays and vacations together, etc.
Of course, we know that in the modern era, this doesn’t have to be the case. Couples can live separately or use separate bedrooms, take vacations separately, or even date other people in ethical non-monogamy. This goes for finances, too — there’s no rule that says you have to have a joint bank account or merge all your assets. In fact, especially for women dating men, it’s often beneficial not to — the best resource for people facing intimate partner violence or abuse is having their own source of funds that their partner can’t access or control.
Even in the healthiest of relationships, though, there are advantages to keeping your finances relatively separate — or having a joint bank account for bills and shared expenses but maintaining separate ones as well. It helps create a clear distinction between their money and yours so that even if one of you has spending habits that stress the other out, it doesn’t have to materially impact the other. One idea is to agree on an amount that you both contribute to a joint account each month — may be enough to cover rent, bills, and some savings cushion — and then leave the rest of what each of you make to spend as you wish. Big investments like a mortgage or a cross-country move can have their own savings plan, where you agree on an amount you can each contribute to the fund regularly.