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The age men and women decide to tie the knot has been on the rise for years. In 2018, the median age for first marriages is 30 for men and 28 for women. That gives individuals almost three decades to establish deep-seated opinions related to finances, including how to save and spend their hard-earned cash and how they want their career to play into their future lifestyle.
While one partner may prefer to sock away savings and establish a sound nest egg, the other may see the value in spending money on once-in-a-lifetime experiences. In other words, couples may not always see eye-to-eye when it comes to the big financial picture. To offer some real-life perspective on these real-life struggles, we spoke with three young couples to learn how they handle their finances, divvy up expenses and save for the future.
Splitting expenses — except on old debts
Courtney and Ryan Ples have been married for seven years and live in Baltimore, Maryland. Courtney is 31 and works in sales at an educational technology company; Ryan is 32 and works as a consultant for Verizon.
As the assistant director of the Maryland Fund for Excellence at the University of Maryland, Ryan was used to hearing “no” when he called to ask for donations. And the reason was almost always the same — the person on the phone needed to consult with their spouse because they didn’t personally handle the finances or they needed both parties to agree before committing.
“It was frustrating that members of a marriage didn’t have the ability to definitively say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without discussing with their spouse,” said Ryan. When he married his then-girlfriend, Courtney, in April 2011, the couple decided not to let themselves be beholden to similar guidelines. “If Courtney wants to donate to a political campaign or fundraiser, I trust she won’t make an irresponsible decision that would challenge our household financially.”
From the very beginning, the couple knew that establishing some kind of financial independence was crucial for their marriage. Since they have similar incomes, the Ples’ each contribute 50% of their take-home pay to a joint checking account that takes care of their monthly expenses, including their mortgage payment, house-related expenses, groceries, and anything that involves their three-year-old daughter (including a 529 plan for her education).
However, the other 50% of their paycheck goes into their personal checking account. From that account, Courtney and Ryan each pay the personal expenses they accrued before getting married, including student loans, car payments, individual credit cards and cell phone bills. Unlike many couples their age, Courtney and Ryan did not live together while they dated, and, as a result, did not have many shared bills before marriage.
While their approach works for them now, Courtney wishes she had had a deeper discussion about finances with Ryan before getting married. The couple started married life on one income — Courtney had just quit her job to move across the country — so Ryan organically took the lead in financial planning. As a result, he initially handled the bills and budgeting. The couple adopted the 50/50 system once Courtney started earning money, but Ryan still handles the majority of the financial decisions.
Courtney admits that, at times, she gets frustrated if she doesn’t understand something specific about their shared finances, but acknowledges that she needs to ask more questions.
“I don’t want him to feel like he has to carry all the weight for our family,” she said.
Saving for the future: Courtney and Ryan have a joint savings account, a joint IRA account, and individual 401k plans through their work.
In order to save money, the couple uses apps like Qapital, which acts like a digital piggy bank by rounding up transactions to the nearest dollar (or however much you allow it to) and storing it in an FDIC insured savings account at one of the company’s partner banks. Users can attach a goal to the account, which makes it simple to save up for a vacation or a down payment for a car.
“A couple of dollars each week adds up quickly,” said Ryan, who once saved $2,500 with Courtney in four months through the app.
The couple also expects each other to save on their own. Both Courtney and Ryan have individual savings accounts they fund with leftover cash from their personal checking accounts.
Establishing common ground: When it comes to additional income, like performance bonuses, the two discuss exactly how the funds are being used.
“I never would be like, ‘This is my bonus, I’m going to get golf clubs or go on a boys trip,’” said Ryan.
To make sure they are on the same page, the couple came up with three top goals for extra income: lowering debt, enjoying life experiences and increasing their savings.
“We’ve lived in debt our whole lives and we want the only debt left to be our mortgage,” Courtney said. “That’s where the majority of extra income goes. However, we also prioritize us a lot, even if that means lessening debt payments, because life is short and we want to experience as much as we can while we physically can.”
Soon, the couple will have additional income: Courtney will start earning a commission on top of her salary. Their plan is to have 85% of the commission check go into their savings account to help finance a future move, and the remaining 15% will go into their joint checking account.
Separate accounts, but an even split on expenses
Nichole and Cole Huber have been married since September 2018 and live in Tucker, Georgia. Nicole is 32 and works as an IT recruiter; Cole is 30 and works as a welder.
Even though Nichole and Cole Huber have separate bank accounts and credit cards, the couple makes a point to split joint expenses evenly. Through cash-transfer apps like Venmo, the two can make sure their contributions are 50/50, and they take turn paying whenever they dine out.
While the couple has discussed having a joint account when they have children or are saving up for a big expense, like home renovations, past experience has taught them to be cautious. Nichole was previously married and said her past marriage ended with a lot of “money attachments.”
“My ex-husband and I pulled our money together and lived a lifestyle that required both our incomes,” Nichole said. “He made substantially more than me so when it came to separating, I had to trust he would follow through on paying for things until we fully separated all our financial obligations.”
“I felt stuck because I didn’t have an account of money on my own and money was used to have power over me,” she said. “[My ex] would reiterate that he was still paying for me — rent on a house we had, the mortgage we had together, cars we bought based on our dual income lifestyle — so part of my mentality now is to live a lifestyle I can afford on my own and to have my own money saved up for the future.”
Although Nichole earns about 30% to 40% more in annual income than Cole, the couple decided together that they would split expenses 50/50 because their joint expenses don’t total up to much.
“It all comes down to being fair,” explained Cole, who said that when expenses are split evenly, “there’s nothing to argue about and there’s nothing to discuss.”
“If she wants to go buy something, that’s great,” he continued. “Same for me. The thought of asking for permission … it creates animosity around finances.”
Saving for the future: Right now, the couple maintains individual savings accounts. However, they each know how much their spouse contributes to their 401k plans and have agreed to start individual IRA plans in 2019.
“We just have an open conversation about what we’re doing,” said Nichole. “I don’t know exactly how much is in Cole’s banking account and he doesn’t know exactly how much is in mine, but we know each other’s credit scores.”
Establishing common ground: Before Nichole and Cole were engaged, the couple sat down to identify common financial goals. One was to purchase a house, and since Cole had enough savings at the time, he agreed to cover the down payment for the home.
“Most importantly, setting joint goals gives us confidence that we are both looking to follow the same path financially,” Cole said. “Gaining an understanding of how you both view and value money allows you to then segway into a conversation about financial goals.”
Cole explains that “discussing” and “compromising” is what led the two to understand their financial goals as a couple and in turn, the big financial decisions become “much easier because we are both shooting for the same thing and we understand what is important to one another.”
Splitting costs in proportion to their income
Tara and Jon Sims have been married nearly three years and live in Matthews, North Carolina. Tara is 34 and works as a probations/parole officer; Jon is 32 and is in a director role in the admissions office at a local university.
Although Tara and Jon Sims have been together for a decade and married nearly three years, the two have yet to open a joint bank account. While they aren’t opposed to it, their banks of choice aren’t the same — Tara banks with Wells Fargo and John is a loyal PNC Bank customer — and they haven’t felt a need to make any transitions.
The couple handles their money in much the same way they did at the start of their relationship. The Sims moved in together after eight months of dating — mostly because Jon moved from Virginia to North Carolina for work and Tara decided to leave her job to start a new life with him.
In those early days, the couple was living paycheck to paycheck. Although Tara had some savings, Jon wanted her to go back to school and finish her degree. The couple was a one-income household and money was tight. But once Tara got a job, they decided to split the bills in proportion to their income.
Tara is responsible for budgeting and managing the couple’s money. Every month, she adds up their expenses — a mortgage payment for the home they purchased together in 2016, utilities, joint credit cards — and comes up with an amount for Jon to contribute, which is usually about 75% to 80% of his paycheck. Jon’s contribution covers the majority of the couple’s joint expenses. He will deposit this amount into Tara’s personal checking account every month since the two never opened an account together.
After paying their bills, Tara budgets for groceries and moves the rest of the money into a savings account that, while technically in her name, is understood to belong to both of them. Jon has access to the account.
Jon earns about 25% more income annually than Tara does, so he feels that it’s fair that he contributes more. The money that he keeps in his personal account is his spending money, and he said whatever is left in her account after paying the bills is her spending money, as long as they’re able to put away $200 to $300 every month into their savings.
Each person’s spending money or “allowance” is used to pay for their personal expenses, which includes their cell phones, car payments, and the personal loans they both took out to pay off the debt they racked up when they first started dating.
Saving for the future: The money that’s in Tara’s savings account belongs to the couple. “I don’t really ask questions,” said Jon. “I just let her transfer it over. Even though it’s in her name, it’s our savings.”
The couple has 401k plans through their work. Jon said he would like to start investing once the couple has a little more money saved up, but won’t make any major moves unless Tara agrees to it.
Establishing common ground: The percentage that Jon contributes each month feels fair to the both of them. “It never felt like a 50/50 or 80/20 thing, but more of ‘We’re trying to get the bills taken care of,’” Jon said.
Here’s the truth about personal finance: it’s personal. In order to have a successful financial partnership, couples have to communicate to make sure they see eye-to-eye. No matter what your financial situation is, identifying what is important to both people and establishing common ground is critical for a lasting happy and healthy union. The couples above have very different ideas on how to handle their finances, but there some areas that they have in common:
They believe the division is equitable. No matter what your financial situation is, each person needs to believe that the system is fair. In order for this to happen, communication is key, which sounds easy enough but can be quite tough when you’re balancing modern life’s busy schedules.
They have a system for bill paying. Whether each person contributes to an agreed upon percentage and/or dollar amount that goes into an account that pays the bills, like the Ples’ and Sims’, or each pay their share from individual accounts, like the Hubers, it’s important to have a system to make sure bills are taken care of. Additionally, designating one person to handle all joint payments may make life less complicated, but make sure the person taking on the extra responsibility doesn’t feel burdened.
They have financial independence. Each couple said it’s important to have access to spending money that they feel is their own. The amount of this “allowance” should be determined by both parties ahead of time and can be a percentage proportional to income. This can also release tension in a marriage, especially if the people in the marriage have very different ideas on how to spend and save money.