Approaches for financial imbalances in a committed relationship?
October 3, 2015 3:55 AM   Subscribe

My partner and I are in a committed relationship of over three years. She's in academia getting her PhD, I hold a professional 9-5 "knowledge-worker" position making a substantial salary. We've been living together for a year and a half, and have worked out a financial situation based on equitable contributions (pretty much a percentage of our incomes). But, my partner is about to enter into the writing the dissertation phase, but her grant money will run out and taking out additional student loans just seems like digging deeper into insane debt. We're discussing a situation where temporarily I'll effectively be supporting her fully. What approaches have other MeFites taken in this situation?

Some additional info:

Up through now we've kept non-shared expenses separate, groceries split 50/50, and rent/utils and discretionary expenses based on equitable split... Tracked in a spreadsheet. It's been totally working.

This is a committed relationship. We're thinking marriage, kids, etc in the next 2-5 years.

She's planning to teach during her dissertation writing, but its only going to pull in a small amount, less than even self-sustainability.

There are no red flags here. She's not after my money, she's not a gold digger. She's anxious about being financially dependent on someone else.

I think I'm just trying to come to terms with being okay with this transition. I have more than enough to cover her, but I can justify the full spectrum of options to crazy extremes (fully wiping out her debt right now to having her fend for herself and taking out loans to covering expenses). I don't think I have a baseline of what others have done and its difficult to search my feelings to figure out what feels "right"
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
This is a committed relationship. We're thinking marriage, kids, etc in the next 2-5 years.

There are no red flags here. She's not after my money, she's not a gold digger. She's anxious about being financially dependent on someone else.

Sounds like the perfect conditions for saying, "Yes, of course I'll cover you, as long as you need me to, just as you would for me, and probably will in some way down the road." Proceed with all the usual personal finance best practices, where the money's now "ours" and not "yours and mine."

As for what feels "right," one way to frame this matter in your mind is to feel extremely lucky that you've found someone wonderful and trustworthy enough to have this kind of arrangement with, and extremely honored to be the person who can help your partner succeed by this act of love. Good luck!
posted by Rykey at 4:12 AM on October 3, 2015 [45 favorites]

in your position i paid. we had a shared account that all the money went into, as far as i remember (although i was also paying a lot into a retirement fund).

i'm not sure i really understand what you're asking. what other option is there? maybe we were further into the relationship (at that time we would have been living together a few years). we are also "financially compatible" (neither of us spends much compared to people we know with our income)

it all comes out in the wash - there was a time later when i was without a job (when we moved to chile, first few months). and she was recently supportive of my changing to working half time.

these days what we aim for, roughly, is that each has the same amount of saving money, after contributing into the shared account.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:13 AM on October 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

You’re expecting to be together for the long term? Then cover everything. There would be no question in my mind that this was the right thing to do.

When I was in your position, my partner & I split our expenses in proportion to income. That way there was no question about who paid how much: we each paid what we could afford. Perhaps you might think about doing the same & if that meant going to a (say) 95/5% split for a while, then that would be just what would be expected of partners who were committed to each other & expected to be together for the long term.
posted by pharm at 4:54 AM on October 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

There's really not much to say. You pool your money in a shared checking account, make a budget and pay the bills.

The thing is that the roles could switch some day down the road. You might get laid off or get sick and she might have to support you.
posted by octothorpe at 4:57 AM on October 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Mr Llama footed the bill my last semester of graduate school.

We got through and we are in much better circumstances almost ten years later. We split everything 50/50 into his/hers/ours with the greatest amounts going to 'ours' and to retirement savings. Essentially we both get the same 'allowance' with which we can buy items purely out of our own desire and enjoyment.

The most important thing is to recognize that life is long and circumstances change all the time. It's easier to set it and forget than re-configure than do a whole lot of 'well let's talk this through because remember that time seven years ago when I....'

I manage all the money, hold all account access, and designate all the percentages of what we're contributing to what account and what fund, because I like it, I'm good at it, I want to, and when we tried having Mr. Llama take a turn it revealed a whole host of avoidance behaviors as the entire thing gives him the heebie jeebies.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:05 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

One way to think about it is that you are investing in your future family's economic life. By supporting your girlfriend complete her dissertation you are increasing her value on the job market in the future (ideally!) This will benefit the whole family, not just her.
posted by yarly at 5:09 AM on October 3, 2015 [19 favorites]

Things got much easier for me and my spouse in this situation when we made everything joint and started thinking of everything as "ours" no matter who contributed it. YMMV.
posted by Cocodrillo at 5:33 AM on October 3, 2015 [19 favorites]

We eventually did what someone here suggested -- all money goes into a common pool and we get equal allowances -- and life became immeasurably simpler.

That's the obvious solution to me. However, if she's anxious about being financially dependent on someone else and you're also squicky about the whole thing, I'm not sure what to say. Except that many couples eventually just pool the money and weird feelings disappear with time.
posted by whitewall at 5:43 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, but you should also re-set your mental clock and financial planning with the understanding that it could take her twice as long to finish her PhD as planned.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:44 AM on October 3, 2015 [28 favorites]

Things got much easier for me and my spouse in this situation when we made everything joint and started thinking of everything as "ours" no matter who contributed it. YMMV.

We do this. It is all "ours," there is no mine or yours. We have one checking account and one savings account; retirement accounts are individual because they are tied to a job but that money is still "ours" in the way we think about it. We have had points like now where our incomes are close to equal, and other points where one of us is working and the the other is in school or otherwise not financially contributing, and it has worked in both cases.

But we started our relationship in close to equal financial positions -- neither of us brought a ton of money or debt into the relationship, so there never needed to be those complicated decisions about things like paying off previous debt or what to do if one person has a lot of savings. And it also wouldn't work if we had wildly different financial styles, with someone spending uncontrollably and the other wanting to eat lentils and rice for every meal.

If you are as committed as you say you are, I'd treat it as a partnership rather than the economically much less advantageous approach of making her increase her debt -- you can call that debt "hers" but it is still the household that will end up paying it off. You both will get further ahead by minimizing that debt and taking steps that will allow her to focus on her writing unimpeded by financial worries.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:46 AM on October 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

When I was in this position we combined our money and stopped thinking about it in terms of his and mine. It was all just ours. As long as you're planning on being in the relationship for the long haul and have similar ideas about spending and saving, there's not really a down side.
posted by something something at 5:46 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Money is just money, in the end, don't overvalue it.

By that I mean - you trust her, I hope. You like/love her too. Even if you broke up two or five years from now, that's not going to invalidate those feelings - don't be dumb, but also don't live for the future by sacrificing the now. It's perfectly normal in a partnership to support each other at inconvenient times, and eventually it'll swing the other way (and even if it doesn't, that just means you guys are living well!)

My husband supported me for a semester while I was finishing my Masters, and now I'm the sole income source as he dropped out of his PhD to pursue writing. We have an agreement that if we need him to go into the workforce due to debt, he will, but right now, I can support both of us, make our payments(we also have zero debt at the moment, so it's just rent and utilities and the like) and put a tiny bit away. Would we be really living the life if we both worked? Sure. But money is just money (once you've paid all debt off, at least) and this goes towards his overall happiness and career.

I tell him I get to retire early if he makes it big. :)
posted by aggyface at 5:49 AM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is pretty much the reason marriage was invented. Have you considered getting engaged? It's not required by any means, but I bet your ambivalence would disappear if you both made a stronger commitment to your shared future.
posted by david1230 at 5:58 AM on October 3, 2015 [13 favorites]

hmmm. for the record, my post above describes what happened when we were not married, and how we live now, still not married, 25 years later. more than that, i am pretty sure most people would say getting married for financial reasons is not a great idea: get married when you want to get married, not when when your accountant suggests it. in other words, don't use marriage to "solve" problems. similarly for getting married because pregnancy.
posted by andrewcooke at 6:03 AM on October 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

In your situation, I paid 100% of the expenses and her small compensation went to a "wedding fund her way" account. I also agreed to read her dissertation and provide honest feedback.

If she is not comfortable being financially dependent on someone (you), let her take out the student loans. It sounds like you could always pay them back when or if you two both want. Or, let her borrow the money from you with a much lower rate. Give her a line of credit or let her run a tab. She can pay you back slowly over time. Maybe it takes her 15 years to pay you back $2,000 a year, but it might make her feel better about it.
posted by AugustWest at 6:13 AM on October 3, 2015

My then-boyfriend heavily supported me when I was a very poor undergrad and he had substantial parental support. I supported him when I had a good steady job and he dealt with having to take a semester off grad school. After we were married he was unemployed for 18 months. Now I'm unemployed. Until recently we split expenses based on income so when one person was out of work, the other just covered it. Now we have just one account which makes budgeting easier for us.

One thing to consider is opening a joint acct and joint creit card if you haven't already so she doesn't have to ask you for money.
posted by muddgirl at 6:14 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I married a woman very much younger than me. I supported her for years. Then, retired, I watched her climb the ladder and she is now making lots of money and supports me. No rancor, ever, between us on this. It worked out because of our love for one another.
posted by Postroad at 6:44 AM on October 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

In the mid 70s my mom took out a loan so my dad could buy a house and stay living in her same city. They were not married, they were not living together. They just knew they would be, eventually. It's been 40 years since then. They're still married and support each other completely. Every couple is different. This is what worked for them. They both just lucked out very young in finding another person they could love and trust and they bought into that love and trust big time.

I agree with Rykey here. Be thankful that you have a relationship and a lifestyle where you can do this and go ahead and do it.
posted by phunniemee at 6:55 AM on October 3, 2015

This is a really personal thing, and very specific to the couple involved. I can tell you that my now-wife and I decided to combine finances in this way several years before we were married, at a time when the imbalance was (frankly, and with hindsight) a result of my being slow in getting my career shit together after college rather than some more defensible reason.

Things changed, my wife went to grad school as my career progressed, and we have "switched" who was making more or less many times over the years. It's been great for both of us, and I think it helps make us all the more invested in one another's success (or did before we were married - I hope we'd have come around to this eventually one way or another now that we have kids and shit).
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 6:56 AM on October 3, 2015

This situation is a large part of the reason my husband and I got married when we did. He knew his grant money and health insurance would stop as soon as he defended his thesis, so we married in part so he could get on my insurance and have access to my bank account so he wasn't having to ask for money.

He ended up being unemployed for ~9 months, which was not ideal but we made it work. He just got a job and is making considerably more than I am, which is nice. It is also nice to be married to him, so the whole thing worked out for the best!
posted by coppermoss at 6:58 AM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding, my beau has made three times what I do for a solid chunk of our working lives (I'm finally starting to catch up) and we do 50/50 proportional to what we make, so I pay less in rent/life stuff.

I wound up working with school part time, but had I not, the plan was for me to just cover rent. Even now I will sometimes delay the rent check so I can pay for school, which then I'll slowly pay back.

I've never resented him and never felt bad leaning on him cause that's what makes sense for us, and as people are saying, part of srs relationships is that the money isn't the main thing.

I've always deeply valued my financial independence, but leaning on a serious significant other for me never felt like sacrificing that.
posted by KernalM at 7:02 AM on October 3, 2015

mr. needled and I have been together a long time, not married for the majority of that time, and we have kept our finances separate throughout our relationship. This has spanned periods of income disparity from grad school and unemployment.

We have a joint account to which we each contribute to cover joint household expenses. I manage the household finances, and as part of that I keep track of our contributions to the joint account. So, for example, when one person is unemployed, the other person "covers" for the other person by contributing a larger amount to the joint account, while the unemployed person contributes a smaller amount or perhaps none. Then once they have an income again, they contribute larger amounts to the joint account, while the other person makes smaller contributions, until contributions are at parity.

YMMV, but this is an approach that has worked for our household. (By the way, I grew up in a household where one parent worked outside the home and the other was a SAHM, but they kept their finances separate, and were adamant that I do so when I myself married. Growing up, I regularly heard one parent asking to "borrow" money from the other, and this probably contributed to my current approach to household finances.)
posted by needled at 7:04 AM on October 3, 2015

You haven't been living together, you've been roommates who date. Actually commit to living together and stop splitting things fairly. Show her that you can gladly support her when she doesn't have money coming in because, if you want children in the future, that is something that she needs to see.
posted by myselfasme at 8:14 AM on October 3, 2015 [5 favorites]

My preferred approach is to both contribute (in proportion to incomes) to a joint account to cover joint expenses and then each fund own other expenses from individual incomes. But my boyfriend isn't going to make enough for that to seem fair and equitable so instead I will cover our joint expenses (still by paying into a sum into a joint account) and we will each fund our own individual expenses from our own incomes - and I will treat him quite a lot socially (eg paying for meals out). When he earns more money we'll re-evaluate how much we should each contribute to the joint account.

I don't like the 'all money is joint' approach, I prefer to have yours, mine and ours pots, with actual expenses coming from 'ours'.
posted by plonkee at 8:22 AM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

We pooled our money into one pot and I think it was the best thing. I would try to commit yourself to the idea that this is a decision you're both making and not to "keep score" (either openly or secretly) about who contributed how much more when. You'll be happier.
posted by gerryblog at 8:40 AM on October 3, 2015

I work full time and my boyfriend goes to grad school, plus coaches at school without any pay. (Which is not okay, if you ask me, but apparently the school doesn't agree.) I pay for our rent and he pays for food, which is about half the amount our rent costs. Everyone pays for their own health insurance etc. and I pay for my own luxuries and try to include him when I can. (Obviously, I don't take him to eat out with colleagues.)

His share now comes out of a loan he took on before we moved in together and before I started by job. I couldn't cover his school fees as well, so that loan was necessary, and we'd only been together a year when he started grad school, so even if I had had a job then, I (or rather anyone giving advice to me) would have felt uneasy about me covering everything. I still keep my own bank account because while I do trust him, a woman can never be too careful.

I definitely try to cover what I can because I know from painful experience that grad school is hard and even harder when you need to work as well and worry about money, and I don't want him to experience that kind of worry.

I know he's not thrilled with this, but it seems fair to me. He'll probably make more money than me once he graduates, and maybe I'll go back to school at some point and he can support me.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 8:43 AM on October 3, 2015

What approaches have other MeFites taken in this situation?

My approach is that my wife and I both bring things to the table, and money is only one of those things. I make a lot more than her and so that's on the table. I'm a good cook. She's good in the garden. She is completely #)@#%ing adorable, and she's also infinitely more positive and level than me and she rescued me from my depression and insomnia. She's quick and canny and she keeps me in line. All of these things are on the table, and the money starts to not look like such a big deal anymore. So in the end, I'd no more put on my green accountant visor and start tabulating how much of that money she deserves, than I'd expect her to put on a green accountant visor and start tabulating how much of her sweetness and attractiveness and positivity I'm owed.
posted by ftm at 9:15 AM on October 3, 2015 [9 favorites]

This is pretty much why my fiancé and I got engaged: that I would be in school & he would be supporting me. (A bunch has changed since then & when we get married, we will have more equal incomes, so that definitely happens!) But honestly, if we hadn't merged accounts when we moved in, if he had wanted to keep track and have "his luxuries" or "borrowed from one another", I would have dumped him so fast, it would have left skid marks. Obviously other folks don't care. This is probably the time to find out which your girlfriend is if you really want to have a future together.
posted by dame at 9:41 AM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

It was a big emotional shift to go from having everything I earned being MINE to having it be "ours". For me, the timing of getting into a serious relationship, and then having that person need some financial support, lined up with a few months after I got my first job that paid more than grad-student wages (i.e. I had just paid off all outstanding bills and realized I had more income than expenses without even trying too hard, for the first time in my life). We had moved in together, with a logical but uneven expense sharing (I would continue to pay the same amount into the 2Bd apartment that I had been paying for my 1Bd, and he would make up the difference, about $300), but his home business was floundering, so we discussed it, and some months he didn't pay much and we didn't write that down or keep track of it. The point of that discussion was that I wanted us both to be happy, and not working him into the ground to come up with $300 was important. Then I got a job offer across the country for 1.5x the pay, and we had a big relationship discussion, got married, and moved together. Then because of that increased cushion, he had the ability to change his approach to his career, something which has made him happier but has decreased his already sporadic income (in the short term at least). I don't know how that emotional transition would have been different if my income had not gone up on the same timescale as his needs; I could see it being easier to go into it with a sense of how much income I really have, or being tougher to have been accustomed to a particular amount in the bank account and to radically change how it's getting spent.

One thing that did come up in discussion, before we were married, the first time we agreed that it was more important to have him pay his business bills than to give me his part of the rent that month, was the explicit statement that it was not a loan, and that if things went bad and we broke up, he did not owe me anything. (This was new for me; I had loaned money to friends and boyfriends before, but it was always a loan, and I had always been paid back.) The second phase of that was all in my head - not only was it not a loan, it was not a gift. When you receive a gift, you say thank you at least once if not multiple times, and try to do something nice for that person because you owe them - not cash-value owe them, but socially-emotionally owe them. Money that I chose to pay toward his/our expenses was just money that was necessary to keep life moving forward, not "doing him a favor" but keeping us living the way we chose to live (i.e. together, and solvent).
posted by aimedwander at 9:50 AM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

Splitting can work okay when you both have a roughly equivalent income and isn't necessarily a bad sign. If she doesn't have money to contribute, it stops making sense. If you don't want to just think of everything as "ours", then a middle-ground solution is to take the money from all sources, budget out all the major bills, and then allocate a certain amount to each of you for discretionary spending that you don't have to answer to the other person for. It might or might not be 50/50 depending on circumstances. Like, if you have to dress up and dry clean everything for work, that'd warrant extra. If one of you has to drive more, ditto. But make it a joint conversation.

I have both supported and been supported by partners in the past, and we never got married and it didn't always work out but this kind of arrangement was still never a part of the issues we had. Just don't leave it as "I can spend whatever I want and you get an allowance"; that's where it starts to feel gross. If you've got enough money for savings, make sure her portion includes some money that she can set aside for a rainy day, too. If you're not married, if something happens, she needs a cushion there as much as you do. It doesn't necessarily need to mean you're doing retirement contributions for two off of a single income, since this is temporary, but at least enough to cover an emergency fund. This is where women get rightfully nervous about being supported. Not that you're a bad person, but that feeling of helplessness in the face of the unknown. Having enough in a separate savings account that you won't end up homeless until you find a job of your own, if something awful happens? It makes a huge difference to feeling secure with disparate incomes.
posted by Sequence at 9:57 AM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

When we got together we knew my (now) husband would be supporting me- he's an accountant and keeps a spreadsheet on EVERY thing spent ever....when we talked about expenses he explained that he was going to practice "absorption" accounting- ie: he absorbed all my bills (phone, food, medical- anything big I needed) and then he transferred me 500 euro spending money "just for myself" every month which meant he didn't need to account for it on his spreadsheets.
posted by flink at 1:26 PM on October 3, 2015

Oh! And to add- once we got married he got a household spouse allowance at work which was a thousand euro and so now I get that every month, but our goal is I try to save half of that so that I have my own savings just for me... Although we are very very happy and overall we share everything in life and just welcomed a baby and I'm so happily a stay at home mom... His salary is HUGE and mine is nil- but what I bring to the table is just as valuable we feel and money had never been an issue between us.
posted by flink at 1:41 PM on October 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

My wife and I lived together for a few years before we got married and split things but had separate finances. We were both students at the time. Once we got married, we just merged everything. At times, I've made more than she was and now it's vice versa. And it's all good.

But you have to make sure that your financial styles are compatible. Ours are mostly. But there are some things that can cause a lot of tension. I'd rather pay a little more for a direct flight, for example, and she has a larger wardrobe.

Have some honest conversations before merging stuff. Or try the his / hers / ours thing first as a trial.

Good luck!
posted by reddot at 2:19 PM on October 3, 2015

My partner and I each give each other what we can. For a large part of our relationship, the thing I've had an excess of has been funds, and the thing she's had an excess of has been time. I've needed emotional support, she's needed financial support, we do our best to help each other out. There was never really any question for us. Once we were clear that this was a joint project, it was obvious that we would pool our resources in whatever way would serve us the best.

For what it's worth, it really helped having a budget and a lot of clarity over how much money there is and what it is for. She will need some money for shared household expenses like grocieries, and some money for her own expenses like clothing or maybe the occasional nice thing for herself. It would be nice if you didn't set yourself up as the arbiter of all spending, but rather had a fixed amount of money swing her way every two weeks and trust her to manage it. That's what worked for us.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:48 PM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

There are a lot of naïve answers here. How would you feel if you did wipe out her debt and/or allowed her to use a credit card in your name and then all of a sudden things change and she decides to break up with you and you are stuck with 20k in credit card debt or you have put a serious dent in your nest egg? I don't mean to sound like a conservative, old fogey but 3 year committed relationships break up all the time. If you truly don't care about spending and losing this money then that's fine, but I second the earlier suggestion about looking into what "permanent" commitment looks like to the both of you, whether marriage or something else.
posted by the foreground at 5:19 PM on October 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

I believe it is unwise to pay off debts belonging to someone who is not a permanent family member (yet). Until you are married, it's just too uncertain.

That said, it does feel like "operating costs of life" are a little different. My now-fiancé and I shared a joint account before getting engaged in which we each deposited money to cover joint expenses. Some months while he was a student, I deposited more and he deposited less, and that was fine. This gave us both the certainty of personal accounts (i.e. Limited risk for me), and of our shared efforts together. When we get married, we will combine accounts and simplify.
posted by samthemander at 10:43 PM on October 3, 2015

When we started living together, we figured out a budget and paid into it relative to our incomes. When we got married, we continued that. Then Mrs. Advicepig decided she wanted to become Dr. Advicepig. All through med school, I paid the entirety of the established budget and paid her around $100 a month of money for her own unbudgeted use. Now that she's getting paid as a resident, we have gone back to a proportionate split, but having lived with a completely shared budget for a while, we certainly think of all the money as our money. It's a pretty unexpected positive outcome from this. We've also talked a lot about me being able to take my turn being supported, whether that is by cutting hours to work on art or taking a big pay cut to do something that's really meaningful to me. All that is day dreaming right now, but it's nice.
posted by advicepig at 6:54 AM on October 5, 2015

By the time my husband and I knew we were going to be together for life (which was before our actual engagement), his money and my money both became Our Money forever. I am surprised to see so many people who have kept their finances separate - I respect the choice of course, but it's not something that makes a lot of sense to me. Within a committed relationship, and a life together, some work is paid and some work is not paid. To scrupulously maintain separate finances, to me, ignores the often much larger skill/emotional/housework economy in the background. Does your partner do more chores? Will your partner have higher earning potential in the future? Does your partner do volunteer work you wish you could do, but can't due to a more high-intensity job? All this kind of stuff matters. For my part I earn less now but I have a fancier degree and more earning potential in the future. I also provide a lot of childcare (unpaid of course) on weekends to cover my husband's more extensive hours. Pooling our money is one way to honor the different ways we serve our family.
posted by Cygnet at 9:34 AM on October 5, 2015

Not sure you're still reading this but my husband fully supported me when we got together, as I said above, but I did have a thousand dollar credit card debt and he didn't feel right about paying that off- I paid it myself happily.
posted by flink at 12:21 PM on October 17, 2015

« Older Positive Societal Sexual Appreciation of BHMs?   |   Kitchen Kaput Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.