My husband and I recently spent a few weeks in my hometown, and while walking around a lake—there are many there, and it was a daily activity—with one of my childhood friends, she asked us a question she said she’s been asking a lot of couples she knows: “When did you start to feel like a family?”
I’d thought about this before. I think the first time I ever explicitly referred to the two of us as family was during my wedding vows, and it was probably after our wedding that we started explicitly claiming ourselves as such. But getting married didn’t really change anything in our relationship. We had been living together for three years by then and had almost entirely combined our lives. In fact we’ve often joked that the only things to change after our wedding were our tax filing status and my last name.
I had considered us a family for at least a few years before then, I suppose, but it wasn’t until my friend asked the question that I really pinpointed when that happened: It was when we combined our finances. We did it around the time we moved in together, three years before our wedding. I hadn’t realized what an important role money had played in the creation of our identity as a family unit, but the more I thought about it, the clearer it became.
We combined finances partially out of convenience. I was finishing my first year of graduate school, my husband (boyfriend, at the time) was graduating from college, and we were getting our first apartment together. We were almost two years into our relationship, meaning two years into the complicated systems couples use to pay for things—splitting the tab for groceries (more difficult than it sounds, considering we spent almost every night together but he still lived in the dorms and ate in dining halls half of the time, and I had an apartment where we cooked); playing the “you paid for dinner last time, I’ll pay this time” game; and constantly trying to figure out which one of us owed the other money.
It was confusing, and frustrating, and we constantly knew one of us was getting the short end of the financial stick. And it was only going to get worse, since we’d soon be sharing rent and utilities and furniture and trips to Target and everything else that comes with living together. We knew we were together for the long-run and had already talked about our assumptions that we’d get married. So we decided that it was time to get a joint bank account.
But in discussing what kind of system we should use to share money, a decision to open a joint bank account quickly turned into a decision to almost entirely merge our finances. I’m not entirely sure what took us from “let’s contribute the same amount each month into this shared account and use it to pay shared bills” into “what’s yours is mine, mine is yours,” but that’s basically where we ended up. Maybe it was because we both knew that it was a good step toward a decision to get married. It would help us get to know each other’s spending habits and ideas about saving and financial planning. And we knew that if we did get married we’d want entirely mingled finances, so maybe we thought it’d be easier if we just skipped all the intermediary steps along the way. Or maybe it just seemed easier.
I remember my dad and stepmom, finances separated, arguing at the grocery store over who should pay for the ice cream that my step-mom didn’t like, or why there were tampons on the checkout belt, or whose shampoo cost more. Splitting money for them was a constant battle, and while we knew it wasn’t that way for every couple, we also knew it wasn’t what we wanted.
So a good couple of years before we were engaged, our financial lives became almost completely shared. It helped that neither of us had much to our name—there wasn’t much worry about one of us stealing away with the other’s money. But even if one of us had been blessed with more money in the bank, I think we would have done it anyway. The arrangement was about trust and openness, about long-term timelines, and about combining our lives into a partnership.
Here’s what all of this looked like (and continued to look like up until four months ago, when we left our jobs to travel full-time for a year): We opened a joint checking account, a joint savings account (which we immediately split into savings sub-accounts for travel, education, and general savings), and two joint credit cards. Our paychecks went into our joint account. Once or twice each month, each savings account received an automatic transfer of money from the checking account.
We each retained the personal bank accounts we had before the merge. Birthday gifts and academic awards also went into our personal accounts, and each month we each received an automatic transfer from our joint checking account. Our personal accounts were ours to do with as we liked, with no oversight from the other person. (I suppose I would oversight the heck out of it if he decided to start using it to buy meth, or something like that, but pretty much anything else is fine and not really any of my business.) Up until we left our jobs this summer, he made significantly more than I did, so his personal account received more money than mine did (at my suggestion).
At the point when we merged everything, our only debts were my college and graduate school loans (I say “only” as though they weren’t significant —HA!) and plans for a joint car loan. We considered all of this a part of our shared financial life, and payments for my loans started coming out of our joint account. At the time, he didn’t have any educational debt but was pretty sure he’d want to go back to graduate school eventually, so we figured our school debts might eventually even out. Or maybe they wouldn’t, but that would be okay.
After we set up the system, we vaguely determined guidelines for how money out of our joint accounts could be spent. There’s a lot of gray area here, for things like tampons or foods that only one of us likes, but for the most part we use the joint account unless it’s pretty clearly a personal purchase. I’m deathly allergic to nuts, for example, but my husband can certainly buy a container of almonds at the grocery store using our shared money, since it’s a pretty normal grocery-type purchase. If he started spending thousands of our joint account dollars on almonds, we’d have a problem, but if he saved up his personal spending money for months and then spent it all on almonds, that would be his prerogative. We try to distinguish between clothing items that are really needed (socks, underwear, work clothing, running shoes, etc.), which are purchased out of the joint account, and those that are more superfluous, which we each purchase ourselves. When one of us has picked up a new hobby or activity, we’ve just kind of done things however it seems reasonable—some things purchased personally, some jointly.
Putting this whole system and ethos in place required conversations about spending habits and saving and debt and all kinds of financial issues, both day-to-day and long-term. We didn’t start our collective finances with any sort of specific budgets or timelines, and I think that’s part of what made this move so momentous in the self-definition of our relationship. It required that we have trust and understanding for each other in order for it to all work, and it required that we share intimate details about how we live our lives. We don’t tell each other how much we can spend on things, but we entered into all of this with a commitment to be respectful, honest, and reasonable in our spending habits. We each have weaknesses in our spending habits and have experienced ups and downs in our incomes, but by sharing our finances we agreed that each other’s gains and losses and risks and goals would be shared.
Last year I gradually quit my professional job and started teaching cooking classes and doing some small catering jobs, a move that drastically decreased my income but made me infinitely happier and helped me start a new potential career. At the end of this year of travel, my husband will start graduate school, a huge decrease in income from what he was making before. These are momentous decisions, financially and otherwise, and we talked over them at length.
I known it can feel limiting for some people to have someone else involved in their spending decisions, but it works well for us. We each have our personal money to spend without oversight, but I actually kind of like having someone else to check in with about my spending. It can help me keep it in check when I’m tempted to buy something I’d end up regretting later. More importantly, this sort of coordination is part of what it means to be a family. Our ability to make all kinds of decisions together, not just financial ones, is part of why our relationship works so well and why we started feeling like a family when we did.
When my friend asked me about families, she mentioned that many couples have pointed to marriage, children, or some other significant event as the moment they first felt like a family. Financial decisions are a major part of every person’s and every couple’s life plan, and making those decisions together with your partner can be a momentous experience—just like the decision to get married or to have a child.
I grew up in an environment in which money (mainly the lack thereof) was a constant and negative presence, and my struggle to build my own financial narrative was a powerfully shaping force in my late teens and early twenties. My husband was the first person to see both the everyday details and the larger picture of my financial life, and that created a type of relationship I had never before experienced. Looking back on all of this has even helped me now, as we navigate an entirely new financial world of travel and graduate school and new careers and plans to have children. If we can continue to make decisions with the same sort of trust and optimism in which we merged our finances, our family will be just fine.