On Combining Finances (And Debt)


I love this piece by Nona Willis-Aronowitz, called Til Debt Do Us Part:

When I graduated from a private liberal arts school in 2006, I thought I had gotten away scot-free. Thanks to savvy parents and a generous grandma, I graduated without any student-loan debt. But then I fell in love with Aaron, who had taken out $30,000 in loans to finance his film degree. When we got married in 2009, his monthly $250 bill became mine, too. So instead of squirreling away to buy a home, we’ve spent our first years of marriage chipping away at his debt. It doesn’t change how I feel about him, but it does add an extra layer of stress. His $30,000 ball and chain feels like it will be around forever.

It hits close to home for me this week, as Dustin and I are finalizing our FAMILY BUDGET. Or okay, I am sending him manic, nesting-fueled emails about it while he’s at work. We still haven’t combined our finances or opened up a joint account, which is something we’ve meant to do for over a year now. Why not add that to the To-Do This Week Before There Is a Baby list, right?

- deep clean the whole house
- write that novel I always swore I’d write before I had a kid?
- sterilize bottles
- open a joint account

Anyway our plan has always been to do the thing where we put your income in a shared account, which we’d use to pay bills and rent and buy groceries, and then transfer a biweekly “allowance” to each of our own personal checking accounts that we can use for whatever we want. Going out to eat, drinks with friends, clothes, gifts, books, savings for bigger purchases, etc. I sent the email over to Dustin for his approval — err, feedback. He reminded me that he signed us up for wind energy, so our electric bill was not actually $40, more like $75 a month (hidden expenses of shacking up with a leftist, though that’s probably its own post), and that his student loan payment was not $150, it was more like $200.

“But shouldn’t that come from my ‘fun money’?” he gchatted me. [By the way, if anyone has a better term for it than 'fun money' or 'allowance' I'd love to hear it.]

I pictured me out to dinner with friends, laughing over sushi, while he was at home logging into SallieMae. My answer was something like, Hell no! This is why we’re doing this in the first place! His debt, after all, is a fixed expense, and one I want us to get better at paying down each month. The idea of paying for it with money that is partly mine really doesn’t bother me at all, although part, if not all, of that is likely due to the fact that 1. we can afford it, and 2. I had student debt in the same amount that I was able to pay off in full thanks to a lucky stock break. Maybe paying his debt off monthly, little by little like a normal person, assuages my windfall guilt?

When we got engaged, he gave me an antique ring on the top of a mountain on a hike in Vermont, and I paid off his credit card. Both gestures felt equally romantic. Though I did ask him, a few weeks later, if he had charged the ring to his credit card. He said no, and laughed. No I did not buy myself an engagement ring.

Not that it would really bother me. To me, and I know it’s a personal thing and everyone feels differently, but to me, his debt feels like my debt (not that it’s lost on me that if we ever split up, he will have to finish paying it off). My money, to me, is “our money.” Dustin, being on the other side of things, is much more hesitant, but we’re getting there. Slotting that student loan payment right into our budget makes me feel safe and teamed up and above all very lucky that we can, for now, afford to pay it without wincing too much. That liberal-ass Oberlin education is part of what made him the man I love, after all, even if it is partly to blame for our 75 dollar electric bill.

Photo via wikimedia commons


27 Comments / Post A Comment

honey cowl (#1,510)

I love this, and I love your to-do list Meaghan. That last one is a doozy.

marykay (#3,102)

I’ve also combined finances using that system and we called the “allowance” money “discretionary”. Not sure if that’s much better :)

I like it! Makes us sound like a government agency or something.

Allison (#4,509)

@Meaghan O’Connell Or if you want to be a dragon, call it your hoard!

clo (#4,196)

I was just talking about all this with a recently engaged friend. This stuff gets so crazy for people. I’m personally in the ‘all in the same pot’ mode of thinking.

Derbel McDillet (#1,241)

I agree that there is definitely a team aspect to combining finances for me, too. Mr. McDillet and I actually high-five each other and yell “Team McDillet!” when we make good financial decisions (or cook a particularly good meal together). I am not joking.

Allison (#4,509)

@Derbel McDillet this is everything I hope marriage to be

bgprincipessa (#699)

@Derbel McDillet haha YES. My bf always complains about people he sees posting meals they cooked on Facebook that aren’t particularly impressive, but they seem to be proud of, and he’s like “We do better than that every night! I could post food pictures all the time!” And then we get really excited when we make a good meal together.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

From my personal experience this is another difference between dating/parterning in one’s 20s vs one’s 30s.

When I was in my 20s, I did not specifically screen for student loan debt but I was delighted when I met someone who (like me) managed to graduate without it.

Now that I am in my 30s, it’s all “Seriously, adults have debt. It’s educational debt, or it’s starting a business, or it’s a house, or it’s a medical expense, or it’s something else.” (At various times I’ve had debt for 3 out of those 4 categories, and all of it is now paid off except for one category.)

It’s how you handle your debt that’s important, AMIRITE???

garli (#4,150)

@HelloTheFuture Yes completely. My friend left a perfectly legit in all other areas dude because he dealt with his insane debt by never opening a piece of mail addressed to him.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@garli Nick Miller?

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

Oh man, you are having the baby so soon? Congratulations and good luck!

It does get a little crazy figuring things out with joint budgets. My partner and I treat loans and charitable donations as “personal” rather than “joint” right now, but that’s because he spends around the same amount on one as i do on the other, and it makes the numbers for automatic transfers nice and round. Where things tend to get tricky is deciding whether things like work clothes or haircuts should be personal or joint – I need to spend more on both than he does thanks to being a woman and not being willing or able to shave my own head or wear jeans to work every day, and sometimes I put them on joint, sometimes I don’t. Same for running shoes for both of us – are they “wants” or “needs”?

Next year, we’re going to full-on joint because we simply won’t have enough money for personal allowances at all, so that won’t be an issue anymore. We may have to stop donating to charity or spending money on anything that might be a “want,” though, so I’m pretty nervous about how we will handle joint decision-making when one of us is just reaaaally fed up and wants to buy something badly. (Edited to add that yes, I know “stop donating to charity” should be a last resort. We’re talking a trouble-paying-bills-until-we’re-both-employed income level here, though.)

@eatmoredumplings Nobody is going to judge you for not having enough money to prioritize donating to charity! Really. Or nobody whose opinion you should value.

j a y (#3,935)

@eatmoredumplings I look at charity like I do at pleasure spending… You can do it more efficiently when you’re out of debt.

Though I did read an interesting post the other day about forming the habit.

DarlingMagpie (#1,695)

Couples finance comes with a HUGE YMMV tag on it. My partner and I currently make roughly the same amount of money, split out rent/utilities equally, and have a joint vacation fund, but our money is OUR money. We’re both recently debt-free so the joint bank account will have another joint sibling account, the LOOMING MORTGAGE account, but we keep it split for now. We have a costsplitter tracking our expenses and also to make sure if I get our restaurant bill one week, he gets the groceries the week after.

@fo (#839)

“not that it’s lost on me that if we ever split up, he will have to finish paying it off”

But see, the many people who re-fi/consolidate after getting married, and (for whatever reason) do it as a joint thing. I know of 2 or 3 people (as in, can remember names) who ended up paying off a deadbeat ex’s student loans bc of this.

eemusings (#6,021)

I have yet to find a better term than fun money! But surely others have?

@eemusings Ben and I call them “frivolous dollars.” Which is much the same thing as “fun money,” but it makes us happy to say.

j a y (#3,935)

@Ester Bloom fun money isn’t pretty on the page but it has a certain assonance to it that makes it fun to say.

halloliebchen (#5,373)

Living (and dating) in Germany makes this a really big issue. Germans study essentially for free, and if they do take out loans, they are always government loans, never private, and loan forgiveness kicks in after 5 years (I think?). Any time that I explain to my friends here that I owe 45,000 dollars in student loans in the US, their eyes widen and they ask me how I can even sleep at night with that number hanging over me. One time I stupidly mentioned it in front of my boyfriend’s father and he referred to it as my “negative dowry”, which I think he meant to be a joke but really felt cruel.

Because of this, though, I know my boyfriend would never be on board with sharing my debt payments, even though we have been seriously talking about marriage for years. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s totally understanding of the situation and he never pushes me about my finances, and he knows that I’m working really hard right now to pay off some high-interest credit card debt before I can really tackle my loans, but I’m not sure I’d even feel comfortable bring it up to him. I feel like it’s my debt, not his. I already feel like this debt limits us compared to our friends: I can’t afford to take 5 month long trips around Southeast Asia or go to 4 festivals every summer, but he never guilts me about that (and insists he doesn’t care). I feel like to ask him to help me pay it off on top of what I’m already asking him to sacrifice would be unfair.

@halloliebchen Here’s another way to look at it – if he helps you with your debt, then you can both be jet-setting sooner!

halloliebchen (#5,373)

@franceschances Yeah I still don’t feel like I could pitch that to him, but who knows. Maybe we both will feel differently after we are married (if we get married).

tenya (#833)

I do recommend bringing it up if you’re seriously discussing marriage, because even if it is a “hey, I’m pretty sure you feel this way about it, am I correct?” at least then you’re sure, rather than if he responds like franceschances or like I do in my relationship – I want us to be HAPPY together, not like I’m enjoying myself on vacation and him at home eating beans because of the resolution to keep finances separate. My husband still has another approx 40k in student loans to pay off and I have 0, and while he is pretty adamant that those are HIS debts to pay, I’d also rather cover things like vacations as a gift rather than feel like he never gets to have anything fun because of student loans.

halloliebchen (#5,373)

@tenya At this point, the situation is like this: I have been working full time for years now, whereas my boyfriend is still a student and works part time here and there, but also gets money from his parents. The thing is, though, I’m currently aggressively paying down my credit card debt, which means that I have way less spending power than he does right now. For this reason, he always offers to buy groceries, treat me to dinners now and then, and we still go on smaller trips, but we’ll stay with friends instead of at a hotel, go for 4 days rather than 2 weeks, etc.

Part of the issue here as well is that last year I got hit with some unexpected taxes (oops) and my boyfriend started paying for things, but with the expectation that I’ll be paying him back. As issues popped up – refrigerator had to be replaced, heating costs were higher, had to buy a plane ticket to go to the US – he paid for a lot of stuff, but now I owe him over 1,000 €. He isn’t pushing me to pay him back by a certain deadline, but he has made it clear he expects to be paid back eventually.

Based off of that, I would say he isn’t exactly comfortable with covering me for anything significant, but maybe when he has graduated and is working full time it’ll be a different story.

Eric18 (#4,486)

@halloliebchen Germans are much smarter about deciding who should go to college and who should do a vocation. And then preparing both groups for success. Something the rest of the planet should emulate.

Actually I also consider my money our money, but sometimes I get personal credits for my private needs than I try to cover them myself as well as I consider the old student debt got before our meeting and marriage his own debt to cover independently of a family budget.

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