Kristin Wong
How Can My Girlfriend and I Go Back to Having

Ever since we combined our money, we’ve been fighting all the time

Illustration: Laurie Rollitt

Dear Joint Accounts,

My partner and I have lived together for several years now, and we made the decision to finally merge our finances about a year ago. Since then, it’s become clear to me that that was a mistake: We have very different spending habits, and we’ve been fighting a lot more about money than we did when we kept things separate.

I’d like us to go back to the way things were, but I know that’s easier said than done. So my question is twofold: One, how do I present this in a way that doesn’t cause conflict or make my partner think I’m looking for a way out of the relationship? And two, how do we actually go about disentangling our finances in a way that’s fair to both of us?


Ready to Be Financially Solo

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irst of all, don’t think of this as a step backward. You’re taking the necessary steps to strengthen your relationship: You combined your finances, it brought up some issues for both of you, and now you know you’ll need to work on those issues if you want to stay together. That’s a good thing. It’s progress — which is exactly how you should frame it to your partner.

Keeping your finances separate may be the right move for you. But first, you should get to the root of your money conflicts. Even if you and your partner keep separate bank accounts for the rest of your lives, your disagreements about spending will continue to cause tension. You could decide to take an expensive vacation together and end up fighting over whether it’s worth it to upgrade your flight. You could decide to buy a home together and get upset because one of you is saving like crazy while the other one can’t stop blowing money on frivolous things.

Before making any decisions, the two of you need to have a deep conversation about the views and beliefs that inform your relationship with money. Start by figuring out your “money script,” a term coined by financial psychologist Brad Klontz. He says people tend to follow four main approaches to money. “Money Avoiders” don’t want to think about money because it makes them feel bad. They avoid budgeting and often overspend. “Money Status” folks place too high a value on the status that comes with having money; they often conflate net worth with self-worth. If you’re “Money Vigilant,” you keep a close eye on your budget, and you’re probably super frugal. Finally, “Money Worshipers” think wealth is the solution to most of their problems. Klontz has more in-depth descriptions of each script on his website as well as a quiz to help you figure out which one you follow.

There are a number of other exercises you can do together to better understand your relationship with money. For example, financial therapist Amanda Clayman asks clients to recall their first childhood memory of money to provide context for how they relate to it as adults. You and your partner should also talk about your financial priorities: What are some things you’d like to save for in the future? What are some ways you want to spend your money in the present?

The goal of all of this is for you and your partner to each have a fuller picture of where the other person is coming from so you can pinpoint the disconnections and figure out what’s causing all the fighting. Plus, when you show that you’re willing to work through these issues, you’re clearly conveying that you’re not looking for a way out of the relationship.

Let’s say that after all that, you still decide that separating your accounts is the best course of action. There are a couple of ways to divvy up the money currently in both your names: You could split it 50/50. You could do some calculations that take each of your paychecks and other contributions into consideration. You could factor in what each of you has spent if you want to get really exact.

A potentially less fraught solution is to keep your joint account, use it for shared expenses like rent, bills, and groceries, and set up your own accounts for everything else. You might find that you want to keep that system going indefinitely and agree on an amount to each chip in each month to keep the joint account funded.

Whatever you decide, remember to have regular check-ins about how your arrangement is working and to address any issues, new or old, that come up. It’s totally fine to keep your money separate — many couples do — but don’t use it as a way to avoid working through issues that will help you grow as a couple.

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