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A New Generation Gap: How Couples Pay the Bills

5 long-term couples reveal how they share the wealth and handle household expenses


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Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive

One day this past spring, I took a walk through my neighborhood, where folks were outside enjoying a cool evening. One woman leaned against her car, looking at her phone and frowning; apparently, she was ticked at her husband. He’d emailed her a demand for 30 bucks, covering the gas tank she filled “on his card.” She explained that she pays for her personal expenses, including gassing the car to ferry their three kids. She used the wrong credit card and had to pony up.

I admit, as I listened, I felt judgey. I didn’t think that parsing gas bills is how long-term relationships work. I assumed that partners share expenses, and that reimbursements are what we get for expenses incurred at work.

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Right?

Hmmm.

Then I judged myself. What do I know about how people handle their money? Probably there are as many ways to manage household finances as there are households.

Time for a little sleuthing.

This month, I interviewed an eclectic group of couples in long-term relationships. The pool wasn’t large enough to be what data scientists would call “statistically significant,” but I heard both common threads and generational differences.

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My interviewees, in descending age order: Margaret and Calvin (60s, married 35 years), Kerry and Vin (late 50s/early 60s, married 25 years), Candice and Dave (50s, married 29 years), Zach and Steph (both sides of 40, partners for a decade), and Emily and Tiffany (late 20s/early 30s, partners for eight years).   

Earnings

All the couples saw earnings as a changing landscape. Income and earning capacities shifted dramatically if one person attended grad school or another took primary care of the children. Every partner said that disparate incomes did not bestow disparate clout.

While Emily was in grad school, Tiffany’s income was higher. Still, they sought to balance expenses.  “When looking for apartments, we stay within a feasible range for an even split,” Emily said. That doesn’t mean dogged adherence to 50-50, though. Emily said that “if things get tough, [Tiffany] will take on more of the joint expenses.” So far, that hasn’t happened.

Joint accounts

While some of the older couples kept individual accounts, all reported joint savings accounts, meaning both people put money into one account for shared expenses and goals.  

“Right now, our main joint goals are college for our kids and retirement,” Kerry explained. “College expenses come out of our joint accounts and we both contribute the same percentage of our individual income to our retirement accounts.”

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The younger couples, however, told a different story. None wanted a joint account. They collaborate on financial goals but only conversationally. Zach offered a darker reason for not opening a joint savings account: “We discuss larger goals, but honestly, we’re millennials and we don’t necessarily expect to ever be able to afford a home or to retire.”

Expenses

The generational disparity also appeared in expenses. The older couples described “throwing money into one pot.”

“We review our budget quarterly, to limit surprises,” Margaret said, adding that while it is a critical chore, the review may not be fun, so they include a line item for dinner out when the accounting is finished.

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The younger couples keep separate accounts, look at what’s due and use apps to send each other money for rent and other big-ticket items.

“We each have our own sets of bills, divided somewhat arbitrarily,” Zach said. “I Venmo Steph my portion of the rent every month. As long as things seem manageable, we don’t really reevaluate the details."

​Neither of the younger couples drew bright lines about who pays which expenses. Emily, for instance, pays the electric bill and internet, while Tiffany handles phone and streaming services. But they level those in a way that feels equitable despite their income disparity.

I guess I’m old school. To me, talking through expenses before clicking “place order” sounds practical, and avoids nasty surprises, but all the couples were surprised when I asked about a cap on how much to spend without consulting their partner. Older couples said they do have amounts in their heads over which they would ping the other person. Those sums ranged between $100 and $1,000, but neither of the younger couples agreed. They reported trusting each other’s decision-making, rather than wanting a chat, and Emily questioned if I was suggesting partners ask “permission” before spending.

Debt

As for credit card, student and other debt, the couples all agreed that they tackled whatever debt they had when they entered the relationship and didn’t take help. Candice called the lack of debt when they met – and since – “a shiny point” because they realize how uncommon that is these days.

“We … try to instill in our children how freeing that can be — more choices, happier, more flexibility,” she said.

It may be overstating it to say I saw a sense of shared enterprise in the older couples and a search for equity among the younger ones, but what mattered to all, as it should in any relationship, was an effort to find flexibility and trust.

Share Your Experience: How do you divvy up household expenses? Do you consult with your partner before making a high-dollar purchase?

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