17 min read

Revealed: how real couples manage their money together

Frankie Jones
13 February 2020

Some names have been changed for the purpose of this article.

2,455. That’s how many arguments the average couple has each year according to this research. And topping the list of reasons for fighting is money (followed by sex and chores) - it’s the number one issue couples argue about around the world.

Whether you love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is a great time to reflect on how well you and your partner handle money matters and how you can improve this for 2020.

So, what’s the best way to manage your money in a relationship and overcome the inevitable arguments that come with the territory? We speak to three couples about everything - from who pays on dates to dealing with debt - to help you take control of your finances together.

What to do if you’re dating a spender

Ironically, studies show that spenders are more likely to attract savers and go on to squabble about their differences, rather than sticking to their own kind. But even if you and your partner are like two peas in a pod, an argument about spending is likely to arise at some point or other.

Jon & Kelly

  • Age: Both 31
  • Location: Essex
  • Occupation: Jon is Lead Customer Service Officer at TFL, Kelly is a Marketing Coordinator at a Law firm
  • Annual salary: Jon earns £43,000, Kelly takes home £48,000

Romford-based renters Jon and Kelly were introduced seven years ago by Kelly’s sister. Despite the fact they’ve been together for almost a decade, they chat and tease each other with the fondness of a couple in the midst of the honeymoon period.

Nevertheless, the two admit to having very different money management styles. Kelly confesses that she’s not very controlled. “I spend a ridiculous amount in Pret” she gushes, while “[Jon’s] very good at saving.” (Jon jokes that there’s a fine line between stingy and careful, and he’s definitely the latter). When they bought their home two years ago, Jon had been saving up for years in preparation, while Kelly had only begun saving a few months before.

Kelly credits her reluctance to save to making up for lost time. “My mum never had money and we never had lavish holidays, so I like treating myself now.” In contrast, Jon’s mum always had a good job, and his motto has always been to save for a better life. If they were to crave a change of pace at some point (they both like the idea of moving to Thailand), Jon would prefer to have the relative security of a financial safety net.

Robert & Paullette

  • Age: Robert is 45, Paullette is 47
  • Location: Essex
  • Occupation: Robert is a Recruiter, Paullette is a PA/Insurance and Conveyancing Manager
  • Annual salary: Robert takes home £48,000, Paullette earns £43,000

Paullette met Robert at a party in 1999 and tracked him down after asking his cousin for his number. Their familiarity with each other - and their respective roles within the relationship - are obvious. Robert is the comedian, with Paullette taking the more sensible, motherly stance (“we have a different way of doing things”, she says, ever diplomatically).

Paullette adopts a similar approach to spending as Jon. “I don’t really treat myself as often as I should” she confesses. While Paullette’s vice is having a nice car, Robert splashes his cash on drinks, taxis and designer labels. She balks at the ease with which he’ll spend £200 on a night out (“he used to buy random shots for strangers”), although he makes a point of mentioning that he’s recently started saving.

Despite this, the couple say they always plan ahead. Robert’s currently in temporary employment so he makes sure he’s equipped financially if the job ends suddenly or is extended. “I refuse to argue about money”, Paullette reveals, an attitude she says has been the backbone to their happy relationship.

Melissa & Johannes

  • Age: Melissa is 30, Johannes is 32
  • Location: London
  • Occupation: Melissa is a Creative Consultant in the fashion industry, Johannes works for an African Private Equity firm
  • Annual salary: Melissa is currently on maternity leave, Johannes brings home between £60,000 - £70,000

Melissa and Johannes are reminiscent of a modern-day Brangelina. They’re a power couple in every sense of the word, a self-confessed “tag-team”, balancing work and childcare duties effortlessly without sacrificing their pre-marriage lifestyle.

In their house, which they share with their young daughter, “the difference is that [Melissa’s] a lot more conservative than me,” concludes Johannes. Because of his upbringing, he admits that he’s very liberal with his money. Brought up surrounded by children who would resort to alternative ways of making money, his mum made sure he was never caught stealing.

For a long time, Johanne needed to attach tangible goals - like buying a home - to saving in order for it to make sense. “Bargain savvy” Melissa, on the other hand, is much more comfortable with the concept of saving.

Johannes praises her for teaching him the value of money and not relying on ‘the bank of mum and dad’. (Melissa was encouraged by her own mum to get a job and fund herself as soon as she was old enough to get a job.)

Are you the spender or the saver in your relationship?
Research suggests that your partner’s spending habits can affect your own wellbeing, so making financial stability your priority could benefit both of you. Financial Coach Dave Ramsey encourages you not to let your opposing spending and saving habits divide you. “You need their skills, especially the ones you don’t have”, so it makes sense to pool your positive traits “to become a united, stronger team”.

And know that it’s okay to disagree, as long as you’re willing to compromise. If one of you wants to splash out on an exotic holiday and the other is hesitant, why not make a deal to double your savings next month to counteract the cost so that you’re both happy? As Laura Whateley - author of ‘Money: A User’s Guide’ - puts it, while it’s important to have some savings behind you, there’s no need to continually “beat yourself up because you’re spending money”.

Joint accounts: good or bad idea?

Combining your money is something you might start to think about when you’ve been with someone for a while. Maybe you’re saving for a joint goal, like buying a home, so it makes sense to share the responsibility. But when your money management styles clash, this can cause rifts in your relationship.

Jon & Kelly

Jon and Kelly pay into a joint account each month to cover costs like their mortgage, bills, food shopping and meals out. Earning similar amounts means they’re happy contributing the same amount to the shared pot, although this wasn’t always the case (Kelly put more money in when her salary was much higher than Jon’s).

They find this method works for them because it means they can manage their money both separately and apart. “I don’t really ask you what you’re spending on and you don’t really ask me” says Kelly.

Melissa & Johannes

Melissa and Johannes also opened a joint account which they use for anything house or family-related.

Melissa’s in charge of working out how much they’ll need for the essentials each month. This seemed like a no-brainer for Johannes, who admitted to giving Melissa his money to look after while he was saving up for a car a few years ago. “She’s better at budgeting than I am” he says sheepishly, “if there’s £100 in the account, I will use it.”

Robert & Paullette

Robert and Paullette moved in together soon after they started dating, which meant they started discussing money and opened a joint account fairly early on in their relationship.

Paullette manages all of the bills, shopping and direct debits that come out of this account, but the one thing they stand by is saving individually (“it’s the only thing we do separately”). She sees this as the key to healthy money management as a couple. Robert also pays for things like his life insurance and gym membership from his personal account.

Thinking of opening a joint account?
It can feel like a big step, so you might want to test the water first. The Money Advice Service suggests “opening a joint account with no overdraft facility and both contribute a small amount each month”.

Setting boundaries is also important. From the start, make sure you’re on the same page about how you see the account working (how much you’ll contribute, what it will and won’t be used for etc.) You might want to set a spending limit to begin with, so that any purchase above this amount requires a joint decision.

When one of you earns more than the other

According to this research, men become “increasingly uncomfortable” when their girlfriends or wives contribute more than 40% of the household income. And as women start earning more, this modern day dilemma is affecting straight couples everywhere. Even in same-sex relationships, people still pigeonhole partners as the “more masculine” or “more feminine” one, expecting them to perform the stereotypical gendered duties.

Melissa & Johannes

Melissa and Johannes take it in turns to shoulder the burden of being the breadwinner. “We’ve never had a job where we get paid the same”, and it’s not uncommon for one of them to be the sole earner in the relationship. When the couple relocated to Ghana for Melissa’s job, it took Johannes 6 months to find a job. He then moved into full-time work when Melissa fell pregnant with their daughter.

When it comes to dating, Melissa says she doesn’t ever recall paying on a date. “I think it feeds into the romance” says Johannes, laughing as he remembers one of their early dinner dates. (Confusingly, the prices on the menu were written without the decimal place, which left him assuming that something which actually cost £7.50 was £750. He had to phone his friend while Melissa was in the toilet to borrow some money).

Robert & Paullette

While Paullette currently earns £5,000 more than her husband, he confesses that “I’d always want to earn more, to look after my wife”. His dream is to earn enough money so that his wife no longer has to work, and can spend her days doing what she enjoys. He’s adamant that not a traditionalist - he’s happy for Paullette to earn more than him, just not at all of the time.

What to do if this is affecting you or your partner
Ramsey believes in removing the expectations that one person in a relationship (often the man) should earn more than the other. “The quickest way to feel unfulfilled and unsatisfied is when you expect things to go a certain way, only to find out reality is a bit different”, he says. Similarly, Mo Gawdat, author of 'Solve for Happy', believes that unhappiness is the result of our expectations of life events being worse than reality. By removing or changing your expectations, you could solve the happiness equation in your relationship.

It might also help to ask yourself (or your partner) if the argument is really about money. This article suggests that a lot of the time, arguments that seem to be about money actually boil down to other issues, like those of “control, security, self-esteem and love”. So if you’re struggling to accept that your partner earns more than you, try to ask yourself why this is and how you can overcome it.

Remember that money and control often (but not always) go hand in hand. Journalist Nicole Mowbray warns that “letting your partner ‘do all the money stuff’ silences you in big decisions such as where to live” which is something to be wary of.

The ‘D’ word

It’s safe to say that no one really likes talking about money, particularly when it comes to debt. It can put a real strain on your relationship, and with household debts on the rise in the UK, it’s something to address sooner rather than later.

Jon & Kelly

Kelly was honest with Jon about her debt situation when they met. “I had three credit cards”, she admits with girlish embarrassment, whereas Jon had never owned a credit card. But her approach to debt (“look at all this free money you could get!”) has definitely changed since being with Jon - she’s now got two credit cards but only uses one. Jon’s also taken out a credit card in order to build his credit score, but is conscious of staying on top of his repayments so his debt doesn’t spiral.

Melissa & Johannes

Melissa and Johannes are careful only to borrow money for necessities. “We try to avoid [debt], we’re a bit extremist” - so much so that they wanted to buy their house without a mortgage.

Before they got married, Melissa and Johannes sat down to have a proper conversation about their respective debts. They asked each other what debts they had and mapped out how they planned to spend their money moving forwards, which has informed the mature approach they take towards their finances now.

Is debt damaging your relationship?
When your partner’s finances become intertwined with yours, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re on the same page about what kinds of debt you’re comfortable with before you make any financial decisions.

Be careful not to let their financial habits affect your credit score. As soon as you open a joint bank account or take out a mortgage together, your finances will be in some way connected. So if your partner defaults on their repayments, not only could you be responsible for paying down their debt, but your credit score could take a hit too. While being coy about things like your credit rating might be “part of British culture”, as Melissa puts it, sometimes you have to leave that attitude at the door.

If you or your partner are in debt and it’s affecting your relationship, the Money Advice Service’s free, online debt health check can help you find the right help for your situation.

Honesty really is the best policy

However you choose to manage your money, one thing’s clear: being open with your partner is the best way to tackle your differences. 65% of women say they don’t like talking about money, but as soon as your partner’s finances are beginning to intertwine with your own it’s best to be upfront with each other so you know where you both stand and what ‘financial baggage’ you’re bringing.

If you’re not sure how to have the chat in a sensitive and non-accusational way, have a read of Relate’s guide on how to start talking about money.

Opening up about money can be scary, but it’s also empowering. Financial journalist Alex Holder says that talking about money helped her to take control of it. “I no longer feel that 3am anxiety about it that I used to” she says with relief.

Crucially, Holder advises not to only talk about money when it’s stressful, as this can fuel the conversation with a negative energy from the offset. Money is a fundamental part of everyday life, and so should be treated as normally as a discussion about what you and your partner are having for dinner.

by Frankie Jones

Frankie Jones is ClearScore's in-house Copywriter. 

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