In Search of Gay Money: 5 Steps to Partnered Pocketbooks
As a gay woman writing about money, I’ve grown weary of reading all the personal finance content that’s written from the perspective of straight marriages. So at Queercents, we’re turning the tables on money and relationship advice by asking: What if all of our favorite money columnists were gay? Would their advice be more relevant to our lives?
We think the answer is yes! And as such, this marks a new weekly series called In Search of Gay Money where we reprint their advice by swapping out pronouns and a few other words to make it seem like they’re one of us!
5 Steps to Partnered Pocketbooks
By MP Dunleavey and Queercents
They say that money fights are the leading cause of breakups, and ever since I decided to merge finances with my new partner, I totally believe it.
We aren’t the squabbling types. In fact, we tend to agree on most topics. So it was a shock to discover that my partner and I actually live on different financial planets. In separate galaxies. Light years apart. With no known way of communicating.
If I could capture our financial archetypes, I would be the Schizophrenic Spender-Saver Obsessive-Worrier type. She would be the Laid-Back, Do-We-Really-Have-to-Talk-About-Money type. They are not compatible.
Everyone needs a system
But the fact is, compatible or not, every couple has to find a way to financially co-exist.
You two can keep every dime separate, or merge it all into one big pile. You can obsess together or avoid the whole financial picture together. But you have to find a system that works for you. And for most couples that usually takes time, trial and error, and sometimes prescription drugs.
Or the advice of someone who has just gone through it, like me.
Step 1: Agree on a financial motivator
We decided to merge our finances because . . . my editor made me. And without that pressure it would have taken us another three years. That’s the truth.
So I would advise all couples who are serious about achieving financial harmony to find some kind of guiding principle to force — I mean, encourage you in that direction. Deciding to make a major life change, like moving, adopting a baby, switching jobs, or a major purchase (home, car, her & hers laptops) can be the financial north star that will keep you moving in the same direction.
Step 2: Become, like, a team
Carla, 40, and Julie, 43, are friends of mine who kept every dime separate for the first three years they were married. Carla was an Obsessive-Worrier type like me; Julie was of the Irritatingly Laid-Back persuasion. You’d think that keeping their finances separate would have been the ideal solution, but it wasn’t. Obsessive-Worrier types are secretly controlling and need to know what’s going on about money, while their Laid-Back partners would rather go fishing.
Then they bought a house. “The house became our baby,” says Carla. Being homeowners also provided enough financial common ground (and external pressure) to push them both to find a better way to financially co-exist.
Carla hit on it when she told Julie, “I want us to be on the same team (financially).” It changed everything.
And when I used this magical incantation on my own partner, it had a similar hypnotic effect. Nobody wants to be off the team. Everybody wants their team to win. It’s drilled into the American psyche. Try the “T” word with your partner and let me know what happens.
Step 3: Set priorities first, accounts later
Four out of five financial planners will tell you that an important first step toward financial harmony is to keep your separate accounts, so you have some autonomy, but then advise you to set up a joint account for shared goals and expenses.
My partner and I did this, setting up a joint checking and savings in addition to our individual accounts. I got all excited because I thought this meant we would agree about how we were saving and spending our money. Nuh-uh.
That’s when I realized that a joint account does not put you in sync financially. What we needed were some short- and long-term goals.
Trying to set up a system without first creating goals is like building a bathroom without plumbing. It’s a big mess. You need goals to direct the flow of your spending priorities.
So we agreed to:
- pay off our debt
- save money for vacation and a new car
- save more for retirement
- spend less on clothes (me) and Crate & Barrel (me) and random beauty products (me) and eating out (both of us)
It was only then that we were able to relax and start fighting about the next thing.
Step 4: Talk about your lifestyle
Lifestyle is a really sticky issue that nooooooo one likes to talk about. Couples blithely move in together, assuming they both agree on what constitutes a comfortable, or reasonable, lifestyle. Hah.
The defining argument my partner and I had — in fact, the dispute that finally helped us to clarify not only what goals we agreed on, but how we’d achieve them — was the lifestyle fight.
“I think you want a more affluent lifestyle,” she said one night.
(When I reported this to my friends, they all nodded. Sure. And . . .)
“What do you mean by ‘affluent’?” I asked in astonishment. “I want to live comfortably,” I admitted, as I unpacked a few things I’d picked up at the Banana Republic post-holiday sales.
“What’s ‘comfortable’?” she countered.
Well. I was just about to accuse her of splitting hairs, when I realized we were at the crux of our money differences. How DID we want to live, in fact? Was it possible to not only merge our finances, but to join our very different ideas of what constituted a “comfortable” way of life?
Again, it doesn’t serve to be divisive, blaming, judgmental or high-and-mighty during money talks. (See the end of this column for other smart tips on how and when to talk money with a partner.) So we invoked team spirit — and called a timeout.
When we returned to the field, we were able to see — to our relief — that our notions of a reasonable lifestyle were not irreconcilable. Yes, yes, I want more things, more vacations, cuter curtains, a better stereo and a Subaru.
But there was some overlap. She also wants more vacations, a better iPod and a nicer (used) Subaru. More importantly, we both agreed that we need more financial security in terms of an emergency fund, better health insurance and freedom from debt. Phew.
Step 5: Let your PC do all the work
With the lifestyle conversation behind us, we were finally ready to work with a spending plan (which we use instead of the dreaded “budget” word).
We decided to use the “60% solution,” mainly because I knew this planning stage was largely up to me. I’ve already been working with it, and it doesn’t give me brain spasms.
So the next step was introducing software into our financial lives. I’ve tried the paper-and-pencil-and-calculator method; I’ve tried Quicken; I’ve tried Money from my employer. Whatever method you choose, let it be electronic.
I can’t imagine trying to monitor one person’s financial life, let alone two, without the use of a computer.
Software lets you categorize your expenses and then track what you’re spending in each category. MoneyPlus downloads transactions from your bank and shows you a cute, color-coded pie chart, which I’m addicted to. We had “Essentials” (rent, utilities, phone, food), “Extras” (gifts, entertainment, travel, etc.) and a few other subcategories that we wanted to keep an eye on (dining out, groceries, clothing, ATM withdrawals).
I say “we” loosely. I was sure Ms. Laidback was not up for a software conversion. And boy, did I underestimate the dyke tech gene. Two days before I wrote this column I hesitantly showed her our transactions online (until then, I’d been reporting on our spending — and our ridiculous use of ATMs — verbally).
“WOW!” she said, practically falling over at the sight of the all-revealing MoneyPlus pie chart. “THAT IS SO COOL.”
“Were you kidnapped by right-wing conservatives?” I asked in amazement.
“Why didn’t you show me this before? Wow, hey look, you can track all our expenses!”
I tried to get Ms. Let’s Not Talk About Money to lie down and recover herself, but she wanted to add new categories, analyze how much we were spending on clothes versus wine versus dining out, and by the way, where was all that cash going from the ATM withdrawals?
Our working budget
It took about 10 weeks, many arguments and lots of compromise, but my partner and I have a financial system that works. It’s not perfect; we’re still figuring out how to streamline it; but Rome wasn’t built in a day. The point is we agree on the fundamental financials of our lives — and we’re committed to working toward those goals. And not killing each other in the process.
To that end, both of us have agreed to bring in a little extra money (since our jobs have some flexibility that way), put some more muscle into paying off debt, and although we’re not yet saving the 10% of our gross for retirement that we should be, we’re trying. And as long as I can rein in my frivolous spending (as the ATM culprit), I’m confident we’ll get there.
And finally… Want to talk to your partner about money?
Here are some Dos, Don’ts and Musts that I’ve learned:
- DON’T discuss money before bedtime. You’ll be up until 3 AM.
- DO listen to the other person’s ideas, solutions and assumptions; they will almost certainly surprise you.
- DON’T discuss money shortly before or during any meal.
- ALWAYS ask your partner about his or her financial upbringing — and be willing to explore your own. Our financial attitudes often come from our families.
- DON’T discuss anything even remotely financial around any inebriating substances.
- ALWAYS remember that you are a team and behave accordingly.
- NEVER assume your way is the right way.
- ONLY talk about money on Sundays between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
- AVOID labels (e.g. “yuppie”, “materialist”, “irresponsible so-and-so”); describe the behavior you want to discuss rather than name-calling.