My husband and I lived together for more than three years before we got hitched. Until we were legally bound, we kept all our financial arrangements separate and roughly equal. We each paid half the rent out of our own checking accounts. He footed the ConEd bill, I took Time Warner, and we alternated paying for groceries, dinners out, and all the other expenses we totted up together (movie tickets, vacations, the occasional unfortunate Ikea chair). Our bookkeeping methods were breezy and imprecise, but ultimately we were spending nearly the same amount to maintain our shared hearth and home. Personal expenses were individual—and often shamefully stereotypical. He would come home with a new PlayStation 3 to find me plucking the tags off a new dress from our local boutique.
When we decided to be married, we began to talk about how we would manage our finances together going forward. I can’t recall who brought it up first, but I’m embarrassed to admit that before we started discussing it, I had barely thought about the way we managed our money as a unit. We were both financially responsible, we earned and saved roughly the same amount, and neither of us had any debt. So after we had decided how to pay for our living expenses when we first moved in together back in 2007, it hadn’t come up again. Once I started to consider the matter, my first assumption was that we would pool all our money as soon as we were wed; after all, that’s what my parents did when they got married in 1972.
But my parents’ circumstances were different from ours. They were both medical students in their early 20s who went to graduate school right out of college, and as my father says, they barely had a pot to piss in. They did not live together before they were married. By contrast, my husband and I—29 and 28 respectively—had been in the work force for several years when we got married this year, and we were used to spending money we considered our own. Today, our situation may be closer to the norm: The age at first marriage is nearly 26 for women and 28 for men, both up from much younger ages a few decades ago, and brand new stats from the Census Bureau show that the trend is moving toward couples delaying marriage for even longer because of cohabitation, the recession, and high divorce rates. A recent CDC study showed that a majority of men and women getting married for the first time now cohabitate before the wedding.
Certainly that’s been true for our peers. We started asking other long-term couples how they managed their money, but we still weren’t sure what to do ourselves. We’re currently in a holding pattern, plugging along the way we did before we were married but planning to make some change soon.
The personal finance experts have plenty of advice for us. Suze Orman, the patron saint of blingy jackets and the bottom line, says that couples should always keep some money separate and that stay-at-home spouses should have a personal checking account into which the working spouse automatically deposits money on a regular basis. Washington Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary disagrees: “I say put it all in one pot. Pay the bills together … and stop all the bickering about who should pay what or how much each should contribute based on what each makes.” Singletary even calls keeping your finances separate a “selfish way to go into a marriage.”
I’m wary of any one-size-fits-all method of managing finances as a couple, which is a complicated monetary and a psychological issue. This is why I am looking into the matter over the next couple of months for a project for Slate (and, of course, for myself). I’ll delve into the research about how the division of money affects the emotional health of long-term relationships and check out the history of marital economics. And I’ll talk to couples who’ve made a variety of financial decisions about their reasoning and their reflections.
This is where you come in. I’m looking for research subjects who are in relationships with people who they consider life partners. This means that you are married, in a civil union, or are cohabitating and plan to stay that way. If you are in such a relationship (gay or straight) and would be willing to share your story, please take our survey. [Update, Oct. 7, 2010: Thank you to the many readers who responded. The survey is now closed.] Since I know that financial matters are hugely personal, the survey gives you the option of remaining anonymous. You can also write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org—and please do, because that way I can follow up more easily. I am excited to hear your stories.