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A photo illustration showing a snowy car parked next to a house and surrounded by a border of dollars. Christina Animashaun for Vox

Money Talks: How a new couple handles their shared finances

Sorting out mortgages and car payments can be tricky — especially when a child from a previous marriage is involved.

Welcome to Money Talks, a new series in which we interview people about their relationship with money, their relationship with each other, and how those relationships inform one another.

Meet Meryl and Chuck from Williamstown, West Virginia. Meryl is 33 years old, works in marketing, and earns just under $51,000 annually (plus another $2,000–$4,000 in freelance income). Chuck is 35, works as a database administrator, and earns around $77,000 a year. They live together in a house Chuck had purchased prior to the relationship; Chuck also has 40 percent custody of his 5-year-old son, who spends three nights a week with them.

They aren’t married and have only been dating a year, but they’ve decided to pool finances on several major expenses. Here’s how and why they did it.

The following conversation is lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

Meryl: After living in a bunch of different cities — Portland, Chicago — I moved back to the area where I am originally from. Shortly after I moved back, I was introduced to Chuck through some of our mutual friends. We actually went to the same high school, but we didn’t know each other, even though it was a really small, rural school.

Chuck: It’s really weird that we didn’t know the other one existed. My graduating class was 60 people, and hers wasn’t much bigger than that. There’s no doubt we were in the same room together several times and just … never met.

Meryl: We were introduced last summer and just had our first anniversary. I moved in after we’d been together for about five months. We just kind of clicked, and then my landlord wanted to nearly double my rent, so I gave my notice and moved in with Chuck. It all moved kind of fast, but it’s worked out pretty well.

Chuck: The money issue kind of started with the fact that you needed a car. We began discussing what you’d need to go get a car and how much you could afford to pay for a car every month.

Meryl: We bought the car about six weeks after I moved in. I had been driving the same car for the past 11 years and it was slowly dying. It was so overwhelming to even think about looking for a car, because big purchases make me very anxious, so I would have driven that car until the wheels fell off.

Chuck: I don’t mind car shopping and talking to car salesmen at all.

Meryl: Chuck was really good about sitting down and having a conversation about what it would look like to have a different car that was more reliable — and also, because Chuck has a son, I don’t think either of us wanted me to be driving his son in a car that wasn’t super reliable. We talked a lot about what buying a new car was going to look like for both my finances separately and then our finances together. That was the starting point of our financial conversations. When I moved in, we decided that I wouldn’t pay rent to Chuck or pay any part of the mortgage, and my equivalent contribution would be the car payment.

We’re not married or engaged at this point, and we like the idea of keeping our finances separate, but we do pool our resources together for common goals.

Chuck: Having our money in separate spots helps with not having to discuss all of the small purchases.

Meryl: I buy a lot of iced coffees that you probably wouldn’t purchase, but you aren’t asking me, “Why are you buying all of those iced coffees?” We also have these two savings envelopes, and one of them is marked “house fund” for house repairs.

Chuck: It’s nice to be able to grab this quick cash if something needs to be done.

Meryl: It came in handy this summer, because we did a renovation on the main bathroom in our house and we needed a shower door for it. So we were able to use that fund for the shower door, which was the final piece of the project. Then the other envelope is for a trip that we’re planning in 2020, to go to Europe and visit a couple of friends.

Chuck: They’re physical envelopes because it’s kind of like, “If it’s not in the bank account, it’s not spendable.”

Meryl: We get paid on alternating weeks, so every Friday, $20 is going into each envelope from whoever got paid that day. This Friday I’ll put $20 into the house envelope and $20 into the Europe envelope, and next Friday he’ll do the same.

Chuck: By the time we get to taking that trip next summer, that envelope should cover the airfare for both of us, and that’s a big expense taken out of that trip. Each envelope gets $40 each month from each of us, so that’s $960 per envelope for the year. By the time we take our trip, we’ll have been putting money in the envelope for 18 months.

Meryl: We’ve been doing the Europe one for a lot longer than the house one. At home, we’ve got the utilities split, but since the mortgage is the biggest expense — do you mind sharing what our mortgage is?

Chuck: The mortgage is $740 a month.

Meryl: And my car payment is not that much, it’s like $470, so I make up the rest by paying for utilities like high-speed internet. Because I work from home, my company contributes a $15 monthly stipend toward our $60/month service.

Chuck: I pay electric and gas.

Meryl: You pay electric and gas, I pay water and sewage.

Chuck: We each pay for a streaming service. But Meryl doesn’t pay rent to me. My reasoning is that if Meryl is here or if Meryl isn’t here, my mortgage payment stays the same. So I’m going to continue paying that mortgage in full.

Meryl: That was a point of contention when I moved in!

Chuck: You wanted to split the mortgage and I said no.

Meryl: There was some disagreement about that at first. But I do think that the way we landed on it has made sense — and has allowed me to upgrade my car, which I don’t think I would have been able to do if I were paying part of the mortgage.

Chuck: That was how I put it, too: “Buy us a car and I’ll continue doing the mortgage.” For my son, obviously I pay for all of the child support costs myself, and the daycare-related or clothes-related costs are split between myself and my ex-wife. When my son needed a car seat for the new car, I paid for that.

Meryl: I don’t really have any financial obligations with Chuck’s son, but on the flip side I get to do a lot of fun stuff.

Chuck: Because of Meryl, he has, like, coloring books and all kinds of art supplies and books that these two read together. That all comes from you.

Meryl: Not long after I met Chuck’s son for the first time, his birthday happened, which meant I got to plan a very fun birthday party that Chuck didn’t have to plan! If I want to spend $40 at a party-supply store, I’m not going to be like, “Pay me back for all of that Spider-Man stuff!”

Chuck: I just think that money causes a lot of unnecessary conflict. If you keep it separate but are also, like, open about it, I think you can avoid a lot of that conflict.

Meryl: I also think we’re very lucky to have the jobs that we have. We have a lot of flexibility, and we also have three adults who care very much about one child, so there’s a lot of room for us to be able to do the fun stuff that we do because there are so many people involved.

We were really up-front with each other about our finances when we started dating. We started asking each other how much we made back when I was still living in my apartment. We are also very lucky in that we don’t have student debt. Chuck is a veteran, and I was very fortunate in that my mom worked at the college I went to. That is a huge reason why we get to do the things we do. We’re also both able to save money. I have a 401(k).

Chuck: And I have a Thrift Savings Plan.

Meryl: I don’t know that you necessarily encouraged me to look into my 401(k), but I had been avoiding it, and it was in the last year that I actually started paying attention to it.

Chuck: It was like, you wouldn’t be able to get better at managing your money until you looked into it, and then you did.

Meryl: I have trouble facing big money decisions! You had a higher credit score than me when we moved in together, but instead of being like, “Woof, what’s that credit score?” you were all, “Here’s how you make it higher.” My credit score has improved by 100 points. It was in the low 600s, and now it’s in the low 700s.

Chuck: But you encouraged me to do our home improvement projects. I’d been putting it off and putting it off, and you were, like, “Hey, let’s do these home improvement projects while you’re still living here. That way you can enjoy them, instead of waiting and making the house better for someone else.” Ever since we did that, we’ve had a much nicer house and the projects are done.

If you have a compelling story about how money comes into play in one of your relationships — whether with a partner, a friend, a sibling, a coworker — we want to hear about it! Email alanna.okun@vox.com and karen.turner@vox.com with a little about yourself.

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