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Kazimir Lee

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The last frontier in modern romance is money

As dating and marriage evolve, so is the way couples are splitting finances.

Part of The Fairness Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Bringing up finances in a relationship can feel loaded...
like picking a fight, or snooping through your partner’s phone.
What topics do you consider taboo among friends? Salary, retirement funds, debt, religion, inheritance, etc.
Talking about money is weird, but it has to be done. Money is hugely important if any couple wants to make it in the long term: 41% of divorced Gen X-ers and 29% of boomers said their marriages ended due to finances.
For many, however, financial discomfort starts way earlier than that. It starts on the very first date, with the question:
Who pays?
A 2015 survey showed 64% of men “believed that women should contribute” to the date, but 76% felt guilty when taking a woman’s money. A 2016 survey showed 46 % of millennial women admitted to feeling guilt when they did not pay on a date. Who pays  — and all the associated guilt —  remains the elephant in the room even years into relationships. Take Bryn and Aaron,  domestic partners in their early 30s living in Brooklyn.
Bryn: “At first, we were sticklers, splitting down to the quarter for years. We both weren’t making very much.”
Aaron: “Then I got this job, and coronavirus happened and Bryn lost her job, so we stopped doing that.”
Now Aaron contributes more. Bryn: “I was always very hesitant, because he’s better with money than me. He saves money even when he doesn’t make that much, and I….”
Aaron: “spend money even when you don’t have it. [laughter]”
Bryn: “We’re an interracial couple, and I do think Aaron has better financial literacy that was inherited. We were raised in pretty equal upper-middle class households, but I’ve had to learn a lot.”
Aaron: “I like to say that WE pay the rent out of my salary.” Bryn: “I’ll always sort of feel weird about it, even though I’m fine with it. There’s a stubborn independence that I can’t let go of.”
But they did sort of split on their first date. Bryn: “He paid for the first drinks. I paid for the next drinks, which were not as expensive.”
Bryn: “But that’s not my fault! [laughter]”
Other couples prefer less guesswork. Henrika, 35, and Christeta, 49, live in Hong Kong. They just split it all 50/50, and did not get a joint account even after they got married.
Henrika: “I make half her income and I have about four times her savings because I’m investing it. I’m introducing her to financial planning. It’s a work in progress.”
Christeta: “We’re not picky about making sure it’s exactly split for the little things.” Henrika: “But I pay for my snacks at the movies. I’m a snacker. She’s not.”
Image of pouring butter over popcorn at a movie theater.
Melinda and Andrey, both 27, are a polyamorous couple living together in Washington, D.C. They usually pay for themselves, saving receipts and itemizing them at the end of the month to see who owes what.
Melinda: “If I want to shop the fanciest grocery store with my money, then I can do that. I don’t want to make you do that.”
Andrey: “If you start making two or three times as much as me, you are more than welcome to pay for all of my stuff. I will take my money and go do other things with it.”
Another couple, Eric, 45, and Tamika, 27, say their age gap has had a huge influence on how they split finances, sometimes in ways that trouble Tamika. Eric: “With her age, just starting out in the career world, she couldn’t afford to live out here by herself. She struggled with it mentally and emotionally.” Tamika: “My mom taught me that it’s important for a woman to be able to take care of herself. That translated to there being no reason for a guy to pay for my stuff.”
Eric is living off retirement, but is pursuing a career as a pilot. Tamika is an analyst. They split bills based on their income, so Eric pays more. But Tamika hopes to contribute more soon. Eric: “I don’t expect the traditional role of a homemaker. She doesn’t expect me to be the sole breadwinner.” Tamika: “I don’t think it’s very reasonable to expect a man to be able to afford the four-person-home lifestyle by himself. I don’t think my contribution is very fair.”
Picture of a suburban home.
Matthew, 48 and Christine, 34 live in Massachusetts. Their first date at a beer tasting was accidental, so nobody felt the pressure of having to pay for the other. Later, the dynamic was different.
Matthew: “I make more money, so I like to pay.” Christine: “I like to split, though.” Matthew: “She’ll offer to pay. Sometimes I’ll let her, and sometimes I don’t. I’m cognizant of the fact that I have more disposable income.”
Matthew is an economic development director, and Christine works at Petco. She moved in with Matthew to save money, and for the safety of her father, who is disabled, during the start of the pandemic. Matthew: “I don’t charge her half of the mortgage. She does Venmo me money every month to cover utilities.”
Matthew: “I was previously married. She was older than me and made more money than me, so I was really happy to have the joint account. I’ll be perfectly honest with you: Now that the tables have turned, there’s no way that I would want a joint account.” Christine: “It wouldn’t be fair. Maybe that is my upbringing. My mom was kind of like a single mom. My parents divorced when I was very young, so she was paying for everything.”
Every couple’s relationship has its own set of financial obstacles. But there are also ways to navigate them together. Ilyce Glink, a financial journalist and CEO of a financial wellness company, recommends asking questions, educating yourself on the state of your finances, and above all, being honest with your partner.
Ilyce Glink: “More and more, we’re seeing couples use prenup agreements. We’re seeing couples start to talk about money early in a relationship. And we’re seeing people choose different ways of managing money.”
Ilyce Glink: “Technology has made it a lot easier for everybody to have access to where that money is located and how it’s invested.”
Avoiding money problems requires constant vigilance. But these couples’ attempts to figure it all out is a testament to the fact that our understanding of fairness is growing and ever-changing. 
With clear and open communication, managing finances in a relationship doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Melinda Fakuade is a fellow for The Goods by Vox. She has written for The Cut, The Outline, Rolling Stone, and MEL Magazine, among many other outlets.

Kazimir Lee is an immigrant, a parent, and a degenerate. They won the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for Erotica, and their work has appeared in Slate, the New Inquiry, the Nib, and Oh Joy Sex Toy.


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