In relationships, it is never ever ever ‘only money’

Image by the fabulous Stuart F Taylor

The best date you could take me on wouldn’t be the most expensive. In fact, the worst date I’ve ever been on was the one where the guy was most obsessed with money – buying expensive wine and ordering it loudly so that I (and everyone on the tables nearby) would hear and be impressed with how fat his wallet was. And if I were looking for the perfect partner, ideally I’d want to find one with exactly the same income as me: matched to the penny, to avoid causing fights. Because it is never ‘only money’ – it is so much more than that.

Money gets in the way of relationships. At least, that has been my experience. I don’t mean money itself – money itself helps facilitate relationships. It helps you afford rent and food and clothes so you can exist long enough to go out on dates. It helps pay for those dates, so you can spend time getting to know someone over a cocktail in a cosy bar rather than over some fresh air on a park bench. Money helps people pay for train travel to see their loved ones. It helps keep them out of extreme poverty, so they have the energy to look after themselves and buy spare time for romance. It’s hard to fall in love when you’re shivering with cold, and it’s hard to chat people up when you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from. You can fall in love without money, but that doesn’t mean money’s not important.

I grew up rich, then poor. As a young child we were well-off, and I mean ‘well-off’ not by Tory (or even centrist) standards, where people bicker over whether a 70 grand annual income makes you rich (it does). I mean ‘well-off’ like we never had to worry where food or clothes were coming from. We had a TV, a car, a house that all of us could fit in, and everything else we could reasonably need.

Then we became poor. Again, not extreme levels of poverty: this isn’t me telling you I was Oliver asking for gruel. Just constant, nagging, low-level poverty. Mum bought the cheapest supermarket food and stretched it out for a week, inventing weird meals that could pad out the rest of the food to help us make it through until Sunday. This isn’t a pity-party, though: we were fine. We were first-world poor, in the days before austerity, and we may not have had nice shoes or video games but we still had a lot of fun.

How should you split bills in a relationship?

I’m only telling you this to put the next bit in context: money and relationships. Relationships and money. I read a lot of MoneySavingExpert, because that is the kind of nerd I am about money, and frequently the question comes up of how you should split the bills in a relationship. This week someone wrote in to ask again about the best way to split bills: should the person earning more pay proportionately more for living expenses? It’s often one of the most heated debates on the money forums, because most people in relationships think they’ve got a decent idea of how best to do it. It’s also one of the most pointless debates in the money forums, because the solution to money imbalance will inevitably be different for each relationship.

Some people will offer ridiculous, sweeping generalisations:

“Yes you should [pay more if you earn more]. After 8 years I have to wonder why you haven’t got married and why you don’t have shared finances but are still splitting everything like flatmates”

“After 8 years these questions shouldn’t be asked…. you’re either in a couple, or not. If you are, get married; if not, split up.”

Others will give a hint as to their own relationship with money, and where it fits into their emotional life:

“If my partner wasn’t prepared to share everything they had with me I would feel there was something wrong in the relationship”

“Personally speaking, and after being ‘stung’ on more than one occasion, I prefer to have separate finances. In fact, given my previous experience, I’d insist on it.”

One of the things I find most interesting about this discussion, though, is that although emotions are touched upon, the solutions offered are usually simple calculations: adding and subtracting and trying to establish a formula for fairness. As if – in the words of so many people who have never had to worry about it – it really is ‘only money.’ As if money is just a sheaf of paper or numbers on a screen, rather than something to which we attach significant, complex emotions.

Splitting bills within a relationship is not just about having a system. Unless you’re both very similar people, no solution that focuses solely on figures will work. Because it isn’t just a question of how you’ll split the bills: it’s a question of how you understand each other.

When I earned more

I lived with an ex-boyfriend some years ago, and I earned more money than him. Not much more, but enough that it caused an issue. Maybe two or three grand each year, with us both on quite low salaries: just enough that he could make occasional jokes about me paying more for the rent and bills (I didn’t), or picking up the tab for more rounds at the bar (I did). It shouldn’t have made a difference, this money, and most of the time it wasn’t a big deal.

But it clearly meant something, because I just felt compelled to tell you which things I paid for and which I didn’t.

Our money also meant something to other people. Occasionally people we knew would make remarks about his job – the implication being that he should earn more than I did, or at the very least feel slightly ashamed that I was out-earning him. And sometimes his own comments tipped over into this: a slight nagging feeling that he was embarrassed of my salary. Embarrassed that I was earning slightly more, and that was the wrong way round. This wasn’t deliberate: he’d never have said ‘the wrong way round’ so openly. But he had his money baggage, as I did, and it wasn’t very easy to discard.

I was proud of my salary, back then. Proud of my money. It was never ‘only’ money to me, because I had grown up for a short while without it. Money, to me, meant freedom and independence – an answer to the question ‘what if I end up alone?’ Money meant I could stand on my own two feet, and even fuck off entirely if I wanted to. It meant I wouldn’t have to shiver in winter or eat beans from the tin or any of the other things my Mum had to do when we were poor.

When I earned less

Now I’m with a guy who earns a lot more money than me. Discussions with him about bills could never be ‘only’ about the money – “I’ll just chip in more than you, surely?” – because there’s an underlying emotional connection that I struggle to get him to understand. He doesn’t really get the whole ‘money is my independence’ thing, because he hasn’t had the same life experiences as I have. As that one MSE commenter touched on: their past experiences with money and relationships have shaped how they organise it now. Although I’ve swallowed a certain amount of my financial panic, and we now have a joint account for bills, I still want the majority of it to be separate. My partner knows why, but he’s still faintly baffled by the strength of my feeling and the emotional weight that money has for me.

The gender issue’s still there too, even now the scales have tipped and I’m no longer the one earning more: there are people outside our relationship who ask me ‘why don’t you just live off his salary now? You don’t need to earn your own money.’ Things they’d never have dreamed of saying to my lower-salaried ex. Those discussions are made worse by the fact that I’ve chosen a job in which the income is sporadic and insecure. When you tell someone you’re a ‘writer’, they assume you’ve no cash. When you tell someone you’re a writer and they know your boyfriend has a salaried job, they assume he’s subsidising you. I’ve listened to friends joke about him paying the bills, and family members tell me I’m ridiculous for not demanding he pays for everything, and I’ve snapped at each and every one of them, while my partner looks on – supportive but vaguely confused.

He says I shouldn’t care, because it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. But I do care. I simply cannot stop.

I will always want to earn my own money. And for as long as I’m lucky enough to be able to – save illness or other things that would prevent me – I will continue to earn my own money. Partly because I need to know that if he leaves me I’ll be OK: I won’t have forgotten how to do it, or let my skills get rusty from lack of use. Partly out of pride: I hate the implication that because he could support me, I will let him. That the only reason I had a job was as a temporary measure until I found a man.

I work because it means something. Not the work: the money. The money means something.

It’s never ‘only’ money – those who say it is are usually the ones who’ve never been without it. Money means a lot: it means freedom, and independence. It means that I have numbers with which to measure my progress through life. It means all the things that it means to a man, except a man would rarely feel the need to justify a desire for money, because few people would ever tell him he should quit his job and live without it. Money is a privilege and a benefit, and if I had my way every person alive would have enough to get by – to take away those stresses and aches and freezing nights and hungry days.

Money means something to me. Not everything, but a lot.

Arguments over money

But money doesn’t mean the same thing to my partner. He won’t agonise over buying a new phone or cry if the boiler breaks and we have to pay to repair it. He won’t shop around to find the cheapest deals, because the few quid we’ll save just isn’t worth his time. But I still remember what it was like to be poor – I will always remember what it’s like to be poor, even though now I am not. So I will shop around and save up for things and refuse to go on holiday. I’ll tear my hair out if he puts the heating on in September.

Money is the repeating refrain in the musical of my life, but to him it’s just a background hum. Nothing else has this status for us. Video games: he loves them, I don’t, but I can smile at how happy he is when he gets to play a marathon session of a new one. Books: I love them, he doesn’t, but he can smile and call me a good girl when I settle down to relax and read one I’ve really looked forward to. With other things we’re able to choose how important it is to us as individuals: I can respect that it’s not important to him, and vice versa.

Money, though? We spend money together. We choose where we will live, what we will eat, and when to put the heating on. And although we can compromise on the details (“I’ll buy this dinner because I picked an expensive restaurant” or “I’ll pay more for the heating because I turn it on more often”) we can never truly seem to understand each other. I don’t get why he doesn’t feel that stomach-churning fear if something expensive and vital breaks down. He can’t get why I’m crying at the thought of paying for train fares to yet another out-of-town wedding.

So when these discussions come up on the MSE forums, about how to split the bills, I devour them all eagerly, looking for the right answer. Split equally? Income proportionate? Joint account then have your own spending money? Consult each other on every single big purchase, going cap-in-hand to the other one if you need a new phone? I don’t know. And honestly I think the answer for each relationship is not only going to be different, it’s going to be much more complex than a spreadsheet could convey. It requires a lot of work, a lot of understanding, and a lot of awkward conversations about your past – the ways in which money have influenced you, or the ways in which you’ve taken it for granted.

Money is important in relationships not just because you spend it together, but because if you’re going to work together you need to understand the role it has played in someone’s life.

I’ve seen money used to control people, binding them to friendships or lovers long past the point those relationships should have ended. I’ve seen it used to empower people – make it so they can study or travel or leave a toxic job. It can be a reward for hard work, a benchmark of success, a source of misery and worry, a means to an end, an embarrassment or desire, a gendered deadweight… it’s all of these things and more.

But I don’t think it’s ever ‘only money.’


  • Jo says:

    This strikes ALL of the chords with me – I grew up broke and started working when I was 13, so I also have a lot of heavy feelings about money that many of my partners have never understood. I have lifelong debt because I had to borrow money to go to uni (undergrad, grad, and housing), and as a teacher I feel like I’ll never get out from under that debt – I feel *so* much pride about being financially independent and not having to rely on anyone else. It affects not only my romantic relationships, but my friendships; I can’t go out with friends often and don’t eat dinner with them when we do go out, opting only to have a beer. I remember breaking down crying once when I was grocery shopping with my roommates in uni when they insisted on buying the butter even though it was my turn because they had parents who were fronting for their education and rent and could afford it, so yeah – it is NEVER “just” money, and it’s hard to explain that to someone who thinks it’s not a big deal. Thank you so much for writing this – it’s a topic that’s been on my mind as of late.

  • Phillip says:

    I like to be able to pay the rent before the last day to pay. I like some money in the bank. Money that could cover a year makes me feel much less stressed. I grew up with the constant mantra of “We are poor, we are broke, we have to conserve”. Every Thursday was leftover night. All the food that was left over (four bites of over-cooked turnip and whatever). Ketchup is a miracle food that goes with anything. “Ketchup costs money!” I ended that as a teenager when I informed my father that one bottle of ketchup costs the same as one bottle of beer and that he often drank two. He never mentioned ketchup again.

    I thought a little back story might help. I was talking to the woman who does my taxes as I am in business and just can’t do them myself. She and I mulled over the different money sharing ‘plans’. We pretty much agreed that the sticky issue was not having enough money between the pair to make the bills OR an overly selfish mate. I believe that Karl Marx may have mentioned something about ‘needs’ and getting them met. My tax woman and I pretty much decided that any method would work except for the selfish hoarder of cash mate who demanded that one paid “their fair share”.

    I have a friend who’s wife spent $50,000 on a Fortune Teller. He divorced her and never saw her again. He lost his house over it.

    Then there is the brother in law who’s wife forged the his signature on loan papers to increase the mortgage. She spread the money around. She just couldn’t help it. He lost the house and they both live in separate apartments, but still see each other. I guess that getting the money out of the picture helped their marriage (they are divorced). He is now not responsible for her bills.

    Then there are some people (perhaps dyslexic) that just can’t place time and need in the same box. It may be something to do with their lack of ability to visualize in their minds eye. They are people who can’t tell a teaspoon from a soup-spoon. I am married to and love one of those people. She really blew it a couple of times, but lack of money glued us together. Hard times, but we somehow we got through. This is one of those things where there isn’t enough for two to live separately. That is very common with many. We live in a place that has low wages and no housing. It is the way we chose to deal with it. Forgive and forget? Forgive.

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