The Slow Dance of Sharing Expenses

It is, and will be, complicated.

Photo credit: Pexels, CC0 Public Domain.

From the outside, it looks like I pay for everything.

It probably looks like I do everything, too. Chores, driving, lots of coordination of our schedules. But everything I cover in my heterosexual relationship has been debated and discussed in at least one heated conversation, and my boyfriend and I have come to an agreement.

My boyfriend has more money—and more in savings—than I do. His job is “normal” and he earns regular paychecks. My job is boom and bust; I have a lot of money and then nothing. He has potential parental support he can call upon. I do not. He has a commute, and I do not. We each work at jobs that we love and classify ourselves as workaholics.

We met in college, and money became a frequent topic of conversation. I didn’t want to split the check on our first date, so we did a you-get-this-time-and-I’ll-get-the next. We each followed through. The rest was history.

I have never wanted a joint checking account for us. I never wanted to mix money, to be beholden to another person’s credit score for better or worse. I was scarred by my mother’s conventional-for-the-time financial submission to my father. They were bonded together by money because that’s what you did if you wanted a future with someone. The terrible fallout of my father’s mental illness meant that her credit and savings were ruined along with his. Her trust had not been rewarded. Perhaps it was foolish of her to ever believe that it would.

Money was also supposed to be a secret in my family. Admitting that I was broke on a Facebook post earned reprimands from my mother. You don’t talk about when you don’t have money. You cannot show that weakness.

So when I entered this relationship, I rebelled. I was never afraid to talk about money. I talked about my dream of a debt-free life, and the minimalistic lengths I was willing to go to to achieve that dream. He was supportive.

The first time I took money from my boyfriend, it was to pay a student loan bill. The second time was to pay a cell phone bill. I was humiliated. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to take care of myself. He was kind to help me, but I couldn’t help but feel we were unequal.

So the trade-off system began. I couldn’t always afford to chip in for food, but I could offer labor. I made a proposition: if he paid for all the food (including restaurants), I would do all the dishes and all garbage chores. He accepted.

Renegotiation was never off the table. The trades became addictive and part of our ordinary dynamic: he paid the down payment on the car, and I took over payments and insurance. When I didn’t have enough money to travel and he wanted to help me out, we made it into a trade: pay for travel now and have no obligation to buy holiday gifts later.

It’s probably ridiculous that we have this system, and it’s probably a result of my inability to give up control of my own money. But the heart is a stubborn thing; it yearns to be be with this person forever but also to never lose its singular autonomy.

My boyfriend also comes from a household of divorce, which allowed us to find common ground in establishing our “rules” about money. He understands my need to defend my money, and he is equally protective of his own. It’s nothing personal.

We also share a love of problem-solving. Our fights more resemble scenes from The Imitation Game than Gone With The Wind. We both have backgrounds in psychology and enjoy breaking things down. Complex solutions to problems aren’t scary. Not being able to find solutions to problems is a much scarier prospect.

So we move things around. We negotiate. We dance this infuriating tango of sharing and demanding retribution, never letting ourselves become fully dependent upon the other. It’s frustrating. It’s demanding. It’s the best way we know.


Brit McGinnis is a copywriter and author of several books. Her work has appeared on XOJane, SparkNotes and anywhere fine stories are sold. She lives in Portland, Oregon.