Welcome to Couples + Money, where we break through the confines of polite conversation. Forget questions about your sex life. We're getting even more personal. Let's talk about what you and your partner are doing—and not doing—with your paychecks.
Every other Thursday, an anonymous couple will get candid with MarieClaire.com about how they split their finances. We’ll break down what each person pays for individually, what they split, and all the gritty details—from who picks up the bill in restaurants to who picks fights over bank statements.
This week, we're talking with Jennifer, 30, a homemaker, and her husband, Michael, 35, a sales engineer, who earns $120,000 per year ($10,000 per month). They've been together eight years and live in Denver, Colorado.
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How It All Happened
Michael: Her dad worked on the same street that I lived, so we met as kids. We were mutual friends all through high school and college. Then I moved back from Arizona in 2011, and we were both getting out of mutually ending relationships. Fireworks went off—and here we are. We got married in 2015.
Jennifer: When we first got together, I had had to move in with my mom after breaking up with my ex. I didn't expect to fall for Michael so quickly and we thought living together was best to save money. I got a good job when we were dating, then I got pregnant. My work was making it very difficult for me to take time off for appointments, and Michael and I made the decision together that we would benefit more for me to stay at home and raise our baby boy instead of me working just to pay for childcare. So I quit. We're both workaholics, so adjusting to being home all the time has been really hard for me.
Jennifer: My son is going to be four on the 9th, and I am due January 12th. There's a huge chance our second baby may come early.
Michael: We also have five cats. It was a worlds colliding type of thing. She had cats, I had cats, and both of our mothers were both cat women with over 10 cats each. You don't realize how expensive they are until you start putting numbers on a spreadsheet. "Holy cow. I spend that much on cat food and cat litter?"
When We Told Each Other Our Salaries
Jennifer: When we started living together, we split everything, but not 50/50 because he made more than me. Michael was very helpful—he didn't expect the contributions to be equal, and I tried to help with whatever I could. I'd cook and help feed everybody.
Michael: I think at the time, we were both still working, so it was more just an idea of who's gonna pick up what part of the bills and, just generally, how are we going to split our responsibilities?
How We Handle The Cost Of Living
Michael: With me being the majority breadwinner at the moment, we put it on a spreadsheet and say, "Here's what we have total coming in that month." I set up the spreadsheet. I'm an engineering major, so it comes second nature to me.
Jennifer: We sit down and talk about where money needs to go, and we both contribute to the budget. At points in our relationship, we've sacrificed cable and cut out the more luxury stuff—the stuff that's more a want than a need.
Why We Only Have a Joint Account
Jennifer: Right now, Michael pays for everything and it goes into our joint checking. Because he'll start getting commissions, he's told me he's thinking of getting me my own individual checking account as a form of "allowance." He knows we've both made sacrifices, so I'm excited to get some freedom to spend money how I want to spend it. Honestly, most of the money goes to the kiddo—I think of him every time I'm about to spend money. So, this new account might help with self-care.
Michael: It's pretty cut and dry, how much we have coming in and out. There's not a lot left over at the end of the month, so it's pretty easy. We've also got joint Amazon accounts and stuff like that, so we get purchase notifications too.
How Often We Talk About Money
Michael: We don't really need to talk that often, because there's only one account. We generally have an idea of how often each of us needs a big-ticket item, so we divvy that out on a two, three-month basis. Putting it on that spreadsheet and being able to see the entire year: "Here's when we're going to have the six months' worth of insurance due and that's 700 bucks, so we're setting aside 100 bucks a month." I'd say the overall big picture is transparency. I'm in sales, and my number one thing is to remove fear and build trust, whether personally or professionally.
What We Keep Secret
Jennifer: We don’t keep anything secret. I know it down to the level of he loses his sunglasses every month and has to buy another pair. I know everything. It actually means presents are tough: When he gives me cash, I’ll save up as much as I can for a gift. That's what I did this past Father’s Day.
How We Learned To Budget
Michael: I remember watching my mom as a kid counting all of her change on the table. I'd ask, "What are you doing?" She's say, "Well, I'm just making sure that my checkbook matches my money to the penny." We've never been a wealthy family by any means, so she's always really hit things to the penny and for that, she's always been able to provide an excellent life for me.
Jennifer: Michael taught me how to budget. My parents are terrible with money—they're both divorced and have different priorities. They spend a lot and it would bring stress to me. When I was young, my mom would say, "I don’t know how I’m going to pay my mortgage," then she'd also go to the mall. Now, she wants to come visit but then she also prioritizes traveling for concerts (Coachella last year, Dallas this year) and doesn't have a real view on her budget. It was a struggle to learn how to budget, but it was great learning about money from Michael.
Michael: Even as good as I was at budgeting, I've got massive student loan payments, $1,000 a month. I'm really still building up my credit from my college mistakes. When I was in school in Tucson, I was unemployed for almost 10 months, literally living on a credit card.
Our Biggest Fight About Money
Michael: Before we were really sitting down and looking at the monthly budget, there were a lot of conversations of, "Well, I need this, I need that." And we really didn't even have that kind of money coming in. So it just became tit for tat.
Jennifer: Then Michael built a spreadsheet, and that helped tremendously.
Michael: Now, it's more, "Hey, do we have this left because I need this?" And we put quite a bit into emergency funds.
Jennifer: When Michael went off to do his own thing professionally, that was the roughest part of the relationship—he wasn't as transparent about money. It was pretty rough, but we worked through it, and it was part of becoming closer about money.
How We Pay For The Non-Essentials
Michael: Right now, it's mostly just debited from the checking account.
Jennifer: I do want to travel as much as possible, like taking our son to Disney World for a fun little vacation he'll always remember. That sometimes overwhelms Michael because he starts thinking about the budget. We got our son a book subscription—it was really important for me to have the kids grow up with reading. We get him puzzles and blocks so he can use his imagination instead of getting him a tablet; I believe that's why he's so social and loves to interact with people. We also have dedicated family time by getting a zoo membership to the Denver Zoo, and we got season tickets for Rapids soccer games.
What We're Banking On
Michael: Our landlord is looking to get out of renting, eventually. He's already made the offer: "Let's start talking rent-to-own." The other near future thing is a second car. And shortly thereafter that, a vacation to Mexico—Jennifer needs to see her family. We're also starting to do a little bit of planning around our son starting pre-K. We looked a little bit at private schools, and it was a sticker shock, to say the very least. He's mostly likely going to a public school, but we're starting to get an idea of school supplies, all that stuff.
Jennifer: I'm a naturalized citizen, and I'm looking forward to potentially explore going to college and do what I'm passionate about. I love landscape architecture and design: I've loved plants since preschool, and I grow my own veggies. And I want to help people. So Michael and I have talked about going into business together to build net zero energy homes for people who need it. Being able to help others in the long run is an important asset for me, from recycling like crazy to taking our son to volunteer at homeless shelters.
Michael: I have a background in energy efficiency and construction. We've always talked about getting into building these healthier homes. Once we have her knowledge and her certifications or degrees, then we can just team up and be a family that does that.
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. Pseudonyms have been used. Reporting and editing by Katherine J. Igoe. Design and illustration by Morgan McMullen. Animation by Hayeon Kim and Colin Gara.
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