Hitched: We’re Married, But Our Bank Accounts Aren’t

One of the things I’ve learned, over my many years of roadtripping in and across Texas, is that hell is being stuck going 50 miles per hour behind a recreational vehicle. But recently, I’ve come to wonder if heaven might be being behind the wheel of one.

I don’t generally dream about buying big-ticket things like cars and houses. I’m a freelance writer, after all. At this point, saving even a few hundred dollars a year is a struggle — though that got significantly less stressful once I moved in with, and later married, my husband. Splitting rent and groceries and bills has taken significant pressure off my wheezing bank account — even more so than living with roommates.

So maybe that’s why I started letting myself fantasize about taking long trips to Marfa in a giant vehicle with a wildcat or a wolf emblazoned on the back. When I proposed this to Patrick, he was, as we say here in Texas, “raring to go.” Some couples dream of outfitting a nursery. Patrick and I dream of converting an engine to biodiesel and training the cats to ride shotgun.

We’re looking at a potential future — to be sure, years down the road once we’re more financially stable — lived at least part of the time on the open road. It is the first time I’ve ever considered buying anything that expensive with my husband. It really, really scares me. Not just because spending that much money on anything has always seemed impossible, but because the only people I’ve ever relied on for financial support, or for help with any significant purchase, are my parents.

Patrick and I are what blogger Jessica Grose at Slate.com would call “Independent Operators,” based on the terminology she uses in her fantastic series on marital financial arrangements. We keep entirely separate bank accounts. I have no idea how much Patrick spends on frozen yogurt every month and I don’t care to know. Dude loves his frozen yogurt.

Grose found that most independent operators stopped separating finances, at least in part, when kids came along. But Patrick and I are childfree — as in, we don’t have kids now and plan to keep it that way, forever. There are no diapers, cloth or otherwise, in our future unless the cats venture into the wild world of feline incontinence. As scary as cat piss is, it’s far more attractive to me than the prospect of a positive pregnancy test.

Using Slate’s widget developed from the results of 5,858 married respondents to the site’s financial survey, it looks like Patrick and I are in the vast minority when it comes to how we handle money. I write him a check for the rent every month, we keep a Google doc of bills that need paying, and we split them 50-50. Just six percent of couples in our income and education range do this. The rest share all or part of their income.

Why does this separated system work for us? Well, we make about the same amount of money and don’t have debt. We have pretty much the same idea of what constitutes a happy lifestyle: getting our produce from a CSA, saving up for nice dinners when we can afford it, continuing to drive our aging but reliable cars, renting in a reasonably priced and walkable neighborhood, drinking cheap beer and good whiskey, et cetera and so on.

We’re also both only children, and we value our privacy and alone time; that can’t be ignored. Keeping separate finances, to my mind, is a fiscal manifestation of the many other ways in our relationship that we maintain our individual senses of self. (Selves? Discuss.) Patrick likes frozen yogurt and batting cages. I like ranch dip and mystery novels. Ne’er shall these things meet and we like it that way.

When I look to the future and imagine my someday-financial-life, I do not ever envision myself sharing a communal money pot with Patrick. I feel like after the bills are paid, his money is his to spend. Same for mine.

Of course, it’s all something of a farce — legally speaking, we’re responsible for each other’s debts. So if Patrick decides hookers and blow are his jam, angry credit card companies can come to me for their due on his cash advances. But one of the reasons I felt comfortable marrying Patrick in the first place is that he’s a great manager of money. He doesn’t overspend. Not even on frozen yogurt. A joint account seems like just one more thing to manage and monitor; it feels like a solution to a problem we don’t have.

I also know that if I need financial help, he will be there for me, and vice versa. I feel like Patrick is my forever adventure partner, but I also feel like he is my forever wading-through-the-shit-of-life partner. We said as much (well, without the cussing) in our wedding vows. I’m happy to spend whatever I can to help him if he needs it; if I didn’t think he’d do the same for me, the problem wouldn’t be our separate finances, it would be that he’s an asshole.

The question arises, then: what do we do if a significant financial disparity develops? I can’t ever see myself becoming a housewife; I really love working and it gives me a sense of pride and self-worth. Similarly, Patrick would be an unlikely househusband. If I wasn’t contributing, proportionally speaking, what I could to our lifestyle, I’d be filled with anxiety and worry.

How do I know? Because it’s already happened: when we first started dating, I lost my job. I was on unemployment. I had to take out my first credit card. I borrowed money from Patrick for rent. But I worked hard to pay it back before the month was over because I really hated the idea that he had to spend his money on me. I didn’t feel comfortable relying, even a little bit, on somebody else. Now that we’re married and financially stable (that noise you hear is this journalist knocking on all of the wood in the world), I can’t imagine feeling differently, even though our coupledom is more solid than ever.

Yes, our disposable income is our own. But only to the degree that our lives are our own, which they really aren’t. I take our marriage very seriously; I’ve committed my life — and as a part of that, my money — to Patrick. I know he’s done the same, so I don’t feel less married or committed just because I don’t know how much his new shoes cost him.

Health and wellbeing willing, we’ll grow old together. So I’m sure we need to have a conversation about joint savings, or some kind of shared commitment to individual savings accounts — especially since incontinent cats aren’t the best providers for old folks in nursing homes. That’s a hard thing to think about when you’re 28, but it’s necessary. It’s also one of the few financial endeavors I can imagine truly going in on whole-hog with my husband.

Well, that’s not totally true. There is an RV expo in Austin in a month.

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