Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Today, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare helps someone who recently combined finances with their partner, bringing up an unexpected issue.
If you are struggling with alcohol abuse, please call the Alcohol & Drug Support line on 1800 198 024 or (08) 9442 5000 for confidential advice. Lines are open 24 hours a day.
My partner and I recently combined finances, and it's brought up an unexpected issue. I don’t drink much, but they will have one to two drinks with dinner if we go out. This is something I knew prior to our fiscal merger, but I didn’t expect it to cause me this much frustration. Before I had the receipts, I did think it was a waste of money to pay for craft beer versus drinking at home — but I didn't realise how many big feelings I had tied to this opinion.
A past partner of mine went from being a social drinker to abusing substances while we were together, and I'm still holding on to some of the fears associated with that time (which I recognise has nothing to do with my current boo as they've shown no signs of alcohol use disorder — I'm currently working through this history in therapy). Additionally, I grew up in an extremely conservative, Christian home where drinking was not allowed, and we were very frugal. As an adult, I still work not to judge others for their drinking.
It's only been a few weeks of blended bank accounts and, after tracking our spending, I find myself growing resentful. We both are working together to save for retirement as well as a future home together. At first, I was insecure about him making more but he assured me it was "our" money. This makes me feel even more ashamed of my animosity toward his drinking habit.
I would love to hear any advice for managing both shared expenses and any resentment that can accompany such a merger. What if we just don't have shared values when it comes to money? How can we avoid any pitfalls associated with this?
Your dilemma is a great example of the many challenges that come up when we blend our worlds with anyone, even our friends. Let's be honest, JBJ, building a life with someone can be an uncomfortable process. Our views are often jostled around like ice in a cocktail shaker, and sometimes this means we must shift our perspectives, causing tension. But, hopefully, if we're mixing it up in a loving way with someone we care about, the final product is delicious and well worth any pain points.
The good news is, we are not alone in this merger – the other person is on the same ride, adjusting to us, even if we are total opposites in many ways. We can take comfort in that and even laugh about our little differences once we truly understand each other.
But, when it comes to money in particular, all the big emotions that can come with fusing our lives can be heightened. Even those who come from very similar cultures can have divergent values when it comes to cash. Your family's socio-economic status likely impacted your views and access to wealth. Moreover, how the role models in your life growing up talked about money also likely had an impact on your relationship with your finances. For instance, if you are a first-generation American and your parents immigrated here with little money, the need to feel secure for survival's sake might be intertwined with your identity.
All told, we typically enter into our intimate relationships later in life with set values around money, shaped in part by our childhoods. And, sometimes those values and habits don't have the healthiest roots. Unpacking those financial histories — first processing them on our own (perhaps through journaling, therapy, or an app like Thinkladder, which has been helpful to me in becoming more self-aware) and then sharing them with our partners when we're ready — can really help with the communication around any big spending clashes when we first blend up our bank accounts.
But it sounds like you have already been doing a good job at identifying some childhood and past experiences. I challenge you to shift your perspective when thinking about your previous relationship with someone who struggled with addiction: What if you considered this a moment of resilience for you? You recognised toxic behaviour that didn’t serve you and you ended that situationship — I'm sure that was not easy. Anxiety can often carry over into our future partnerships, but good communication and this different way of looking at things can help you feel safer and reassure you.
But beyond this history of your own, it sounds like there's something about your current situation that's still triggering some resentment and fear.
Deciding if this fear is a real red flag — or simply what you've been conditioned to be scared of — is going to guide this conversation about values for you and your partner. To puzzle that together, let’s first check in on the threat relating to addiction. I hear you saying that you're not actively concerned about alcohol abuse with this particular partner, but please do seek professional help if you think you need it (Al-Anon is a wonderful resource, and also supports loved ones of those navigating addiction). Additionally, I will note, even if you're partner isn't technically overdoing it with drinking, it's important to ask: do you find yourself feeling that they are choosing a mood-altering substance over you? Do you feel like they respect your emotions and boundaries, and listen to your needs? Does their behavior change when they drink? If so, how is it impacting you? Do you feel like they are less reachable? Try journaling about these questions if you're not sure.
If you find there's an emotional block between you two relating to alcohol — and this is about more than the money — it's worth more reflection having a deeper discussion. Again, I'm not suggesting in any way that I think your partner has a problem with alcohol, but it's worth talking through how the drinking is impacting your relationship, and noticing how they respond to your needs. As you have this talk, try to be curious, even in moments of discomfort, and do your best to use "I" statements so your partner doesn't feel blamed or shamed.
If upon all this reflection, you find the root of your issue really is just about differing financial values (not about how alcohol is affecting your relationship), I'll say this: There are times in a relationship when no one has done anything wrong, and yet one person is feeling hurt, resentful, or lonely. Those feelings are completely valid, even though we are not going to blame our partners for them. One of the trickiest parts of our continued personal responsibility in any relationship is taking the time to be introspective while questioning what showing up fully means to us. In these sorts of dilemmas when no one has technically done anything wrong, it can help to navigate your differences by asking: How do I want us both to show up in this relationship? And how can we bring our values together to make something beautiful?
One more practical way you can do just that is called the "splitting the check" method. I tapped the brilliant brain behind Refinery29's “Taking Stock” column, Paco de Leon — the author and illustrator of Finance for the People — to explain this financial philosophy. "Splitting the check involves collectively splitting your paycheques into three broad categories of expenses," she explains. "There’s your "bills and life" category, for all the essential spending, like the rent or mortgage, food at home, insurance, and debt payments. Then there’s the "future and goals" category, which encompasses saving and investing money for your future selves; from emergency funds to retirement and everything in between. And the last category is the "fun and B.S." category, for all the non-essential things that make life feel like life."
To implement this method, create one specific account for your "bills and life" money. Then, make two "fun" accounts — one for each person to control themselves. (Your "future and goals" money is likely going into various savings and investment accounts automatically.) "There is a bit of upfront calculating to understand how you’ll be splitting up your cheque," de Leon says. "Of course, there are some general guidelines too, like the 50/30/20 rule, where 50% of income goes towards essentials (bills and life), 30% towards non-essentials (fun), and 20% towards saving for the future."
"After you have your new accounts set up and you know your calculations, every time you’re paid, you simply split the check into your various checking accounts," de Loen adds. (You can do most of this through automated payments).
This system isn’t for every couple and it isn’t foolproof, but it does give people a sense of autonomy in their personal spending and may help decrease your anxiety in this case if just seeing the receipts is an issue. Also, if part of the resentment you mentioned is coming from the fact that you feel he’s being frivolous with shared fun money — thus forcing you to be even more frugal in areas you’d like to spend on — this nips that in the bud.
And with that, we're back to a major root within your question: Resentment.
Resentment often builds when we are not communicating — and any avoidance or "hoping things will get better on their own" pretty much always makes things worse. As you find ways to express what you're feeling, I recommend the following cycle: introspection (especially on issues mentioned above such as family history with money), talking as a couple, and then coming back to reflect on your own again. As you do the latter check to see if you are feeling more deeply understood and your body can feel more secure. Repeat as needed.
In fact, it can help to schedule regular check-ins to talk with your partner about any values-difference you may have that are causing strife — in this case, it could be talking about budgets, both of your past-driven emotions about spending, and how you can dissipate your resentment.
These conversations will likely involve setting boundaries. The thing about boundaries is, they are typically less focused on how others will behave and more sharing clearly on how we will. So a boundary here could be, if we continue to follow our "split the check" plan, I will commit to working on my anxiety as we adjust and keep talking to you about how I'm feeling about our finances and specifically your alcohol spending. It also could look like him starting a conversation with you before he enters a situation where he might naturally spend more on drinks, such as a wedding or vacation.
Starting these conversations with your partner could sound like “I have been thinking more about my discomfort about our spending. Can we keep talking about it, as we are adjusting to this new life together?” or “I noticed some feelings of resentment are distracting me when we are on dates, and all I want is to be present with you. Is now a good time to share more about what I realised is coming up for me?”
By initiating and having these talks continually, hopefully, you'll get to a place where you're feeling gradually less and less bothered by this values difference in your relationship because you are both being heard and understood.
So, go forth, be honest, and mix it up!
Please note that this information is general in nature and shouldn't be construed as financial advice.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specialises in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.