My fiancé Jay* and I are pretty much polar opposites. I’m a writer, he’s a City boy. I like to proclaim I’ll never settle down anywhere but north London and he says the same about the east. His idea of a decent TV binge is Pawn Stars on loop while I’m more swayed by Say Yes to the Dress. Although these haven’t caused any major disagreements (two tellies will save your relationship in winter, fact), there is one area that could prove problematic: finances.
I can be a good saver when the situation arises but it’s fair to say that I subscribe entirely to the 'live now, regret later' mantra. Last year I went on holiday several times, including Ibiza – twice – during peak season, and when I wasn’t sunbathing at luxury European beach clubs, I spent my remaining time (and funds) on festivals and overpriced dinners in Mayfair. I will admit that this reckless approach to spending has meant having to eke out my last coins until an invoice is paid, digging into my savings account and questioning if McCoy’s Thai Sweet Chicken crisps count as a food group.
Jay, on the other hand, appears to have bypassed completely the always-skint-in-your-20s phase; next year, at the age of 31, he’s planning to buy a second house and seems to have been a 'proper' adult forever. Jay will never understand why I wince every time I check my account – he has a dedicated Excel spreadsheet for his mortgage, bills, subscriptions and other outgoings, and a weekend spending fund so he won’t ever be caught short.
So far, the only time we tend to disagree about money is when Jay can’t understand why I need a new dress for every occasion. But when he proposed after flying me to Havana just before Christmas, I started to wonder how our relationship will fare in the next stage of our lives, given our wildly different attitudes to spending. I couldn’t shake the niggling feeling that it might create arguments down the line, particularly as I’m going to be moving in with him in the next few months.
Peter Saddington, a counsellor and therapist at Relate, says that finances are one of the biggest reasons couples come to see him. It’s common that one person in a relationship is a spender and the other is a saver. "Not everyone is going to get together with someone with the same attitude to money," he says. However, this then creates the potential for disagreements. It could get to a point where you’re so preoccupied by money issues that the strong feelings you have for each other evaporate. It may start to feel like continuous rejection; you might even begin to doubt whether your partner loves you because they’re not seeing the issue like you are.
Saddington says it is possible to have a healthy relationship where one person is a saver and one is a spender; it’s all about how you manage things as a couple and communicate your attitudes towards money. Yet like the quarter of couples who, according to a survey by M&S Bank, feel uncomfortable discussing their finances, I’ve always viewed talking about money the same way I view arguing over whose turn it is to take the bins out: it sucks all the sexiness out of a relationship. Deep down, though, I think my concern stems more from the fact that I am so used to having my own, separate finances. Now that I'm getting married, am I going to have to answer to someone else about how I spend my coin?
As Jay earns a lot more than I do, my biggest worry is how our relationship will continue to be one of equals if we go 50-50 on everything. At the same time, I don’t want him to always pick up the bill in case he starts to feel like he's carrying all the financial responsibility, nor do I want to feel like a freeloader, particularly as he’s very generous and treats me regularly to holidays, clothes and other gifts. Luckily, he's very understanding and so when the conversation drifted into how we're going to pay for the wedding, we came to an arrangement that we’ll contribute to expenses based on a percentage of our respective salaries. It made me wonder why I’d waited so long to have the discussion and why I automatically assumed that he’d want to go 50-50. Getting it all out in the open was so much easier than worrying about it.
I’m aware that Jay and I are in a fortunate position, having reached an arrangement that works for both of us. But how can you go about repairing a relationship where resentment has started to build because of money? Amy*, 25, from Manchester, found herself in this exact situation: "My fiancé and I currently earn pretty much the same but I’m extremely frugal with my money and committed to savings goals. Previously, we did argue a lot about savings – I think this was because the daunting task of saving for a house deposit was made worse for me as I thought I was the only one working to make this happen."
In a situation like this, Saddington suggests having a household pot for rent, bills and so on, to which you each contribute an agreed amount, and an entirely separate pot of money that’s your own. That way, housekeeping and bills are sorted and you get to decide how to spend or save the rest of your money on your own terms.
Amy and her fiancé now make it work by being transparent about their spending. "We confirm how much we each save a month and have regular check-ins through the month where we discuss how much we have left of our budget and what we need to take into account over the next few weeks." Most importantly, Amy says, they no longer shame each other if they’ve splurged on something unnecessary that month. "I have a fondness for designer bags and he likes nice clothes and games but it’s doable because we know that we are still saving an amount that fits in with our goals."
Most importantly now we don't shame each other if we've splurged on something unnecessary.
Saddington says it’s crucial to have a relationship of equals because if a situation like Amy’s goes unresolved, it can lead to a power imbalance in the relationship and even turn into a parent/child dynamic. After all, nobody wants to feel like their relationship resembles a schoolteacher sending out reminders to parents to cough up the deposit for the class trip. Saddington agrees, saying it’s not a good place to be in for either side as it can even affect sexual desire.
As for future financial goals, Jay and I have agreed to save up for a bigger place on the off chance we decide to have kids; if this happens, we're aware we’ll have only one income to rely on. But in the meantime, what happens if I want to go part-time or retrain completely, which could mean taking a temporary or even permanent pay cut? How do couples navigate decisions that could change their overall income? Saddington says the trick to approaching these conversations is to use the "I" word. "You could say, 'I think this, I want this, I think you get upset when I talk about X and Y and Z.' It doesn’t feel aggressive and the person can respond to it appropriately. It allows you to listen more to the conversation," he advises. "Most people fall into a trap where they don’t listen to what the other person says." He also recommends basing conversations and arguments on facts. You won’t be able to look at how much money goes in and out unless you have all the facts and figures, so make sure you both come armed with this information.
The timing and setting is crucial for these money conversations – and the pub isn't the place to do it.
Peter Saddington, relate
Saddington also says timing and setting is crucial for these conversations – and the pub isn’t the place to do it. "If you want to sort things out, book a time just before bedtime so you finish quickly. You need to sit down and explain the problem and what you’re struggling with. It’s worth taking turns explaining why it’s a problem, how it presents and offering solutions." If you can’t come to a resolution or you’re struggling, Saddington advises seeking outside help – for example from a counsellor or a financial expert.
I finally summon up the courage to ask the question I’ve been dreading: Can a relationship between a spendaholic and a saver ever go the distance? It’s a resounding yes from Saddington. "A relationship where you’re truly committed can survive anything unless someone withdraws. In healthy relationships, you can tolerate differences and understand you can’t be exactly the same. A relationship that works accepts difference and compromises around it."
Ultimately, I think my biggest discovery was that Jay and I have similar financial priorities. Despite having different spending habits and incomes, we’re in agreement that continuing our tradition of long-haul holidays and saving up for a bigger place is more important than splashing out on a lavish wedding. And I only realized this after having the transparent conversation I'd been avoiding. I'll still be spending on the wedding dress though – because this time, I will have a good excuse…
*Names have been changed.