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. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader who was struggling as she merged finances with her partner. This week, we heard from three Refinery29 readers with three different approaches to tackling the financials in their partnerships.
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Janie Frank, 27, Chattanooga, TN
For a long time, for Janie Frank, home sounded like the slice of scissors on coupon paper. "Growing up, money was tight, but my mom was this amazing couponer, and I don't know how she figured it all out, but we almost always had food and we were okay." Frank's parents were always transparent with her about their financial situation, and they wanted her to learn the value of a dollar.
And it's paid off, especially since she's the main money manager within her polyamorous throuple. It wasn't always that way, though. Janie met her partners Cody Coppola and Maggie Odell in 2013. Coppola and Odell were already together at that time, and Frank first assumed her relationship with them would be casual and fleeting. It wasn't. "Things didn't get serious super quickly, but we felt like a trio from the start," she remembers. In time, she was meeting Coppola's and Odell's families and spending nearly every night at their place.
The first time money really came into play was when Coppola and Odell decided to buy a king-sized bed to accommodate all of three them, and Frank offered to chip in. She says: "I remember offering to pay some of the rent because I was always there constantly, but they never took me up on that." That is, until they all decided to move in together in 2019.
After the move-in, the three kept their finances separate and evenly split the rent, utilities, groceries, and necessities like toilet paper. There were some exceptions. Sometimes one person would treat the others to coffee. And, at that time, Frank made less money than the others, so if she couldn't afford something she needed or really wanted, her partners often offered to cover her.
But, later, when they all decided to move to a new state, Tennessee, and buy a house, things changed a bit. They'd need to take on a mortgage together. Frank was soon appointed the official money manager of the three, as it came most naturally to her and she had knowledge learned over the years, including from her coupon-genie of a mom. The throuple figured out that they could buy a house together by forming a Limited Liability Company (LLC). "It was a workaround because there wasn't really an easy way for the three of us to go in on a house together and get loans," Frank says. "Maggie and Cody are legally married but I don't have a legal bind to them, except that I share a car registration with Maggie. It was difficult to make that LLC happen. It was frustrating, but not the end of the world… Still, it would be nice if the law would catch up and we didn't need workarounds."
As they renovated their new place, all the bills and paperwork were in Frank's name, and she'd Venmo request Odell and Coppola for their shares. As these financial changes happened, their incomes also shifted. Frank, who once made the least of the three, now was the top earner, she says.
Navigating all these shifts took constant communication — especially because the three had different spending habits. Although they all had separate bank accounts — and thus separate pots of fun money — there were times money still caused tension. At one point, Odell and Frank did couples therapy. "We have different communication styles so we learned how each of us prefers to be communicated with, which was helpful, especially about things like money," Frank says. "I was always hesitant to bring up serious issues until it all came out at once and that could get very messy. But talking about it helped us get to the point where that didn't happen."
But the number one thing that helped the trio financially was scheduling regular family meetings on Sunday mornings to talk about important issues such as money. "We have breakfast every Sunday to discuss not just finances but what we have to do with the house, any shared debt, and what needs to be done," Frank says.
These meals were places to air grievances and tackle the hard stuff, including the financial and emotional tolls on their relationship. For example, while dealing with the move and renovation, Frank presented a PowerPoint slideshow over pancakes to show Odell and Coppola where they were at with their budgeting (they were over). The presentation was complete with charts and an artfully crafted game plan that would have made Frank's coupon-clipping mom beam with pride.
The family meetings have also helped as their financial situation has evolved. "We started a discussion of maybe changing our even, one-third split of rent to each paying a percentage of mortgage based on our income we’re making right now," Frank says. She says it doesn't feel "exactly fair" that one person is paying the same amount as someone who makes more money. "We haven’t made that change yet, but our family meeting was a great place to start that conversation," Frank adds.
Frank has learned a lot from managing money with multiple partners, but the biggest nugget of advice she'd pass on is this: "Just be open and honest. Acknowledge what could cause problems later down the road, whatever your financial situation, because things can change. However you decide to split things doesn't matter as long as you’re communicating and making sure that everyone is equally comfortable with what you’ve decided on."
All these logistics may sound complicated, but they make for a happy life. Now, for Frank, home sounds like laughter and coffee cups clinking over breakfast.
Ashley Morris, CFP, 31, Moseley, VA
Ashley Morris and her wife, Mary-Kate Morris, have figured out a system for merging finances that works for them, through trial and error over the seven years they've been together. Although in the very early stages, money talks would be about who'd pay for dinner or a trip, the conversations quickly became deeper.
"We came to the relationship with very different money scripts, and we spent a lot of time working on that," she says. "The first 10 years of my life, I was raised by a single mom, and we had no money really whatsoever. Then my mom got married and I was lucky enough to learn about money fundamentals from my [adoptive] dad who later taught me all about Roth IRAs and compound interest. That opened my eyes to the true nerd in me, and I took that interest and ran with it… Mary-Kate’s ideas were different from mine and informed by how her parents’ relationship was negatively influenced by money.
"As we discussed all this, we were always setting the stage that this was a 'no shame, no blame' environment," she adds. This was important because the couple also had an income disparity — one person made more than the other. This openness helped the couple as they got more serious. And yes, Morris admits that her money-management background helped guide these conversations — she's a certified financial planner for a financial services company.
Soon, Morris and Mary-Kate decided to move in together and began to talk more about how they'd split groceries, utilities, and such. They did a percentage approach at first. "So hypothetically with easy numbers, if I made $70K a year and she made $30K, I'd pay 70% and she'd pay 30%," Morris says. Those percentages shifted slightly over time — if one person was feeling more financial stress at a certain point, for instance. They used Venmo to help with the splits and would check in regularly to see what was working.
Before they moved in together, both Morris and her partner owned houses, and although Mary-Kate moved into Morris's home, she kept her own place and rented it out. "While we had plans to continue growing our life together, we were also smart enough to say, 'Hey, if this doesn’t work, we want to make sure you have a backup plan,'" Morris says. "That was an approach I learned from a client — to have those conversations early in the relationship and often, you can really dispel some of those fears right from the start and make sure you're going in with crystal clear expectations and a plan for what to do if something happens." As for bringing up a talk like that, Morris recommends trying to keep it "light and fun." "Finances can be heavy or anxiety-causing, so, for us, we'd go on date night," she says. "We'd have maybe a beverage or two, and we'd say: 'Alright, we know we love each other, we know we want to get married, but let's say worst case scenario — what do we want to do?'" They both ultimately felt better after talking it through. "We've both seen a lot of divorces and don’t have very many successful marriages to look up to, so I think we were willing to have some of those conversations up front to make sure we were on the same page," Morris adds.
It wasn't until the pair got married that they began to really merge their finances though, including opening accounts together. "Then it was like, 'Alright we spend in similar ways, we're both savers at heart, we have the same goals,'" she says. Mary-Kate sold her house and they completely combined their financial assets, though Morris notes she doesn't recommend that for every couple — it was just what worked for them.
Morris says, if you're going to combine assets and accounts with a partner, it's a good idea to set a standard upfront for the type of expenses you want to check in with each other about before swiping a credit card. Morris and Mary-Kate decided that they'd check with each other for purchases over $100 that weren't typical bills for groceries, rent, or utilities. "We all have our vices, my wife used to be a purse girl, and that's the kind of thing she'd check in with me on," Morris says. But everyone will have their own threshold. This one worked for them, as they were both saving to have a child. Today, their baby is four months old.
Of course, kids change everything, and they talked through the changes in their finances as they planned to welcome their little bundle of bliss. "For anyone having a kid, it's important to think ahead about what kind of support you want to give," she says. "You, of course, would like to put food on their plates and clothes on their backs, but there are other considerations." Do you want to save for private school? Pay for their college? Buy them a car? "Having those conversations with each other first is smart, and then starting a separate checking account or savings account," shes says. "Get clear on what you want to contribute as a couple. Think about if you can use HSA funds to fund any medical expenses as it relates to delivery. There's just a lot to consider, so communication is key."
Based on her experiences, Morris recommends regular check-ins on money management for the couples she works with, including about money scripts and values — honest talks, similar to the kind Morris and Mary-Kate had at the beginning of their relationship. Today, because the couple is more settled into a routine, they have about one big financial goal-prioritization conversation a year. Having the deep communication upfront paid off for them in the long run.
Lisamarie Monaco, 50, Blackshear, GA
Lisamarie Monaco's family never talked to her about money growing up. In fact, the first time she remembers learning about savings accounts was in a high school finance class she took while finishing out her senior year, already a mother to her firstborn at the time.
"As a single mom, I was working and living with my mom," she remembers. "It was hard. I really wasn't putting any money away, but it was the '90s so things were cheaper, and that made things a little bit easier. I think of that period as one that really helped me grow as a person."
In her 20s, Monaco remarried and had three more kids. The couple did their best to save while raising their brood. But after 20 years together, they divorced. "Divorces are pricey," she says. "We filed for bankruptcy and I carried debt from that divorce."
Later, when she began dating her current husband, Monaco found it difficult to bring up this debt. "Divorces are crazy and stressful on every level, and letting him know that I was coming into this new relationship with all this money baggage and this debt was hard," she says. "I didn't want him to feel like he had to fix it. It was difficult to present it, because I felt like a failure. I obviously didn't plan very well and didn't save enough."
But when she told him and everything was out in the open, she felt relief. In fact, the talk helped the couple establish trust in their relationship. "He was kind and very supportive," she remembers. "He'd been there, he got divorced too. It just took a weight off my shoulders, and he gave me the advice to write down all my bills on a piece of paper, figure out the biggest one, and then just start chipping away at it, and then go down the line." The tactic worked; she paid off her divorce debt on her own.
When she later married her current partner, the pair never merged accounts or credit cards. Instead, they created a computerized spreadsheet, where they log all their individual expenses each month.
"We keep track of all of our spending on credit cards there," Monaco says. "Anything personal, I keep track of, whether it's my hair and nails or the dog groomer. We also put bills and stuff in there, and update it all at the end of every month or every two weeks if we can… We have a totally separate page on the spreadsheet for our business we share." Periodically, they review the doc and note what they each spent the most on, or if there's anything they could save on. It serves as a way to be transparent and communicative, even though they have separate accounts.
The way they divvy up expenses is more laissez-faire than some, but it seems to work for them. "When we go to the grocery store, it’s not one of us who pays all the time," she says. "It's just whoever feels like paying for it. Same when we go out to dinner. We take turns treating things like that. We keep it kind of 'in the moment.'" This system works well because they're both easygoing and have similar lifestyles and spending habits. "Sometimes he'll fight me to pay for dinner because he wants the credit card points, and the waiters will usually laugh at us because they think we're crazy," she laughs. "But generally this works well, and we've never felt a need to combine our finances."
As for regular expenses, her husband will take care of the mortgage and Monaco will pay off the utilities. "I got the better end of the deal with that one," she says with a chuckle.
The couple talks about money and finances regularly and is "very into" keeping their individual credit scores high.
Over the years, Monaco's educated herself on money, and she and her husband are passing that knowledge down to their kids. "I didn't always, but now I believe in 'a 10% account,' where 10% of all the money that comes through your door, whether that’s your paycheck or birthday money, you don't touch it," she says. "Then when a rainy day comes — and they do come — you have an emergency fund. For 20 years, I never did that. I didn't have a family member say: 'Have a little money on the side, don't live paycheck to paycheck.' But my kids do… and they are excellent savers." It's been a difficult road at times, but now Monaco says she and her husband are extremely proud of where they are financially, and how their kids are learning from their transparency. "My 23-year-old son just bought his own car on his own," she says. "It's so exciting for us to watch them grow and pass this stuff on."
As told to Molly Longman.