How Couples Do Money
Seven conversations about love, trust, and splitting the check.
The Couple Whose Band Might Blow Up
Samantha Lepre and Branden Wilbarger
Ages: 25, 28
Jobs: Waitress and Waiter/musician
Incomes*: $26,000 and $55,000
Home: Los Angeles
Together: 4 years
Samantha: When we first dated, in Toledo, it was cheaper. We would go on dates a lot, and he would pay. But now that we’ve moved to L.A., and it’s kind of pricey, and we’re budgeting, it’s just easier if we do everything 50-50. I think that started with the first meal, seriously. But my reaction was like—I understood it.
Branden: She understands that I have a lot more bills, and that I’m investing in something that is risky as hell. The band is called Bonavega. I never want to turn down a music opportunity. It’s like I need to put all of my eggs in that basket right now, because in another five years it’s going to be a lot, lot harder. I’ve got this span of time where I just have to f---ing laser focus. I’m in the right spot, where if you hit the jackpot, you can really, really go far.
Samantha: He has a new video coming out that’s super high-quality, and it’s going to blow the other ones away.
Branden: She’s overly honest. Imagewise, I almost always take her advice, because she knows what she’s talking about. She’s supportive, and I like letting her take the reins in some things, because I’m in a relationship with her and I need her support. So I totally let her run with ideas. She actually lent me money at first.
Samantha: I definitely feel like I’m invested in Bonavega in some way. I would feel—I would want to kill him if he made it big and then we didn’t date anymore, because I basically am the mastermind behind it all. So it would be an issue.
Branden: Oh, yeah.
Samantha: You know? For sure.
Branden: Well, look. Yeah, yeah, 100 percent.
*All income figures are approximate.
The Couple Who (Surprise!) Discovered Some Debt
Veronica and Leticia Macias
Ages: 34, 32
Jobs: Gerontologist and Construction estimator
Incomes: $47,000 and $65,500
Home: Los Angeles
Together: 9 years
Leticia: We got married within nine months of meeting.
Veronica: I believe it was May 15, 2008, that they made gay marriage legal in California. Every day there were news reports and speculation about what the courts would do—you know, perhaps this is the only chance for couples who want to get married to get married. So we did. But we’re still getting to know each other. We like to joke that we had a very traditional marriage. We didn’t live together until literally the weekend after we got married.
Leticia: This is where it gets kind of interesting. I was horrible when it comes to money. If I had any money in my pocket, I just needed to spend it.
Veronica: What I learned that I wasn’t aware of before was that she had a lot of debt from a previous relationship.
Leticia: This other woman was very, very materialistic. She liked expensive shoes. She liked expensive bags. She liked expensive makeup, and I bought it, and I bought it, and I bought it, because I was young and dumb and in love. Veronica is the opposite. She’s not materialistic. She likes things that matter.
Veronica: Her debt was a substantial amount, like $7,000. I wasn’t upset. I was more worried than upset.
Leticia: I just felt embarrassed. But I knew I was going to pay it off. I made that my hobby. I was infatuated. Every single day, I would check my score. Every two months, I called my credit card companies to get an increased credit line, because that helps your debt-to-income ratio. I opened up a new credit card of my own. I got a car on my own. It got to the point that my credit score was much higher than Veronica’s.
Veronica: Once we built her credit, we went to a first-time homebuyers’ workshop. Leticia started talking to real estate agents. And there was a house that was in our price range and had a yard and was in our neighborhood. So we just went for it. Buying the house together, it felt like an accomplishment, because I honestly for a while didn’t think we would ever do it. It seemed like something that was unattainable.
The Couple Making $10 an Hour at Walmart
Renée and Matt Fixel
Ages: 25, 28
Jobs: Walmart checkout host and Walmart cart pusher
Incomes: $12,000 each
Home: Chandler, Ariz.
Together: 5 years
Renée: I had to stop going to school to work. That’s when our finances became very hard. And after we both quit our jobs to work at Walmart, it was even harder. We make $10 an hour. And with student loans, it’s just not enough pay to survive on. We don’t have kids right now.
Matt: We can’t afford it, not in this economy. But a lot of the women Renée knows from high school, they’ve all got the belly to show, “Hey, I’ve got kid No. 1 or kid No. 5 on the way.”
Renée: We only have animals, and it’s hard enough to afford them. We just had a vet emergency. Both of our cats got sick, and it was a huge dent in our pay—$200 for both. It’s pretty nerve-wracking to talk about how much we’d be willing to spend, you know? They’re our children.
Matt: When we go to the mall, there will be something I know she wants. And 9 times out of 10, I would prefer her to say, “Ooh, I want to get this for me. I’m going to go get it real quick.” But she’s like, “Nah, I don’t know if I need it.” She feels like she would be upsetting somebody. Most of the time, if there’s something that I know Renée wants, I’ll go get it. To make her happy is mainly the only thing.
Renée: I get a little frustrated at him. Sometimes I get a little bit surprised that he did that when I told him, “Not right now.” I’ve got anxiety over money. I do.
Matt: I do want to go back to school or get a second job. But what it does to you to work that much, I’m afraid I’d be gone all day. My wife would not see me. By the time I got home, it would be too late at night. I’d be way too tired. Not being able to come home, sit down, and say, “Hey, how was your day?” and all that?
The Couple Who Give 20 Percent to Charity
Ari Weisbard and Rebecca Ennen
Ages: 35, 34
Jobs: Legislative director and Grass-roots fundraiser
Incomes: $72,000 and $70,000
Home: Washington, D.C.
Together: 7 years
Rebecca: I was really broke when I moved to D.C., and I knew I was going to need to go into debt until I found a job. Ari very generously offered me a loan of a couple thousand dollars. That made me nervous—we’d only been together for eight or nine months.
Ari: Which was long-distance.
Rebecca: So I moved here to be with him, was broke, and was accepting this big loan. But you were like, “I’d rather you owe me the money than owe the credit card company.” I was really impressed by that but also scared, because it was like, “What if we break up?” It definitely felt fraught. But I did accept the loan.
Ari: I mean, I loved Rebecca, and I just really hate credit card companies.
Rebecca: We had totally different relationships to money. Ari had been saving for retirement since he was, like, 17. He had this whole system of personal finance, and I had: Money comes in, money goes out. I think I felt embarrassed that Ari was this unbelievably responsible person. But balancing that out, I was already thinking a lot about tzedakah. I wanted to be a person who gave away a lot of money.
Ari: We both feel like we come from privileged backgrounds. And there’s a duty not to just coast on that and to spend a lot of time and energy in careers fighting for economic equality for everyone.
Rebecca: For the last couple of years, we’ve been giving 20 percent of our income away.
Ari: You can’t really disown your socioeconomic privilege in terms of having gone to a school that’s going to help you get a job. But when you have money in an account, you can quite literally give it away. For us, the real tension is basically between how much to save vs. how much to give away.
Rebecca: That’s a thing in our relationship that we’ve really connected over, actually, is puzzling through this stuff together.
Ari: Somehow our financial conversations, we feel romantic and connected at the end of them, I think because it’s a way of talking about values.
Rebecca: It’s never just about—money is just a cipher for everything else.
The Couple With a Huge Income Role Reversal
Nozlee Samadzadeh and Jarrett Moran
Ages: Both 28
Jobs: Software developer and Graduate student
Incomes: $110,000 and $25,000
Home: New York
Together: 7½ years
Nozlee: At Yale, I always had campus jobs, and you never had campus jobs, in the way that that’s one of the few things as an undergrad that sets some people apart. You had an iPhone when a relative minority of people had iPhones.
Jarrett: At that point, money would have been an uncomfortable thing for me to talk about. It would have been an uncomfortable subject to raise.
Nozlee: I remember once I was really excited about going to this new restaurant. I knew exactly what I was going to order and had saved up my personal money. But it was right before they were ready to close for weeks, and they didn’t have several of the things that I had wanted to get. I was devastated. I remember we had this conversation: OK, we’re still going to eat here—and Jarrett is going to pay for it. It was weird, because the way it was being paid was that your parents were paying your credit card bill. So the meal was going to happen, but it went from this kind of earned pleasure to a different kind of treat.
Jarrett: I didn’t think about it that way. But now that you describe it, I do.
Nozlee: I cried.
Jarrett: The financial system that we were evolving then is kind of the ancestor of the system that we have now, which is that we don’t keep track of how much each person is spending. It’s a much more ad hoc arrangement about how our expenses get split, depending on our individual financial situations. It’s moved back and forth a lot.
Nozlee: We were both in relatively shitty jobs making $36,000 a year for a while. I didn’t have a job for about six months, and Jarrett took all the expenses besides rent. That was a weird time. And now Jarrett is a graduate student and makes $25,000 a year, and I’m a programmer and make $110,000 a year, and I pay for most things.
The Couple Who Make the Yukon Look Easy
Marko and Meghan Marjanovic
Ages: 32, 33
Jobs*: Software developer and Biologist (*For now—they’re starting a brewery)
Combined income: $130,000
Home: Whitehorse, Yukon
Together: 16 years
Marko: We traveled in Australia and New Zealand for four months and then decided to move to the Yukon and look for work. We were both unemployed—just moved for lifestyle.
Meghan: I found a job pretty quick with a First Nation, and Marko basically had the summer off.
Marko: I just didn’t want to work until after we got married. I took a summer off to fish. We had free rent—a cabin, no utilities. Eventually I worked for a software company in town, and then we got permitted for the brewery about two years ago. We’re passionate about craft beer. Hiking and beer are our two favorite things in the world.
Meghan: There was only one brewery in the Yukon.
Marko: Yukon’s great for entrepreneurship. When [we] first started, it was just us, and then we grew. Now we’re trying to open the tasting room, the first one in the territory.
Meghan: The brewery pays its own bills.
Marko: We never think twice about who pays what. We just, I dunno, whoever pays the bill pays the bill, and whoever buys something buys something, but we never consult. I don’t even know how much money Meghan has in her bank account. She never knows how much is in mine. I don’t know why we’ve never combined bank accounts.
The Couple Who Hope This Isn’t a Metaphor
John Feliciano and Sol Gonzalez-Feliciano
Ages: 31, 32
Jobs: Teacher/tutor and Artist/stay-at-home mother
Incomes: $55,000 and $0
Together: 3½ years
John: I just paid all my credit cards today, all my bills, and we have like $125 left for the month. So if I don’t go out and tutor or she doesn’t sell a painting, we have $125 left for gas and food. And so here comes out the credit card. It goes back to that cycle. It’s sad, because I want her to not have to worry about anything. I want to give her everything she wants and everything that she needs to be a successful artist and feel like she has the tools to work and to be happy. But the debt feeds into more debt, and it’s hard to save. This is stuff that I don’t tell her, you know? It’s like I’m here telling her now. It’s like a confession.
Sol: Well, I think we’re starting again, hopefully. There was such a long time of me not being able to work—the visa process and not having the permit, plus the pregnancy. I have all my faith that I can start making money now.
John: You save us so much money by just raising our daughter. If you were to go back to work, your whole check would probably go to paying some nanny, which is preposterous.
Sol: In New York, I was staying at home, but I wasn’t happy. We were fighting a lot; it wasn’t the place I needed to be. And now I’m happy staying at home, because our home is an awesome place to be. In Charlotte we pay half of what we were paying in rent in Queens. We love playing outside. I’m feeling great. I’m starting to paint. It’s like we made it. We are superhappy.
John: I don’t tell her much frankly about the financial stresses. I kind of bottle it up and move things around, and I make it work somehow. I haven’t come apart at the seams yet, so—actually, I say that as my shirt just ripped.
Sol: No way.
John: Literally, I just ripped it. Hopefully this isn’t a metaphor.
Plus: How Throuples Do Money
Not every relationship involves only two people. Diana Adams runs a law firm in New York that specializes in legal and financial planning for nontraditional families, including three-person “throuples,” or “triad” relationships.
Businessweek: This field seems pretty specialized. How new is it?
Adams: Very. We saw a need—particularly in the community of people who are polyamorous and people who are doing platonic co-parenting, such as a gay male couple co-parenting with a single female friend. They’ve been around since the 1970s, but in the last 10 years we’ve seen their numbers skyrocket.
BW: What’s one of the more common triad configurations?
A: A male-female married couple who decide to bring a third person into their relationship. Maybe they have a mutual boyfriend or girlfriend. There’s also a “V” triad. [Person A is involved with Person B and Person C, but B and C aren’t involved with each other.]
BW: When a throuple comes to you, what are the most pressing financial issues?
A: If that primary original couple was married, they will already have many legal privileges. We talk about how the new partner may not have access to health insurance or immigration benefits, tax benefits. Some people are interested in the creation of an LLC to create the relationship under a corporate structure that would allow people to share property. Sometimes that original couple will decide to get a divorce so that they won’t have that privileged status over the third person.
BW: What about divorce? For example, if three parties own a house in equal shares, can two partners force a sale?
A: That issue definitely does come up. We try to create an agreement in the very beginning so that we won’t have a forced sale. Especially with a three-person dynamic, it can end up in massive litigation because the courts don’t know what to do with it. The legal system tends to be about 20 years behind.
Interviews have been edited and compressed for space.