“What About Presents?”: How My Relationship Changed When We Merged Finances

When my boyfriend and I first rented a house together in July 2007, it quickly became obvious that we had different attitudes to managing money. Our energy bills arrived quarterly and we paid them by cheque, which already sounds hilariously quaint. I liked to write cheques the same day the bill arrived; he couldn’t see the point of paying anything until the third or fourth bill arrived with warnings printed on the envelope in an aggressive red font.

After several months of cheque wrangling, we decided to set up a joint bank account for our shared expenses while keeping our separate personal accounts. We would each transfer an equal amount into the shared account, and our bills would be paid monthly by direct debit. Our responsibilities would be taken care of, but we would each have our own disposable income. This seemed like a sensible interim measure as we weren’t yet ready to merge all of our finances.

We stuck with that arrangement for seven years. It wasn’t a perfect system. The joint account was a very basic one with no overdraft facility, so we had to monitor the balance closely. If one of us forgot to transfer funds into the joint account, or if a bank holiday prevented the transfer from clearing in time, we might miss a bill payment and get hit with a charge for insufficient funds. (This happened at least once.)

We also kept a running tally of things we paid for individually and made increasingly complex arrangements to pay each other back for shared costs. If we went away for a weekend, one of us would pay for travel while the other paid for accommodation; then we would work out the difference between the two amounts, and whoever paid less would refund the other with half the difference. It was a scrupulously fair system, but it did not exactly add to the excitement of planning the trip.

Over the years, more of our everyday expenses began to seem like things we should share. In the early days of our relationship, I would not have expected him to chip in for my friend’s wedding present, even if we were both attending the wedding. A few years in, all friends were now pretty much considered to be our friends, and items such as wedding presents were factored in to our increasing number of IOUs.

We first started to discuss merging all of our accounts in 2014, as we were planning to move into a new rented flat. We needed to budget for storage costs, a deposit on the new place, a night in a hotel while we waited to pick up the keys, some new bits of furniture, eating out when all of our kitchenware was packed away, and gifts for our parents who had generously agreed to help us move. These were indisputably shared expenses, and we didn’t relish the prospect of keeping track of our individual spending during the stress of the move. I was also due to start a new job and we would be paying rent to a new letting agent, so we needed to make a decision before we started filling in a lot of new paperwork with our bank details.

Around June 2014 we took the plunge and closed our personal accounts, merging everything into our existing shared account. Here is what’s different under the new regime:

We seem to have more money now. This is partly for obvious reasons. We both used to have a bit of money left over at the end of each month, and now those leftover amounts are combined. Also, the new job I started just after the move pays a little more than my previous job.

However, my theory is that we each feel more accountable for our non-essential spending. I wasn’t shopping like a Kardashian before, but I could justify occasional overspending on clothes with a slightly defensive “It’s my money!” and the knowledge that my boyfriend would never actually know how much I spent. These days, I think twice about spending money on impulse buys. I am also reluctant to add to the amount of clutter in our lovely but very small flat.

Presents got complicated. One of our first discussions about combining our bank accounts was “What about presents?” It turned out that we were talking about two separate things here: I was wondering how we would keep gifts for each other a surprise, since the amount and retailer would show up on our shared statement unless we paid cash. He meant it in a more philosophical sense, i.e., “Is it really a present when half of the money I’m spending on it is yours?”

How we get around this is basically by telling each other not to check online banking too closely in the run-up to our birthdays. At Christmas, there were so many payments going out for various presents that neither of us could have worked out which one was our gift anyway. On the philosophical side, we have simply had to let go of the idea of my money and your money. It’s all our money now.

We think and act more like a financial unit. Day to day, everything runs a lot more smoothly. It’s no longer relevant who is getting their wallet out, or who has forgotten to bring any cash, since all the money is coming from the same place. It took us a while to get used to this new state of affairs; for the first few weeks, we queued up at adjacent cash machines to withdraw money from the same account with different cards, just through force of habit. The sense of financial one-ness probably would have happened a lot sooner if we were married or had children, but we don’t plan on doing either of those things.

However, we would like to buy a house together before too long, and merging our accounts means we both feel more prepared for our shared future, even if it’s taken us a while to get here.

The only advice I would give other couples about managing money together is to find an arrangement that works for you both, and don’t listen to anybody else. When my boyfriend and I had separate accounts, some people questioned our commitment or rolled their eyes at our complicated payback system. More recently, others have disputed the wisdom of combining everything we have (although we do have separate ISAs, as you can’t put those in joint names). After nearly nine years together, we know what works for us, and we worked it out in our own time. It’s our money. Not yours.

 

This story is part of our relationships month series.

Rachel Davies is a librarian in the north of England. She is no longer allowed to buy books.

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