You had your best-laid plans and then COVID-19 came along and hammered the entire economy. But you’ve got this – if you have the right information. Join Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw on Stress Test, a podcast guiding you through one of the biggest challenges your finances will ever face.
Rob: [00:00:04] The high cost of housing means that a lot of young Canadians are moving in together to share the cost of rent and more. But what happens when he’s a spender and she’s a saver? And what if one partner makes a lot more than the other or one has more debt? In today’s episode, we’re looking at how couples can avoid blowouts about money.
Roma: [00:00:24] Welcome to Stress Test, a Globe and Mail podcast that looks at how the rules of personal finance have changed in the pandemic for Gen Zs and millennials.
Rob:[00:00:32] I’m Rob Carrick, personal finance columnist at the Globe and Mail.
Roma: [00:00:36] And I’m Roma Luciw, the personal finance editor at The Globe. Today’s episode is all about money conflicts between couples. Money can be a huge source of conflict in a relationship. If you don’t get on the same page early on, you could have big problems. Rob, what kind of a money relationship do you and your wife have?
Rob [00:00:57] Well, our relationship is that I make pretty much all the financial decisions, but I’m in the personal finance business, so that makes perfect sense. You know, I think back to the early days of our relationship when we first moved in together and we were deciding how to pay the rent on the apartment we were renting and how to pay all our costs. And we sort of fumbled along, but we eventually found our rhythm and it worked out. And I’ll tell you what we did. I set up a checking account for us both to have our paychecks deposited in and we had all our bills come out of that. And then we each had our own savings accounts and money would come out every paycheck for us to have in our personal account. So we were basically doing the best of both worlds combined and our own accounts as well.
Roma [00:01:40] So that’s interesting. We have a similar but dissimilar setup. My husband and I have separate accounts where our paychecks get deposited. We also have a joint account, but that’s not the one that we use for our daily banking. Once our paychecks are deposited into our separate accounts, we have sort of a divide in terms of what we pay for. I don’t exactly know how we came to this situation. We never sat down and said, I’ll pay for this and you pay for this. But it sort of has emerged over the last 15, 20 years. One of us pays for the mortgage, the other person pays for daycare, child care and house related expenses. And we touch base regularly about money, not sort of in a this is the time of month it is, let’s sit down and compare accounts. We certainly see our money as joint money, but we have our own accounts and that is a system that’s managed to work for us.
Rob [00:02:35] I’ll tell you, one of the hardest adjustments that I recall for new couples is being judgy about your partner’s spending. What seems like a perfectly valid expense to one partner might seem like an irresponsible splurge to the other. One thinks a vacation should cost this much. The other thinks you should cost three times that much or you’re not having fun and it’s not worth doing. And I think couples need to get on the same page for what’s a good expense. If we’re buying a house, how much would we spend? Would we spend the maximum? Would we not? If we’re taking vacation, do we run up our limit on our credit card so we have a great time or do we live within our means? Those are key things that I recall my wife and I going through early on, and it really helps smooth things out for later on in life for sure.
Roma [00:03:19] I mean, luckily my husband and I are pretty aligned when it comes to money. We have small differences. I would say I’m more debt averse. He is more open to taking on reasonable amount of debt. Neither one of us is someone who is hesitant to splurge if it’s something that we really want. But, you know, life is short. You have to live it.
You know, ahead of this episode, I sort of tried to think about a big, huge money fight that we had. And I really I couldn’t think of one. I think one of the reasons maybe that, you know, our marriage really works this well is because we agree on how to spend our money. Neither one of us is a car person. Sorry. Rob immediately thinks less of me. Right now, neither one of us is particularly housing obsessed. We have a couple hobbies that make a dent in our spending. Obviously, our kids are crazy expensive, but most of our discretionary spending goes towards travel and we both did that before we met. It’s something that’s a priority for both of us now. We plan a big trip every year and we take the kids and that is our splurge and we love that. So that’s been something that’s actually united us over the years as opposed to divided us.
Rob [00:04:29] Yeah, I hate to tell listeners this because it’s a means a sacrifice in drama, but my wife and I are very similar. We have pretty similar views on spending and saving and debt. And the one difference is she has encouraged us to maybe dig into our savings now and again to do something really fun. And I have never once regretted it. I’ve often thought, well, it’d be better to save that money. But looking back, I’m so glad I spent it on, as Roma was saying, on great trips. We’ve done that a few times with and without our kids. And those are memories that are so worth the money.
Roma [00:05:02] Fighting about money is certainly not new, but it’s been amped up by the pandemic. This is something we’re going to tackle in today’s episode.
Rob [00:05:09] We’re going to talk to a financial planner from the New School of Finance about how people are dealing with it.
Roma [00:05:15] But first, we’re going to talk to a thirty eight year old lawyer who’s planning to move in with his girlfriend. They’ve been dating for five months and they’re starting to realize their spending habits are quite different. We’ll get into that right after the break.
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Roma [00:05:55] Andrew and his girlfriend, whose thirty four, are both lawyers, and they’re both renting a separate one bedroom apartments in downtown Toronto. They met on a dating app over the summer. They’re the epitome of a pandemic couple. And even though they’ve only been dating a few months, they’re starting to look for a place to rent together
Andrew [00:06:29] Somewhat on an expedited timeline of within the pandemic of thinking, you know, we were both spending a lot of time at one another’s places and we’re interested in looking at saving on rent or finding a place that’s a bit bigger. So we’re not feeling like we’re totally in each other’s kind of space, given that both of us are in one bedrooms.
Roma [00:06:34] When talking about how much they’d be willing to spend in rent, the couple realized pretty quickly that they have different budgets. Andrew’s currently paying $1500 a month all in while his girlfriend is spending around $2200.
Andrew [00:06:46] My kind of original inclination would be to oh, we can just stay in one of our one bedroom apartment and split the rent. Having tried that a little bit over the last little while, it has probably started to feel a bit tight, so looking at probably two bedroom places, three bedrooms are probably a bit outside our budget range, but, you know, two to three, depending on location and in terms of what we’re budgeting for, seems like something, you know, maybe 28 to 30, 32, 33, that would probably be on the upper end. If I could, I’d like to keep my rent I’m paying about the same amount. For hers if we could get hers to come down to about what I’m paying. But, you know, if that’s not possible, then I think we’d probably go and spend a bit more for a bit more space.
Roma [00:07:29] So Andrew admits to approaching his personal finances from a student lifestyle perspective. Even though he’s been out of school for more than 10 years. He no longer has student debt, but he carefully tracks his budget using Mint and continues to be a conscious spender in comparison to his girlfriend.
Andrew [00:07:45] We had gone for a hike for my birthday and on the way back we were both pretty tired and ready to not have to go do a full grocery run and make the food. And she’s like oh let’s just open up your UberEats and order everything. And I’m like I don’t have UberEats and she’s like what do you mean and I’m like I don’t use the app. And she’s like, oh, OK, well, I’ll just use my phone and we’ll get it that way. And at that point I was like, oh yeah, this is I’m pretty atypical. I really need to be downloading and using a service that many other people use to buy yourself some time.
Roma [00:08:23] Their approaches to food spending was the most obvious area at first. But as they started to get to know more about each other’s finances and talk about a future, Andrew says it’s crept up in other areas, too.
Andrew [00:08:34] So one of the big things would be if we were to have a family, you know, how we would be dealing with the demands of having careers and then you know, like how that worked and, you know, we talked about, you know, she brought up the idea of maybe hiring or having some short term support to ensure that we could both keep up with our careers. And that was something that I hadn’t really thought about before. I sort of sort of just assumed that we would both kind of juggle to do the work and sort out on the childcare side of it. And on her understanding her point of being very time poor there could be value to hiring to the short term services to help and people that can help out. And that’s of something that I hadn’t thought of. But I’m more open to now than I was before when I hadn’t really considered it.
Roma [00:09:29] Both Andrew and his girlfriend have retirement savings and no major debt. But one big factor that may be dictating their approach to personal finance is the fact that he’s in the public sector and she’s in the private sector. She makes about fifty thousand dollars more than him. So what was that conversation like?
Andrew [00:09:41] So we have talked about it. No, maybe kind of final decision. You know, we’d either be looking at sort of a 50/50 split or looking at a ratio that would basically be consistent with the difference in our salaries. Haven’t come to a final decision on that right now. But I think we’re both pretty reasonable in terms of coming to a place where we could either split it or maybe slightly alter it to keep the ratio. My gut tells me that we’re really looking for is a place they were both comfortable with in terms of size and then look at the price of that and then work out accordingly
Roma [00:10:17] He says that already they’ve both made compromises. He’s loosened up with his spending and she started using Mint to track her budget. But looking ahead, he knows it’s an odd time to have all of this happening.
Andrew [00:10:30] Frankly, grateful to have met someone given all the challenges, you know the initial Facetime dates, socially-distancing just and, you know, kind of meeting someone and then having some of these tough conversations in relatively short order, you know, just a real sense of gratitude to be where I’m at and hopefully we’ll continue to stay on whether it’s Mint or other other kind of financial goals and find a place that we both enjoy and see where it goes.
Roma [00:10:57] First off, I want to thank Andrew, our 38 year old lawyer, for sharing his story. Talking about your finances is never easy and talking about it at the start of a relationship is even more nerve racking. So kudos to him.
Rob [00:11:10] I think Andrew and his girlfriend are doing exactly the right things. I mean, I have no idea whether this relationship is going to work out, but I don’t think it’s going to break up on financial grounds because they’re discussing all of these details so early on.
Roma [00:11:22] None of these issues seem insurmountable to me. They seem like everyday kind of things that people need to work through. And I think you’re right, Rob. They’re talking about it. They’re working through it. I think the future looks promising for them.
Rob [00:11:34] We know Andrew isn’t the only person in this kind of a situation. So how a couple splitting living expenses when there’s a large salary gap or if one person has been laid off? We’ll get some expert advice to answer those questions right after the break.
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Rob [00:12:25] So now we’re going to talk to Liz Schiek. She’s a certified financial planner from the New School of Finance. She deals with a lot of young couples who are trying to manage their finances. Let’s jump right in.
Roma [00:12:37] So for my parents and I suspect many other boomer couples, the model was sort of that one person was the main money person and the other partner left them to it. How do millennials and and GEN Z couples handle things?
Liz [00:12:49] I see a lot more. I was going to use the word cooperation or collaboration, which is true. But I think also people are more wary of like handing the reins over to one person. People want to manage their own money to have some autonomy, maybe less quick to kind of mingle finances. But I do see that over time it really just depends on the relationship of the people, of course. But I think that in general, I see much more of a desire to maintain some financial autonomy.
Rob [00:13:21] What are the most common money disagreements?
Liz [00:13:24] Oh, there are many. What it often boils down to is kind of how and what to spend money on. And usually it’s just a difference of what makes the individual people happy. For some people, it’s like it’s so worth it to me to pay for a cleaning service to come in once a week or something like that. And so the other partner that might seem silly or foolish or a waste of money when we could do that ourselves. It’s like the actual things that they’re spending money on. But the other thing I see a lot is just a fundamental difference sometimes in the financial situation of the individual people like how they grew up with money, how they’ve lived their financial lives until being in this couple, and also sometimes like discrepancies of income or debt coming into the relationship that really inform how those people deal with money differently. So people are coming in arguing about what to spend money on and how to spend money. But it’s usually about something much deeper about just their relationship with money. In general.
Roma [00:14:24] You must feel like a part time therapist.
Liz [00:14:28] Definitely.
Roma [00:14:29] Tell us about the biggest money dispute you’ve ever seen.
Liz [00:14:33] The worst money disputes or the biggest money disputes are ones that are actually they’re not about money. It’s just that money is the thing that it is manifesting around. And some of those disputes get pretty. They can get kind of cruel, like it’s very rare. But it does happen that in our offices, sometimes we have to say, OK, it’s not OK. People get mean. We have to put a pause on things. But I would say the most common and biggest money dispute that I see is the different financial situations that the individual people are in. So it’s about one person is bad with money. They always have debt. They’re not saving anything. This is both what the other partner might see or think. And then it also gets internalized by the person who has debt and isn’t saving. So it’s often around this, like one person is good with money and one person’s bad with money.
But usually what happens there is that they’re not working with the same set of circumstances. So the person who’s good with money usually makes a lot more, didn’t have that coming into the relationship, maybe had a little bit more financial privilege and the other person makes less, maybe already had debt and they’ve gone into it trying to be as equal as possible, like splitting expenses 50/ 50. But it’s equal, but it’s not equitable. And so it starts to reinforce this idea. If one person makes half of what the other person makes but is splitting expenses, fifty fifty, they kind of don’t stand a chance. And so people come in with these, like, arguments where they’ve internalized these ideas, like this person is good with money, just wasn’t bad with money. And then I start uncovering things. And if it goes well, if people are open and flexible by the end of the meeting, they’re both like, oh, my gosh, I had no idea that this was why we were feeling that way. Like it has nothing to do with being good or bad with money. It’s just we weren’t looking at things clearly.
Rob [00:16:23] How is the pandemic affected the financial harmony of the companies in your clientele? Is it more solidarity? Is there more arguments? Are there any new things they’re squabbling over?
Liz [00:16:34] It’s varied. So what we’re seeing, though, is that people are, of course, spending more time, I think, with their partners and their families that they live with than ever before. So there’s a lack of kind of like personal space or time to just like process things alone that I think can impact any disagreements or arguments that you might have in a relationship. But what I’m seeing is that for a lot of our clients, this is the first really big sort of crisis financial crisis that they might be going through together. And most of the people that we’ve been seeing during this pandemic are either totally unscathed or are people who are in really tough spots- out of work, draining your savings faster than they would like all of that stuff. And so those are the people that we’re seeing perhaps, obviously more struggles. They’re experiencing more conflict. But I think what I’m seeing is it’s sort of this I don’t want to use the word resentment, but I think that if one person’s working in one person’s not, there’s an imbalance there of kind of financial power that over time starts to grate on people on both sides.
Roma [00:17:40] Those are interesting points. Andrew and his girlfriend mentioned that they have some of these kinds of typical differences in terms of how they spend and save. The big one that comes up is the bring your lunch by your lunch, which, by the way, my husband and I have that difference. How would you suggest that someone who’s more of a free spender and someone who’s a bit more of a frugal saver find common ground? How do you bridge that?
Liz [00:18:09] Yeah, I think the key is figuring out with them what are the things that they can agree upon in terms of what they spend their money on. Like what is it that they both agree? Yes, we want this much for groceries or transit or we like to eat out this many times a week. Find all the common ground and then figure out how much money they can each have every week or every paycheck or month or whatever. It’s kind of like mad money, right, that they can do whatever they want with. I think that that’s the key, honestly, to a lot of the harmony and relationships in terms of money is having the common ground, but also having some personal freedom.
Rob [00:18:46] Liz over a couple’s lifetime, what are going to be the stress points?
Liz [00:18:50] One of the biggest stress points that I see is when people go to buy a house. And it’s not uncommon for me to see one person really wanting to kind of stretch and push the budget as far as it could possibly go in order to get the home that they really want. And another person being a little more risk averse. And I think that’s a really common stress point. Any big financial decision like can we retire, when can we retire and what’s the lifestyle we’re going to lead then? But like big purchases, like a house is a big one.
Rob [00:19:19] Just to follow up on that Liz, how do you reconcile it where one spouse wants to push it to the wall to afford the best house possible and one wants to buy less than they can afford, so they keep some financial flexibility?
Liz [00:19:31] Absolutely. I mean, what we do is we look at what we would recommend the maximum be. You know, I can’t control what people actually do with their money. And I’ll say, you know, ultimately you’re entitled to take the risks that you’re comfortable taking. But here’s what I would advise is the absolute maximum that you should be paying for a home right now, allowing for the ability to still, you know, stress test for child care costs. If you plan on having kids or you’ll still be able to save for retirement, all of those things that we’re not putting all our eggs in that basket. And I’ll say here’s the most that we would do without leaving you too vulnerable. Often where that actually comes in is sometimes more money than the more conservative spouse but less money than the spouse that wants to really push it. I go with the numbers and sometimes the numbers are the compromise that it comes somewhere in the middle.
Roma [00:20:20] So on the topic of housing, Andrew and his girlfriend have only been dating a few months and they’re talking about moving in together. Housing is super expensive, not just in Toronto, but in Vancouver, in other cities across Canada. Do you see couples moving in pretty quickly, in part because of the expensive housing market? And what are the dangers there?
Liz [00:20:41] It’s definitely something that we’ve seen over the last few years in Toronto. And I think especially during this pandemic, Andrew and his partner are not alone in thinking about doing that. I think the risks are always there when people move in together. And I think that some people move in together really quick and they do great as a couple and some people wait a long time to move in together and they don’t, you know. So I think that we put a lot of stock in how long people wait to move in. But I think really the most important thing is communication. So if you’re moving in together faster than you would normally and you both are kind of thinking it’s fast, then I think the best thing that you can do is talk about it, make a plan on the financial peace, talk about how much are we going to share versus not share expenses. How do we want to divide things up, make a plan. Because I think the biggest problem with any couple who lives together or any couple who isn’t yet living together but is thinking about it, is that they don’t talk about money. It’s a lack of communication that results in conflict. Whereas when people open the lines of communication, I mean, this goes for things other than money as well, of course. But the more people talk about something and figure out what they want, the better. And I think the risk with moving in more quickly than usual is just that you probably haven’t gotten to know each other as well as a couple who may have been dating for several years. And so even something as kind of boring and silly as like having a kind of house meeting or having a financial meeting every couple of months or something to see how things are going. And what people are feeling about how things are going is really helpful.
Rob [00:22:09 Liz now we come to the classic question of couples and finance. Should they combine their checking accounts and just have one or should they each have their own checking account and have their paychecks deposited into each individual account
Liz [00:22:25] We have clients who do everything joint and you keep everything separate. In an ideal world, I do think that it’s helpful to have a combination of the two, to have some joint accounts where you’re kind of taking care of business, maybe paying all the bills through there. But I do think that it’s still really critical to have some financial autonomy, some personal money that you can do whatever you want. With the model that I most often recommend, if people are open to it, is to have a combination of shared accounts and personal accounts. I think it’s really important that people maintain some personal financial freedom, as well as personal financial safety of having their own accounts and their own safety net, their own credit cards, that their credit score isn’t just ceasing to exist or something like that.
Roma [00:23:07] You mentioned earlier that one space for disagreement tends to be or potential conflict is when one person makes more money than the other. That is the case with Andrew and his girlfriend. How can you handle that situation?
Liz [00:23:21] What I usually recommend is that we try and divide shared expenses as equitably as possible. So sort of proportionally based on income. Most of the time I find that our clients are very up for that. They think that that’s really reasonable and really fair. And we kind of say, here’s what we’re sharing. Here’s how you’ll each contribute to that. And then here’s what’s left over. That’s not going to share expenses. We can manage that individually. As you see fit. Usually one person is making more money, even if they’re contributing more to the bills, for example, they’re still usually saving more, having more personal spending money, that kind of thing. But sometimes it’s true that it’s a bit of a sticky place where people feel like, well, I’m making more, so shouldn’t I get to have more financial freedom? And I think really at that point, it’s just about approaching it as a team.
Rob [00:24:07] Liz let’s talk about debt. A couple comes together and one has way more debt than the other. How should they handle that?
Liz [00:24:16] I think we have to let the individuals guide us. If a couple comes to me and they both agree that they don’t want to tackle that together if the client doesn’t have debt. Says I don’t really want to pay for that debt. And the client who does have debt says, this is my stuff and I want to deal with it on my own then we’ll make a plan that allows them to do that. But most of the time what happens is the person who has the debt feels shame and guilt about having it and feels like they need to take it on all on their own. And the other partner is often like, no, I want to help, like we’re a team. And so I think what I usually try to approach it as is we just neutrally say, what are all of your bills, you know, including minimum payments from debt, because we have to tackle those together. And that’s actually one of the things that I see a lot when I was saying before about the kind of imbalance of one person makes more, one person makes less. One kind of seems like they’re good with money and one seems like they’re bad with money. It often is because someone has come in with debts from all kinds of reasons from the past. And if we don’t treat that as part of the household bills and part of the how we split things equitably, then it’s almost like they’re doomed Because if they have to contribute their share of all the other bills plus pay all of this, usually it leaves them with not enough money to live life. And so as much as possible, I try to include that as long as people are open to it. And I also I’m trying to convince them to be open to it, like let’s tackle this as a team. It’s a household bill. We pay for it here. If the person with that wants to put extra money towards that, great. We can take that from your kind of personal money that you have some flexibility with this.
Rob [00:25:52] I want to ask you about how to find out if your partner has any money, secrets, debts, hidden savings or investments. But first, I wonder, can you tell us, has that ever come up in your practice?
Liz [00:26:03] It has come up, but I’m usually seeing it after the fact. I am usually seeing it where there’s been a breakdown of the relationship and one person is coming to me kind of post breakup or pre breakup, but they’re thinking about maybe ending things with their partner and they realize that their partner has a whole bunch of debt they didn’t know about or their partner has a whole bunch of money that they didn’t know about.
It is hard to know what’s going on, on someone’s individual financial picture if they’re not being upfront about it. It’s a very difficult you know, I think the main thing that I sort of teach people and encourage people is to make sure that they’re keeping their own financial health on track kind of thing. And what I mean by that is being aware of potentially what I would call financial abuse, where someone is ruining your credit or taking out debt in your name or in a shared thing that you’re going to be liable for. So being really mindful of watching for some of the clues for that and checking your own credit history regularly so you can see what kinds of accounts are in your name and that kind of thing.
Roma [00:27:10] What are your thoughts about cohabitation agreements, which are basically sort of prenuptial agreements for people moving in together and or for prenuptial agreements for people that are going to get married and potentially buy a place together.
Liz [00:27:25] I frequently recommend cohabitation agreements, particularly if there’s a situation where, say, one person already owns the property and the partner’s going to move into that property and then they’re going to live there together, or one person has a lot of money that’s going to be gifted. Ultimately, I say it’s up to you and I say it has nothing to do with your relationship. I tell everybody it’s a good idea to talk to a lawyer and get some kind of agreement drawn up to protect both of you, because I think the risk goes both ways. It’s a touchy topic no one wants to bring up when they’re just about to move in together just to get married. So I think it’s helpful sometimes for me as a neutral kind of third party to say I recommend this to everyone and most people are very amenable to it.
Rob [00:28:13] Thanks to Liz for joining us, there are some really great advice in there wrapping up,.
Roma [00:28:17] I have some takeaways for all of you who may be going through this. One: to avoid money, conflict in a relationship, agree on a way to structure your finances that is reasonable and fair. It doesn’t have to be equal, but it has to be equitable. Two: It’s just as important for young couples moving in together to talk about money as it is for older married couples. Be mindful that you’re sharing more than an address. You’re mixing your finances. Don’t let that part be an afterthought. Three: Identify common life and financial goals. The best way to get excited about tackling debt or saving for a big trip, a car or a baby or a home is to work together.
Rob [00:29:02] Thank you for listening to this episode of Stress Test.
I’m Rob Carrick.
Roma [00:29:06] And I’m Roma Luciw. This show is produced and edited by Amanda Cupido with mixing and editing by TK Matunda. Kiran Rana is the executive producer.
Rob [00:29:16] If you like what you heard, make sure to subscribe to the show. Share it with a friend or leave a review on Apple podcast. See you next time.
Ad [00:29:34] This podcast was brought to you by CPP Investments. As a member of the investment management industry. We’re committed to helping drive financial literacy among young Canadians, including providing information about our role in helping ensure the sustainability of the CPP. To learn more, visit CPP investments dot com.