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Amplify: How I learned to be open when talking personal finance with my partner

Source photo iStockPhoto. Photo illustration Ming Wong.

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In September, I married my partner, Dan, of 10 years. Afterward, I received countless messages of congratulations. But I was also fielding personal questions like, will you be taking his last name, and, to my surprise, do you have a shared bank account.

I'm Katrina Bolak and I work in The Globe's consumer marketing department. I support the editorial team by promoting our content to new and existing readers. And, like many others, I'm a big fan of our personal finance stories. Having recently tied the knot, I have a renewed interest in this type of content, and these days I'm thinking about my money (or should I say our money?) in new ways.

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In case you really want to know the answer to the pressing question above, we have two shared accounts: One is for bills, the other is a rainy day fund. Plus, we each have our own original accounts. This approach feels natural to us, but I recognize that for some couples, there's nothing natural about agreeing on money. (In fact, financial issues account for 22 per cent of divorces). For those who are not sure how to broach the topic, here's a great article from the Financial Diet on getting the conversation going in a productive way.

If you really want to learn about how you'll approach money as a couple, apply for a mortgage. Dan and I did just that early last year when we decided to take the plunge into Toronto's housing market. We knew right out of the gate that finding a house we could afford was unlikely (this recent column by The Globe's Rita Trichur really hit home). But we were even shocked at the astronomical condo price tags. In the end, after about two months and several bidding wars, we succeeded and happily settled on a condo in the west end. (Side note: If you're looking to buy a condo instead of a house, I highly suggest you check out this video from The Globe's Roma Luciw on the cost comparison, as well as the "hidden" fees of condo ownership.)

But back to the mortgage application. It was an important test for us to see how we communicate about money. We learned we had different credit scores and this would affect how we applied for the mortgage. So, we took it as an opportunity to have a really deep conversation about our financial concerns and how we would work as a team to improve them.

Of course, though, our talks about finances started long before our mortgage application. (This blog post on Moneyish shares some extreme outcomes of what happens when couples don't talk about money, but also gives pointers on how to do it.) They had to, given that we lived together and how different our styles of earning income are. I have one full-time job and get paid bi-weekly. Dan has two jobs with regular paycheques and a third that's essentially contract work. The idea of sharing all of our accounts and tracking who has what and how we are spending it sounded like a nightmare.

So, in addition to how we handle our accounts, we have found what works for us: Be open and don't judge. This means we tell each other when unexpected expenses come up, like the surprise car repair I just discovered I needed. Dan will step in and cover groceries this month so I can comfortably pay for it. We also understand we still each have our own interests. For example, in October, I bought a vintage Prada bag. This may seem like a frivolous purchase, but we chatted first, and I knew it wouldn't interfere with our shared expenses. Knowing that these types of purchases are not coming from a shared account also removes tension. (For more on how to approach bank accounts in your relationship, check out this video from The Globe's Rob Carrick.)

How we handle our finances will for sure change over the years, as our needs as a couple evolve. What I want to focus on is keeping the door to communication open. That way, when questions such as "do you have a shared bank account?" come up, I know exactly what to say.

Also, if you're curious, I'm in the process of taking both names. Katrina Bolak Gardner has a nice ring to it.

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What else we're reading:

I came across this article from The Billfold in 2016 and it has stuck with me ever since (warning, it has a NSFW headline). It explains why having a "way out" fund is a must. I first heard this advice from my grandfather, who told me, time and time again, to always have a $20 bill on me, so I'd always have a way out of a questionable situation. I've been fortunate that entering married life with the mentality of needing to have a "way out" fund has not been misunderstood as wanting to back out. My "way out" fund has served different purposes over the years. When I was in university, it was for things like paying for a cab home from my part-time job. When I started working full time, it was there to cover my expenses if I lost my job. After I moved out of my parents' house, my "way out" fund meant I could pay the full rent for the apartment I shared with my partner, if it ever came to that. Whether you call it a "way out" fund or your "walking out of the room with two middle fingers up" fund – it should be part of every woman's financial plan. – KB

Inspiring us:

Brianne Miller was terrified to make the leap from research to entrepreneurship. The Ontario native had spent three years working as a marine biologist, travelling around the world to study coral reefs, tropical fish and marine mammals. One day, while out on a dive, she had a revelation. Yet again she noticed a substantial amount of plastic – bags and cups on the beach and straws in the water. "I don't think I've ever been on a dive where I haven't seen a piece of plastic," she says. Miller connected the dots, realizing that the ocean's degradation was a result of waste from our food system.

That's how she came up with the idea of a package-free grocery store called Nada, where customers can bring their own reusable containers to purchase food. Miller, 30, sources her mostly organic products from more than 300 suppliers, who are largely local. "Any type of container that you can get another use out of is a win in our books," she says. From 2015 until 2017, Nada operated as a pop-up store, moving around various locations in Vancouver. The store, says Miller, has diverted 20,000 containers from landfills. This spring, Nada will open its first permanent location in East Vancouver.

Small changes, such as ditching one-use packaging, can have a big impact over time, says Miller. Strangers sometimes ask why she uses a stainless steel straw or brings Tupperware to restaurants for leftovers. Recently, at a food trade show, she and her Nada team walked around giving potential providers reusable cup, napkin and plate samples, "sparking a lot of conversations," Miller says. She believes stores such as Nada and the advocacy work she and her team do will build momentum leading to lasting change. "I guess I'm just eternally optimistic." – Shelby Blackley

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Inspired by something in this newsletter? If so, we hope you'll amplify it by passing it on. And if there's a woman you think our readers should know about, tell us about her. Send us an email at amplify@globeandmail.com.

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