For a boyfriend’s 30th birthday a few years ago, Mykail James made reservations at the Capital Grille steakhouse in Baltimore, and booked a suite at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco, a four-star hotel. But later, when she tried to charge the valet parking to their room, he pulled out his wallet and tried to pay.
When she covered their drinks at the hotel bar before dinner, he turned to her and said, “You can’t pay for anything else.”
He insisted on paying for his own birthday dinner and pulled out his wallet again when they checked out of the hotel. Ms. James reminded him that it was his birthday.
“It was pretty offensive to him,” Ms. James, 27, said about her spending. “But we had never had that conversation before.” She wishes that she and her boyfriend at the time had discussed their financial values before what should have been a special night turned into something awkward.
As gender roles, technology and the economy shift under their feet, young couples are contending with how to bring up finances in their romantic relationships.
The internet provides plenty of opportunities to avoid deep talks. Investigating a partner’s social media presence can make it easier to learn about his or her money. Ms. James researches a romantic interest before a date, she said.
“If you tell me your name, I’m going to go on LinkedIn,” she said. “I’ll look at what your position is, and then I’ll go on Glassdoor and see how much money you’re making.”
She does this, she said, because men are sometimes intimidated by how much she earns as a program scheduler in the defense industry. Because people can see who looks at their LinkedIn profile, she thinks that they’ll probably look at hers, too.
“I need to know that I can incorporate you in my life,” Ms. James said. “I spend money on the lifestyle that I enjoy, and I don’t have any intentions of downgrading my lifestyle to make anybody else feel more comfortable.”
Opening a line of communication
Tessa Miller Kiesz, 21, and her partner, Nicholas Brester, 22, had been living together for about two months when they decided to adopt a kitten named Rue. The adoption fee — $300, which included neutering — prompted one of their first conversations about money. They had been working as ranch hands in Montana and earned equal salaries, and Rue was their first bill to split.
The adoption started a shared financial journey that took them from Montana to New York, where Ms. Miller Kiesz started theater school and works in pottery and as a part-time nanny. Mr. Brester freelances on Off Broadway shows, mostly as a technical director.
The volatile nature of life in the performing arts makes it difficult to split everything 50-50.
“When it’s good, it’s really good. When it’s bad, it’s really bad,” Mr. Brester said. “And sometimes artists just don’t have that luxury of consistency.”
Ms. Miller Kiesz and Mr. Brester have had to get more granular with their financial discussions, especially around date nights. They try to be more spontaneous, but cost-conscious, by using, for example, the New York Public Library’s Culture Pass program to receive free admission to museums. They also lay out in advance if they’re going to split a date or if one of them will treat the other.
“I think the way that works best with us is always having that almost emotional and financial prep going into it,” Ms. Miller Kiesz said. Bringing up Venmo during a date, she said, would remove the romance from an evening out.
But Ms. Miller Kiesz is comfortable with asking Mr. Brester to pay her back while she’s in line at the grocery store. She said these single-digit conversations opened up a line of communication, allowing them to talk about larger financial issues.
“It does kind of feel like an act of love within itself to open those conversations at the right time, when you know your partner’s in a good space, and to allow those moments to flow a little bit better,” she said.
Recently, Mr. Brester cooked her an enchilada lasagna, a twist on her favorite meal, and didn’t mention anything about the groceries. Ms. Miller Kiesz found this romantic.
‘What does this look like for us?’
Moriah Chace had been seeing her girlfriend for about three months when her girlfriend asked her, “Is there anything that you think we don’t see eye to eye on?”
“And I was honestly like, ‘I’m not sure if we see eye to eye on finances, and I would like to talk about that more,’” Ms. Chace, 25, said.
She described her partner as a risk-taker who found the conversation difficult, because she felt financially behind.
“I’m still in $6,000 of credit card debt, so I’m not perfect,” said Ms. Chace, a brand strategist and an entrepreneur who lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “And me bringing up my debt makes them feel comfortable to bring up their levels of debt.”
In a same-sex couple, “usually the culture is to go Dutch, so you pay for your half, they pay for their half,” she said. She likes to be the one to hold doors, buy gifts and show the care that she was given when she was in heteronormative relationships. But her partner, she said, doesn’t always appreciate being on the receiving end.
“So we’ve had to kind of navigate: OK, what does this look like for us?” Ms. Chace said. “And I think for every couple, especially in same-sex relationships, it’s very different.”
They also have to navigate the wage gap found in the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
“We face a lot more discrimination in the workplace,” Ms. Chase said. “We make a lot less than the average straight person does.” She added: “Part of same-sex relationships is bucking the patriarchy, just in their inherent nature. And there’s a lot of patriarchy in the money rules.”
The importance of talking offline
Rather than have a conversation about how to split expenses, one partner’s opinion might simply show up as a Venmo request for half a bill.
“In some ways it seems very transparent, because you see everybody’s transactions,” Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a financial therapist, said about payment apps. “But then on the other hand, it has almost made it difficult to have those conversations, because they’re so used to doing them over screen.”
She compares the situation to the way it seems that everyone’s on social media and yet there’s a loneliness epidemic. Information may be passing, but connections aren’t being made.
“Research shows that couples who talk about money report being happier than those that don’t, because it helps develop a deeper intimacy, because both people have to be vulnerable,” Ms. Bryan-Podvin said. “Both people have to have a good amount of mutual respect and trust in their partner in order to have that conversation.”
It’s OK to start with acknowledging how awkward it is. It’s also OK to start with written communication.
“I’m not anti-digital conversation,” Ms. Bryan-Podvin said. “I like a digital conversation to kind of get things going.”
She recommends texting your partner to give a heads-up that you’d like to talk about money in person on a particular day, or even starting with a written message about what you’d like to communicate.
Andrew Giancola, who hosts “The Personal Finance Podcast,” suggests reframing talking about money as lots of micro-conversations about money.
“I think the micro-conversations are way more important, because if you have just one giant money talk, a lot of times emotions get involved,” he said. “And when that happens on both sides, you can cause a lot of friction.”
Start by asking a partner about his or her job satisfaction and goals, and what a dream life looks like.
You could even pass along an article about money like this one to start the conversation.
Lauren Ebersol and her partner, José Ureña, in Burlington, Vt.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times
Beyond splitting bills
Lauren Ebersol and José Ureña started dating when they were 16, and they felt too broke to talk about money until five years later, when they moved in together. They’re now 28 and married, living in Burlington, Vt. Ms. Ebersol is a product manager for a biotech company, and Mr. Ureña is a product developer for Ben & Jerry’s.
As they started to split costs, they signed up for a joint credit card and started using it for groceries, bills, shared meals and anything they’ll both enjoy. They each pay for their own classes and books and any separate travel. A quick scroll through her Venmo feed makes Ms. Ebersol suspect that splitting things down the middle is more common among couples their age, as posts labeled “internet bill” or “groceries” pass between two people in love.
Mr. Ureña points out that money conversations can’t just stop at how you’ll split the bills.
“It’s also about what you’re choosing to spend money on or what you’re saving toward,” he said. “I feel like probably 10 or 15 years ago, it would have been to buy a house, right? That would have been your big goal. I know initially it was our goal, about a few years ago. But now we like renting, because it gives us flexibility.”
As does keeping their bank accounts separate. “Because divorces are so messy,” Mr. Ureña said.