It was a month after I’d met Jason, and I was in a panic. With just R32 in my bank account and about five days to go before payday, he asked me if I wanted to join him and his friends at a wine farm for the day.

I‘ve always been hopeless with money. I spend every cent I have because I know there is more coming my way in due time (note to self: never freelance). If I have R500 left in my bank account and payday is tomorrow, chances are I’m on Superbalist looking for whatever I can get for that amount.

You may be judging me for this, or perhaps you have the same habit. Either way, it didn’t bother me while I was single. But as soon as I entered into this relationship, I suddenly became insecure about my ‘irresponsible’ ways.

Needless to say, I gave some made-up excuse as to why I couldn’t join him, whereas had it been a friend who invited me, I would have just said, ‘I can’t, sorry, I’m broke’ without hesitation.

So I decided to investigate why money is such a touchy subject in a relationship by consulting psychologists, and chatting to a few women, some I know and some I don’t, all in committed relationships or married. And here is the funny thing, which clearly illustrates the point I’m trying to make: these woman all wish to remain anonymous because money, and money matters, are scary enough that nobody wants to talk about them publicly.

According to a 2017 poll taken by Money Mag, 70% of married couples argue about money more than any other subject – say, his snoring or her working too late. But couple therapists and clinical psychologists Janine and Robert Boulle say their clients don’t come in because of money issues per se, but rather because of communication struggles.

‘Often, couples will come to us because they notice something in their relationship is amiss. They come to us for clarity. We help them communicate better to find this clarity. And, often, money is an underlying complication without the couple even knowing it is,’ says Janine.

‘Couples tend to avoid difficult topics such as finance, leading them to therapy because the unspoken issues create a divide between them, undermining their relationship,’ confirms Robert.

So, what is it about money, exactly, that makes it so difficult to talk about?

‘My boyfriend and I live together, and have a shared bank account and a dog. We speak openly about how much money we have or don’t have. He knows I have credit-card debt. I know he has too. I tell him when I’m broke and have only so much in my cheque account,’ says one of the women I speak to. Sounds healthy enough, right? ‘What he doesn’t know though,’ she continues, ‘is that said account is in overdraft. I worry he will see that as irresponsible and judge me accordingly. But I feel like I can handle it before I have to tell him.’

Robert, Janine and I chat about why money is so difficult to talk about and conclude that firstly it has to do with the different ways that men and women associate with money, which sometimes clash, and, secondly, the gender pay gap that has existed throughout history.

Few people see money simply as money. A healthy bank account can mean security, power, independence (and, conversely, dependence), control, confidence, happiness, love, balance and freedom. The complexity comes in when two people who have different financial outlooks and who value money differently come together in a serious relationship. Without hashing out those differences and chatting about values, money becomes another partner in a relationship, and often one that is ignored.

But talking about money when first entering into a relationship is not always easy. Most of the time, keeping your finances to yourself in the beginning is the wiser thing to do, especially if you don’t know if it will turn into something serious. What is problematic though, is that people tend to spend more in the beginning of a relationship getting to know and impress one another – multiple dinner dates, drinks with friends and romantic weekends away to escape flatmates certainly add up, and set a precedent.

Marieke* agrees. ‘Oh yes! When Trevor* and I first started dating, I acted as though I could afford absolutely anything,’ she says. ‘He was the one who said we need to slow down. I pretended it didn’t bug me, but I was secretly relieved,’ she says.

Women associate money with security, love and happiness, whereas men traditionally associate it with power, control and success – something they always had in the past that women did not.

‘I have noticed that when the woman in a relationship earns more than the man, it brings in the male ego, making the topic even more sensitive,’ says Robert.

Janine makes a good point, adding to Robert’s comment: ‘Women are ambivalent. Yes, she wants to earn the same as or more than her partner and be financially independent with a high-powered job. But then, in the back of her mind, she wouldn’t mind if her partner made more either because she wants to be looked after by him and be the chief at home,’ says Janine.

The psychologists and I devise what is going to be referred to as the ‘transitional period’, the space between the ‘old picture’ (woman stays home to tend to the house and children while man works; or woman makes much less money than man) and the ‘new picture’ (woman earns equal to or more than man; or man tends to house and children). So how do transitional-period couples work?

When I was single, I was close to a couple who kept their finances almost clinically separate. For instance, if he bought her a R25 flat white, he remembered this to the rand and would deduct that amount from something he owed her. Each time one spent money on the other, a mental note was made. They lived together for a few years, but paid their rent to the landlord separately because they didn’t have a shared bank account. Everything was split equally – and they made sure it was split equally 100% of the time, rand for rand.

When Jason and I moved in together, one of the first things we did was open a shared bank account into which we deposit an equal amount of money that covers our shared expenses, such as rent, DStv, electricity, domestic help, groceries and so on. However, since he earns quite a bit more than I do, he often foots the bill for extras such as dinners out, UberEATS, drinks and weekends away.

Not all couples favour a 50/50 split for expenses though. Ameera* and her husband, Zahir*, have been married for seven years and still have different bank accounts. Ameera earns about 20% more than Zahir does, and they’ve worked out their shared expenses accordingly, so that Ameera pays 20% more. I ask whether earning more than her husband ever makes him feel less involved in any decision-making. ‘Not at all. Sometimes I wish it would bother him, to push him to work towards a promotion. But it also means I don’t feel guilty when he handles some of the house things that are traditionally viewed as the wife’s responsibility,’ says Ameera.

Interesting, especially when considering that full-time working women are mostly still responsible for emotional labour such as shopping lists and what to cook for dinner, and that, on average, women do 60% more unpaid house work than men, according to the Institute of Social and Economic Research.

‘Calvin* wouldn’t know that we’re out of sugar or Handy Andy. He also doesn’t actively pay any of the bills. That’s my job, but it happened by default,’ says Claire* of her husband of two years.

‘We have separate bank accounts, but also a shared one into which each of us puts money once a month. Calvin earns more than I do, so he tends to put more into that account, which is meant to cover everything we need for the month. Technically speaking, we shouldn’t need to tap into our private accounts. But it doesn’t always work out that way.’

This seems to be the way that transitional-period, progressive couples do things. When compared to most of our parents, likely of the old picture, it differs quite drastically. ‘My parents have one account together. Both of their salaries go into the same account and from there they live,’ says Claire.

Same here. I don’t remember my parents talking about owning their money separately. It was always a combined thing. I can confirm that my mom does all the grocery shopping and in their 29 years of marriage she never once asked my dad to pay her back for half of it.

Marieke says it’s the same for her parents. ‘Trevor was shocked when he learned my parents share a bank account. His step-mother gets paid a salary into her account by his father. At least I know ahead of time that we will probably never join bank accounts because of this,’ says Marieke.

Marieke and Trevor have been dating for two and a half years. Only three months ago did he find out what she earns. She still doesn’t know what he takes home. In fact he is positively secretive about it. ‘When he has his banking app open, he turns his screen away from me so I can’t see,’ says Marieke. I ask her if she thinks it’s because he earns more or less than her. ‘I think we earn about the same. But he has more assets than me. He has a farm and savings. I don’t feel awkward to ask him what he earns, but I know that his answer will be “that is not your business”, similar to when I asked how much he has in savings. I was only interested because he reprimanded me for not having any myself.’

And when Marieke was in the market to buy a new car, Trevor got quite involved in outlining which cars she can and can’t afford. She took his advice, though, passing on the SUV and opting for a smaller car instead. ‘It comes from a good place, and he helped me make the right decision; but I do wonder why I can’t be privy to his financial affairs as well,’ says Marieke.

Claire’s husband may earn more than she does but she is the one with the asset injection. She has an inheritance and property, which she sold to buy their current home in Cape Town. But Claire and Calvin look at everything they have as shared, including the house.

When we want to make a big purchase we talk about it. We talk about everything we might want to buy, whether expensive or not, because we are nerds like that,’ says Claire. ‘We are both money hoarders, but also aren’t afraid to spend on quality and convenience, so as much as we hold each other back, we also egg each other on.’

I can relate to this. Jason isn’t afraid to drop a large sum of money on one item, for instance something for one of his beloved cars. Yet I think long and hard before spending a lot on one thing.

We had a conversation the other day about needing a new speaker. Jason wants to get a top-of-the-range Bluetooth one; I don’t really care very much about speakers. A simple, entry-level one will do just fine.

‘Here is a good one… R2 600,’ he said.

‘Are you mad? That means we are each spending R1 300 on a speaker. I think twice before spending that much on a pair of shoes,’ was my reply.

‘But this is the best one,’ was his.

We had to compromise – he in dropping his standards and I in letting go of my purse strings a little.

Marieke and Trevor spend the same amount, more or less, on eating out and other entertainment. ‘But he does fill up my car with petrol sometimes, and buys me clothes here and there, and will cover groceries for the weekends that I go stay on the farm,’ says Marieke.

But Trevor is controlling of money in another sense. ‘We went to Thailand last year; we each paid our own way and our daily budget was R2 000. We would draw that cash each day, but Trevor would keep it all in his wallet.’

Marieka describes her and Trevor’s relationship as ‘what’s mine is mine’, as does Ameera. ‘That way we don’t feel bad for spoiling ourselves with our own money,’ she says.

Dave Ramsey, businessman and author of The Total Money Makeover, suggests that committed couples should ‘put all [their] money together and begin to look at it as a whole.’

Janine agrees. ‘To pool all your money, and look at it as belonging to the both of you, means there is complete and utter trust between the two of you.’ Meaning all debt is shared. That goes for any savings as well. ‘This communal approach requires selflessness and a generosity of spirit, and is a catalyst to receive love from each other. You choose to give to the other over yourself, using the financial side of your relationship to feed the needs of all other facets of your relationship,’ says Janine.

But Robert and Janine see more new-picture than old-picture couples, that function as though they live separately. ‘Which is perfectly acceptable,’ says Janine, ‘but makes it even more important to amalgamate those qualities from a communal situation (generosity, trust and openness) into this.’ Otherwise, will living this way promote intimacy?

There is no easy answer to this debate. However you decide to handle your financial affairs – whether separately or together as a couple – honesty and openness are key. Robert sums it up nicely.

‘At the moment, many couples are approaching money with one foot in the old picture, which we understand because it was done that way by our parents, and their other foot in the new picture, trying to figure it out for themselves.


To read ‘The Savvy Woman’s Guide To Financial Wellbeing: 6 Ways To Sort Out Your Finances’, click here.