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What It’s like to Keep a Relationship Afloat When You’re Just Trying to Make Ends Meet

For Love & Money is our new weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.

Before they got married, Chris and Alex made the decision to move in together. But both parties came from “generations of poverty,” and the couple was off to a bumpy start. “The first several years of our relationship were a constant struggle to pay the bills, which ultimately left no time to focus on our own emotional well-being,” says Chris.

Just surviving poverty alone puts an insurmountable amount of stress on someone, but doing so while trying to navigate and nurture a relationship with another human being can be an even greater challenge. Now in their mid-30s, Chris and Alex started a small business and practice strict budgeting that keeps the love and intimacy of their relationship safe from financial woes.

That balance, though, is always a delicate one. Here’s what else they — along with two other couples in similar situations — do to make sure it never becomes upended. 

‘Our Favorite Date Night Was a Trip to the Chinese Buffet — $5 Per Person and Water Was Free’

Chris and Alex, Mid-30s: Clawing our way out of poverty one inch at a time became our top priority, so our first “place” together was a bedroom that we rented in someone else’s home. We lived there for an extended period, pooling any extra money we could until we had enough to buy a semi-truck and start driving together as a team. The work isn’t terribly exhausting, but we spend a LOT of time together in a very small space for long periods of time. We run 12-hour shifts — he works 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and I work from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. That sort of close proximity, long hours and general exhaustion can turn small disagreements into big fights very quickly if they’re allowed to fester. 

In terms of preventing financial stress from ruining the love we have for each other as spouses, we combat that with a strict budgeting system. Basically, after we pay off bills and living expenses, we each have a reasonable allowance for small purchases each week. This system has been a lifesaver for us by preventing disagreements that come up so often when you’re just trying to make ends meet. For example, he doesn’t have to ask me if he wants to buy a new video game; he just checks that he has enough allowance to cover it. If I want to go out with my sister for a manicure, I don’t ask him, I check my allowance. 

As for bigger purchases or windfall money, we have a system where we set out stipulations we want met before a new expense can happen. If he wants a new vehicle, for instance, my stipulation might be that we need to save up a certain amount of cash for a down payment, pay off all credit cards, find financing below a certain percentage and keep the new payment less than or equal to the old payment. That safeguards us from making big purchases without first consulting the budget, which prevents disagreements — we’re not outright saying “no” to each other’s requests, as the system instigates a compromise. 

So at the end of the day, the spreadsheet gets the final say on how much we can spend on housing, transportation, food and so on. This keeps us from getting bogged down in micromanaging each other’s lives and leaves us free to just enjoy each other’s company without feeling resentment. It’s hard to see someone as sexually attractive if you have to constantly oversee their daily life or ask them for permission to do anything — unless you’re into that, of course. 

But for us, being free from that stress and resentment has given us the allowance to express love and gratitude for each other in small increments along the way. When we were saving up for CDL school, we sold plasma. We’d request donation stations next to each other and spend an hour watching whatever movie was playing on their TV while “racing” to see who finished donating first. We usually ended it with a sandwich and juice “picnic” in the car. 

Once we started driving, our favorite regular date night was a trip to the Chinese buffet — $5 per person and water was free. We still enjoy sending each other new recipes that we find and planning a “dinner date” at home making and eating that new recipe. And now, far from where we were at the start but still working long hours, each of us will regularly stop at a truck stop and buy the other person their favorite drink or snack while they’re asleep so they wake up to a happy little surprise — I have an absurd love of truck-stop egg rolls, and he has a favorite energy drink that’s hard to find. 

And when possible, we’ll take a Saturday here and there to go hang out in a used bookstore, buy a book, get a cup of coffee and spend the afternoon reading. 

‘When Our Shifts Would Mismatch, I’d Clean the Apartment and Set Up the Couch for Her to Relax, and She’d Do the Same for Me’

Ryan and Carrie, Late 20s: We got married in our early 20s when we didn’t know anything about paying bills or being adults in general. Both of us worked hourly jobs barely above minimum wage while living at her mom’s house. But after moving into an apartment together, the expenses of rent, bills and general spending brought stress into our relationship that we just didn’t know how to handle. After all the bills were paid, we had just enough money for groceries, though not always, and that constantly hung over our heads. 

We both worked long, tireless hours at dead-end jobs, and started micromanaging what the other was buying to the point that it drove us to be totally isolated from each other. Every expenditure, even if it was an attempt to make the other happy, turned into a giant fight — the worst were all the weddings we had for each other’s friends and family members. The things we did while dating, even low-cost things while living at her mom’s, disappeared. 

At some point, Carrie’s boss brought in an accountant to help people with taxes and invited the employees to visit his office after work if they needed more help. Carrie and I went for tax help, but he also gave us some tips that helped us budget and be smarter about how we used what little money we had. He basically told us to create a joint savings account and pool money there, then to automate bill payments and do what we could to pay down our debt

He also explained that we needed to be more transparent with each other and helped us make a budget we needed to stick to. Not knowing how much money was going out was the problem, and the more automated our regular spending was, the less we’d be micromanaging each other. After that meeting, we both opened up more about our anxieties about money and realized we were angry at each other because we both wanted a better life together. We now keep the budget updated on our refrigerator so we can’t avoid it. 

The budget stopped us from buying unnecessary things like eating out, and we started to accumulate a “slush fund.” Instead of going out to eat, we started to challenge each other to cook something from whatever we had in the fridge, like we were on a cooking show. Back when our shifts would mismatch, I’d leave her a little note, or clean the apartment and set up the couch for her to relax. She’d do the same for me. 

We still work a ton and are exhausted most of the time, but it feels like we’re working toward something and doing it as a team. It helps that I got a new job with regular hours, but we also spend more time watching movies, going on walks, talking about Facebook drama — and much less time fighting about what the other just bought. 

All of which is nothing extravagant or anything, but it’s so much better than buying things out of resentment. The little things add up, and having nothing makes you appreciate the time you get to spend with someone you love instead of being at work. 

‘No Matter How Busy or Tired We Get, We Make a Point to Schedule Time to Be Together Without Worrying About Our Finances’

Ohene and Courtney, Early 30s: My current financial situation isn’t where I’d like to be, but I make roughly $24,000 per year and my significant other’s salary varies. Last year, she was laid off and collected unemployment, but has been trying to grow her own crochet business, called Umoja Apparel. Before my current job, I worked security, which had very long hours and was stressful and exhausting. I worked from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and often went home after midnight because my manager forgot to assign someone to relieve me. Situations like that made it difficult to spend time with my significant other either before or after work. She worked at home, usually all day until I got home and we went to sleep. Her work left her hands and body tired, and my job left me feeling hopeless and trapped.

We’d do everything we could to cut costs, like going on “dates” at home. We’d prepare a cheap and easy meal like beef nachos and we’d have a movie-dinner night for $20 or less. When we had enough money to go out, we planned dates in the middle of the month when bills weren’t due. Still, there were lots of arguments and disagreements about simple things. I felt like I was alone and working to keep us afloat and got angry about that, which caused a rift in our relationship. It wasn’t until much later that I understood how awful my partner felt about not being able to help more financially. 

So we started being better about planning and communicating. Intimacy doesn’t come just from sex or going on dates, and we had to learn to not let the stress and frustration seep into our everyday lives. We’re also now constantly in communication about what’s bothering us and which expectations aren’t being met because those are the kind of things that get magnified when you’re financially strapped. 

We also have a few golden rules. The first is: No “wants” until our “needs” are met, which basically means no leisure expenses unless all bills are paid. The second is that no matter how busy or tired we get, we make a point to schedule time to just be together without worrying about our finances or the world. And the third is that we give each other credit and appreciate the things we’re doing that make each other’s lives better, especially in non-monetary ways. 

When you start to really focus on those things, you’ll see how supportive and easy any relationship can be.