One day, during an absentminded scroll of my Venmo feed, I came across more than just friends sending money for a ramen place that only accepts one credit card — namely, married couples. Upon further creeping, I noticed the payments were often for tiny purchases like groceries, meals out and utility bills. In a world of Refinery29 Money Diaries and retire-at-40/overachiever porn, I wondered what the explanation was for married pairs using Venmo to divide their finances so granularly. At first glance, it felt absurdly petty: Why legally combine lives, but essentially send the same hundred dollars back-and-forth to each other?
Venmo or not, millennial couples are less likely to have combined bank accounts than ever before. And while women are working more, they also continue to do substantially more household work than men and still make less. All of which has prompted a nuanced, important conversation among romantic duos about achieving financial fairness in their relationships.
L.A.-based new parents and newlyweds Joey, 33, and Adam, 32, are avid users of Venmo to split purchases and have been ever since they started dating. The marketing director and filmmaker (respectively) aim for a precise 50/50 split. “We keep track using separate Google Sheets of whose paid for what and reimburse each other by Venmo (under $1,000), check (more than $1,000) or wire (more than $10,000),” Joey says. Purchases that apply to their split policy include the mortgage, utility bills, car payments and stuff for their son. For purchases like Amazon orders, groceries or meals out, the couple has a more “loosey-goosey” system: Venmo requests or splitting between their two cards.
Joey’s full-time job makes her the higher earner, so occasionally for big-ticket purchases like vacations, she foots the bill. Before they married, the couple had an income-based split, but have since shifted to 50/50 despite their income disparity. “As a freelancer, Adam can choose to make more money to have more disposable income if he wants,” Joey explains matter-of-factly. “If he chooses not to and let our fixed expenses take up a larger percent of his income than it does mine, he’s an adult capable of making that choice for himself.”
“We’re both very comfortable in our financial status so it’s not a big deal to just pay each other back for stuff,” she continues. That said, in the midst of a pregnancy-hormone-fueled fight, she says the claws came out regarding their split situation. “It was part of a larger discussion about me doing the lion’s share of the emotional labor of home administration and chores. Like why am I our household’s secretary when I make more money, make all our meals and also have to physically carry the baby?”
Since giving birth, while they’ve maintained their 50/50 financial split, Joey’s perspective on how to achieve equality has changed. “The odds of things feeling completely equal may never happen in a relationship, even if the dollar amount you contribute is,” she says. “The best you can do is be understanding and accommodating when one of you has a moment where they feel like they’re shouldering more of the burden.”
Kaylynn, 27, and John, 31, of Spartanburg, South Carolina, have been married for two years. The couple is going on their fourth year of an income-based system of splitting bills, using Venmo to divide purchases. The couple uses the app for a 35/65 split, a figure based off of Kaylynn’s lower income. “Splitting bills 50/50 was putting great financial strain on me, while he was able to do so without any discomfort,” says Kaylynn. The split doesn’t apply to everything, only what the couple considers shared items, which include “rent, power, water, renters insurance, all medical bills, our collective consolidated student debt, credit cards, the cost of caring for our dog, internet and gifts for family.”
Still, when the income-based split began, Kaylynn felt weird about it, worrying it was compromising her independence and values. Her sister also noticed the activity between her and her husband on Venmo and gave her some flack. Nonetheless, Kaylynn suggests other couples give it a shot. “It seemed like a logical solution to my financial insecurity and took a lot of stress off of our relationship, and it felt completely fair to both of us.” Now, the splitting is part of their weekly routine, done in bulk on Friday evenings. “We both grew up in single-parent households where our custodial parents lost absolutely everything in their divorces and then had to enter the workforce after years of staying home with us,” she explains. “Neither of us ever want to sacrifice our financial independence after watching how it burned our own families.”
Heather, 36, and Mike, 39, of Lancaster, California, use Venmo to split bills on a case-by-case basis. Both of them have children from previous marriages, Heather with two daughters and Mike with one. The couple each pays for their own children’s expenses and uses Venmo to split other shared purchases. Finances played a large role in each of their previous divorces, so moving forward, they’re committed to finding a system that works. “I rebuilt my finances from nothing after my divorce, and [Mike] was bringing debt into the relationship,” explains Heather, who works as an executive assistant in real estate. “I was like, ‘No, that’s yours.’”
While a few family members have expressed judgment of their system, they’re happy with it. “I don’t want to ask anyone if it’s okay that I make a big purchase,” says Heather. “Budgeting is easier when you’re in charge of your own financial goals.” Plus, her and Mike have very different tastes, a reality she didn’t want to lead to avoidable fights. “I might be saving up for a new piece of art or a new rug. He doesn’t want to spend $300 on art. Likewise, I don’t want to spend $300 on headphones or new speakers. If it’s not coming out of my finances, I can be happy for his purchase, and he might enjoy the new rug and never be stressed about the cost of it.”
A common thread between all of these couples was an insistence that their situation wasn’t too strict. Once splitting becomes part of your day-to-day life — and if both parties are truly comfortable with the system — it becomes second nature. Better yet, it’s helping couples have very real talks about income, expectations and emotional labor. In fact, before talking to me about the nitty-gritty of her family’s finances, Joey says she’s never been asked about her process before. “Why don’t people talk about finances more transparently? It’s so important!”