When it comes to relationships, I’ve historically insisted my partner and I split the bill straight down the middle. “Fairness” was of utmost importance to me. Whether that meant tracking expenses with an app or a spreadsheet, or dividing rent according to the proportions of our combined income, I’ve always wanted things to feel equal. If one person “treated” the other — which I preferred to keep to a minimum, dare it complicate the system — it would get repaid somehow. The goal was for the scale to always return to zero, ideally down to the cent.
At the time, I knew a bunch of couples who did it differently. I had one friend who would pay her and her partner’s shared rent, while her partner would cover the rest of their expenses. I knew another who switched off paying for things with her partner, kind of randomly, with little care as to whether or not the books stayed balanced. I knew a heterosexual couple in which the guy paid almost all the time, for no apparent reason. I didn’t so much judge these approaches as wonder about their implications. Could it really not matter? Didn’t resentment ever build? How did their feelings about money bleed into other parts of the relationship?
It wasn’t until recently that I loosened my grip on the perfect split. Although the guy I’m currently dating is happy to split when I insist, which is almost always, he also says he derives genuine pleasure from occasionally buying me coffee or dinner. It’s nothing forced, and I never feel patronized, but it’s taken some getting used to. When I recently brought it up, he explained that footing the bill every once in a while is simply one way he expresses affection or appreciation, the same way I might send him an interesting article or bring him a treat from work. For him, it’s simply another form of currency among the many forms that exist in a relationship.
We’ve been mulling over our conversation ever since. Neither of us claim to have the right answer, but broadly, I’ve started enjoying our fast-and-loose approach. It makes treating each other on a whim feel more special. Something about it feels more even-handed and comfortable, somehow, than being so strict.
When it comes to pre-relationship dates, my feelings have seen a similar evolution. Whereas I used to feel staunch in going half-and-half from the get-go, as if it were the upmost expression of feminism, I’ve softened with age. There are other factors to consider, aren’t there? Who planned the date, who wants to express what, and all other kinds of emotional entanglements, right?
In the case of heterosexual dating, one friend of mine, who admits to being old school, says she prefers the guy to pay for the first few dates as an expression of his genuine interest — then she moves to splitting. Another friend of mine cited U.S. statistics about women making less on average than men, while also being expected to spend more on things like health and beauty products, as reason enough to let a guy pay if he really wants to. I have as many friends who disagree; they don’t want the unspoken expectations that might come with being paid for, nor do they want to feel “taken care of” in the sort of archaic, gender-normative sense. My gay friend adheres to the inviter-pays approach, another one says he always splits.
My general feeling on the topic is that it’s more complicated than I’ve previously given it credit for. As my relationship with money and feminism and everything changes, I’ve started seeing so much more gray where I previously saw black and white, which is why I’m curious to hear how you do it, or feel about it. Whether you’re dating, in a relationship or neither, what’s your ideology around splitting the bill, or finances in general? Is it a conversation you’ve had often, or something you leave unspoken? Have your feelings on the matter shifted?
Photography: Louisiana Mei Gelpi
Creation Direction: Emily Zirimis