To My Girlfriends: How to be an Independent Woman in a Relationship

How to Be an Independent Woman in a Relationship - When I Have Time by Sara Rosso

I’ve been lucky to have great girl(friends) in my life, many of whom have been in relationships now for a decade or more, or several relationships across several decades. They’re married, single, divorced, single mothers, married with children, married never wanting children, living with their partners, doing long distance relationships, or just doing their thing.

Each relationship is incredibly different, just like each woman is incredibly different. Talking to them through the years, however, and through my own experience, it’s become clearer to me that there are some things all women in any relationship could be doing to nourish their independence in parallel while still being committed to the relationship.

You can love wholeheartedly and also be responsible about your future. Loving and trusting someone is not mutually exclusive with investing in yourself and and enriching your independence.

And most importantly, a relationship doesn’t have to have even a hint of discord or dissatisfaction for a woman to take an active role in the financial side of things. You can bring back additional knowledge and perspective into the couple, enriching both of you in the process.

Prudential’s study Financial Experience & Behaviors Among Women highlights that while “A full 95% indicate that they are directly involved in their households’ financial decision-making; 25% are the primary decision-makers. Eighty-four percent of married women say they are involved in financial and retirement planning and, of these, 15% have sole responsibility, yet stillFewer than two in 10 women feel ‘very prepared’ to make wise financial decisions. Half indicate that they ‘need some help,’ and one-third feel that they ‘need a lot of help.'” [source]

Increasing your independence is good for the couple, and it’s good for you, too. Giving space and attention to your own independence is not only important for the relationship you’re in, but also in the case of the potential end of a relationship, or as a result of an unfortunate accident or health problems which can leave you scrambling to make arrangements and important decisions while you should be grieving.

The focus of this article is uncomfortable. Talking about female independence, finances, love, privacy, trust, and longevity of relationships as they all relate to each other is uncomfortable. We can make things more comfortable by talking about them. By acknowledging them. You don’t have to agree with me completely, but you should be able to acknowledge that there’s a spectrum of solutions for everyone, and taking a more active and independent role will benefit both you and your partner.

If you’re a man reading this, don’t you want your partner to feel confident and prepared to make wise financial decisions together with you, or without you if you’re unable? Go through this list with your partner, and make sure you’re both taking steps for financial and emotional health.

Here’s advice to my girlfriends.

Have financial talks early and often.

The most important thing to talk with your partner about (after perhaps, sex, and how great it is and how often to do it) is how to approach your finances. You should revisit these talks often, like annually or semi-annually, and again with major purchases, job changes, general risk taking, and other financial situations.

Financial talks shouldn’t be a bummer. Make these talks enjoyable, like planning a mini-financial retreat (complete with a great dinner and perhaps a staycation or hotel stay) so that you can see these as power boosts for the couple (taking charge of money, yay!) rather than a nagging thing you have to do and subsequently want to avoid.

Here are some articles on approaches to finances for couples:

Have your own money.

It’s not really important who is the breadwinner and who isn’t. If you’ve already had your financial conversations, you know how much each of you can bring to the table with regards to your shared common goals and lifestyle aims. Depending on how much money you need to sustain your shared lifestyle, you should bake into that formula setting money aside for your own discretion.

If you aren’t able to contribute half of expenses for your shared lifestyle and have money left over, having discretionary money still needs to be taken into account. If you’re not making any money, you still need money for yourself. It shouldn’t be assumed you’ll have any leftover money from household expenses, and force you to make the decision between buying something the house needs, and something you need.

Talking about these things isn’t comfortable but it’s very important. This money for yourself is yours. Maybe it’s not a lot, but it’s yours. It doesn’t have to justified or accounted for, or examined.

Have your own bank account.

For your own money, you should keep it in your own bank account. Having your own bank account allows you to be accountable only to yourself, to allow parents to give you birthday or holiday cash gifts, and for you to plan surprises for your significant other.

My friend’s husband took out a large amount from their shared account. Seeing the substantial amount missing from their account, she naturally inquired about the sum, and discovered he had bought her a gift, which simultaneously ruined the surprise and the gift itself, as it was something she didn’t want anyway, and now she knew how much it had cost them.

Opt into Your Privacy.

One of my friends has a particularly sly ex. He came over to her apartment to take care of their children via a pre-arranged agreement while she was on one of her very few vacations. While she was away, her ex accessed her computer and downloaded all her private communication (including conversations between me and her which is infuriating and a crazy violation of privacy) and subsequently used those conversations as “evidence” against her in a lawsuit. Obviously this is an extreme example, but it could have easily been eradicated by having a password, and a strong one, on her computer from Day 1.

She didn’t have a password because her children also use her computer. Or perhaps you share a computer with your partner. But there’s an easy way to fix that. Most operating systems permit you to have guests or multiple accounts and have active sessions (applications open, like mail and browsers) on both, permitting you to switch users when you’re not at your computer, allow your children or your partner to access with no or a very easy password, and password protect your sensitive information via the other user.

Here’s information on how to set up users in Mac and set up users with Windows. And really, you should have 2-factor authentication and a password keeper set up for all your accounts. Don’t make your passwords easy to guess or break, and enable complex passwords on your phone, too.

You have the right to a private space and multiple places like social networks, email, and more to interact with friends and family without the risk of sharing your entire conversations, emails, or chats. Space to gossip, to brag, to congratulate, or even to vent. A space that’s protected from any friend, family, or other visitor using that computer in the future. Setting up better security for yourself doesn’t make you a bad partner (it actually could help you from getting hacked) and there’s no reason why your default setting should be set to privacy: off.

Plan for your health.

There are studies which show that married women have the lowest health and happiness when compared with single women, single men, and married men. Whether or not that’s an absolute, if you are in a relationship you may find it tempting to put the happiness of your partner or your children ahead of your own, or you may not even realize you are doing it until you step back and examine your behavior.

Make space and time for your health, starting with regular exercise and preventative health appointments.  Try to plan out which things you’ll be doing for your health in the next year, 3 years, 5 years. Take a look at some of the preventative things you might want to schedule in addition to regular physicals. There’s even a whole government site dedicated to women’s health.

Keep in constant contact with your (girl)friends.

When a relationship is going well, it’s really easy to fall into the other person and spend a lot of time with them, therefore spending less time with your friends, whether they are singled or married. This is natural, you’re in love! And love feels amazing. But don’t fall off the face of the earth, only to re-emerge when you things aren’t going well or you need emotional support outside of your partner.

Keep regular dates and catch-ups with your girlfriends on your calendar. You don’t need to do a crazy girls’ night out (unless you want to) but lunches, coffee dates, and dinners are great to catch up with what’s going on with them. And listen, too. Keep your girlfriends, or male friends if that’s who you’re close to, in the loop through thick or thin. If for some reason all your friends are shared with your partner, think about making a few friends just for you.

As a couple, avoid debt from overspending at all costs.

I’ve been debt-free for 11 years, and have studiously tried to avoid getting back into debt. In your financial discussions with your partner, make sure this is one of your goals, to stay away from debt as much as possible by examining your spending habits and lifestyle goals, and get into strategic debt for assets without overextending yourselves.

You may not even realize you could be liable for debt your spouse accrues while you’re married, even if you didn’t approve the spending! A friend of mine asked for a divorce and subsequently learned she was the proud owner of half of a $50,000 debt her spouse had racked up without her involvement. It took her eight years to pay off.

A great article from Yahoo! Finance about secrets of joint credit.

Get your name on all your assets.

Large purchases are hopefully something you and your partner are discussing during your financial conversations on a regular basis, and are things you want to accomplish together. If you’re buying a house or a car, your name should be on it. If you’re responsible for paying into the asset, your name should be on the asset.

Even if you’re not paying into the asset, you might be responsible for any capital gains or debt incurred by the asset, so get informed, and make sure you’re present in decisions regarding the asset.

The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau gives some great information about finances with a spouse (and lots of useful information in general).

Build your own credit rating.

In places like the United States, a credit rating is a score from which creditors measure how risky or reliable you are when it comes to buying things on credit. It could make the difference whether you can purchase a new appliance, car, or even a house. You can start to build credit in your name with your own credit card by acquiring small things on loan, paying down your assets and simply paying your balance on time, every time.

Some additional information on building credit from Wells Fargo and the Simple Dollar.

Prioritize time for yourself.

Make time for yourself across a variety of activities – getting active and healthy in the gym (if you can do it with your partner, this is really great, but make sure you aren’t dependent on them deciding if they want to join you or not to actually make this happen), setting aside private time for relaxing or meditation, indulging in your hobbies, or learning a new skill.

You shouldn’t have a bucket list you’re ignoring while you’re in a relationship, as it could lead to resentment. Try to chip away at the things you desire to do, and enlist your partner to do them with you, or at least support you in accomplishing them! Ideally you’ll have a big overlap of things you can do together, but 100% support from your partner on the things you won’t do together.

I’m a pretty big fan of Life Lists. Here’s how and why to create a Life List.

Plan for your retirement.

Are you taking advantage of your employer’s retirement planning and (hopefully) matching? Matching contributions from employers for your retirement is like free money. Make sure you take it. Even if you don’t have a job which contributes to your retirement, or if you don’t have a job (earned income) at all, you can still contribute to your retirement.

Here is some information about IRAs (including a Spousal IRA for married couples) from Schwab and how to make IRA contributions without a job from Forbes. Prudential has a whole site dedicated to Women and Money, including some Life-stage Checklists for single women, married women, widows, and divorcees, and Fidelity has joined as well with a site dedicated to women.

Establish your personal board of directors.

I really really love this idea from the Cinderella’s Guide to Financial Independence (ignore the name, love this list), to have a personal board of directors in your corner.

In your personal board of directors, you’ll want to establish and cultivate direct relationships with some or all of the following. Having these influences and experts in your life can only help you as a couple, and if you can have direct relationships with each of these, you’ll learn a lot more in the process and be able to contribute back to the couple’s financial goals and planning much better.

She suggests, and I recommend seeking some or all of these out yourself:

  • Certified Financial Planner
  • A lawyer, such as family law attorney and estate planner
  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA)
  • Mental-health expert, such as a marriage and family counselor or psychiatrist
  • Nutritionist
  • Health and fitness consultant
  • Friends and family
  • Spiritual guide

Would you add anything to my advice, or suggest helpful resources? Is there anything you disagree with? 

Sound off in the comments.

Image by Death to the Stock Photo, modified by Sara Rosso. 

21 replies »

  1. Very good post and a very very important conversation that all couples should have ! Independence in a relationship leads to an better bonding and respect for the other person as well and nobody is taken for granted.

  2. I really enjoyed this Sara and I am so happy to discover this blog! I think it is fundamental to a happy relationship to be independent and part of that is letting your partner (and yourself) be your own individual person. The financial aspect is so very important, because the more you are dependent on someone, the less of an individual you feel. I also strongly agree in having a wonderful group of girlfriends, ones that aren’t ‘negative nancy’s’ and that life you up.

  3. Me too on the enjoying it! I’ve been married 20 years and think it’s been good for my relationship with my husband that money isn’t a factor in whether or not I stay with him. Also, my dad set up my mom with her own accounts years ago so that when he died, she didn’t have to worry about cash flow or having her own retirement savings in case his took a while to transfer. He died last year and I handled all the financial stuff for her. It was super helpful.

    There is one part I disagree with: “One of my friends has a particularly sly ex.” I’m not sure he was *particularly* sly; I have a strong suspicion this happens fairly often. Maybe not the lawsuit bit, but definitely the privacy breach. One of the difficulties of keeping communications private when someone has access to your computer is that the password to the account on a computer is many times easily guessable / findable as you have to remember it or have written it down somewhere. And if someone has access to your computer, they have access to Facebook (2FA is only for unknown browsers for Facebook, so even if you log out, someone else with access to your computer can log back in), your email accounts in your email app and whatever else is on there. I think there’s a discussion to be had about security recommendations and what applies to people with dodgy exes / current partners who have physical access to devices, but that’s more a hopeful suggestion for a future post than the start of something here. 🙂

    A simple thing you could do is set up an email account that is not checked by your email app on your computer and requires 2FA each time you log in via your browser. Gmail could be good for this: enable 2FA and don’t register your computer or set up the account in your email app on any device someone else has access to.

    I hope that’s not too off topic, it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately for reasons that have nothing to do with my relationship, phew!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience – you’re totally right about sharing a computer and subsequently granting access to basically everything, which is why I suggest separate users/logins on the computer. Different users shouldn’t share browser cookies, so they’ll be forced to log in separately to each specific website.

      • I explain myself so badly, I’m sorry! I meant that even if you have your own password protected account on your computer, it can be hacked, especially by someone who knows you well and has physical access to it. It’s hard to have a suitably strong password for that; mine isn’t great, at least, and I have to be able to reliably remember it or write it down somewhere (or both).

        Having an email account which isn’t accessible on your computer won’t hurt and gives you a secure method of communication just in case.

      • It’s hard to have a suitably strong password for that

        You should look into this – for example Mac OS supports spaces in your passwords, so you can use pass phrases (words separated by spaces) which are definitely stronger!

  4. Reblogged this on Serious Simplicity and commented:
    A great post by Sara on financial and emotional independence. Aimed at women in “traditional” relationships but I think also applies generally to anyone in any relationship.

    If you’re happy and confident in yourself you’ll make a better partner.

  5. Been married for 11 years to my wife, and I make a decent % more then she does. The best thing we did upon marriage was ditching our personal accounts, getting rid of “my” or “your” account, and created “our” account. I make more but this quickly moved “my” income mindset to “our” income, which was just another step to a happy and successful relationship. Not sure by having individual accounts allows for such adaptation from both sides.

    I’ve found this allows for both parties to critique purchases, as they should for a healthy financial relationship. Yes I could be a jerk about the diff in income but that doesn’t lead to happy times. And I didn’t get into a relationship to have unhappy times.

    • My wife and I have a joint account also, which we both use. But our approaches to money are different, and I wonder if setting up individual accounts (in addition to the joint account) might be a more healthy solution. Basically all incoming money goes to the joint one, and all shared expenses come out of it, but the individual accounts are for discretionary spending. Just something I thought while reading this post, and think it could be better.

      Thanks for the interesting read, Sara! 🙂

      • Thanks for your perspective here! Happy that it is stimulating conversation / discussion! I think our (general our) tendency is to avoid these discussions when having them on a regular basis just helps to have you on the same page. 😀

  6. Great tips. But sometimes it’s not that easy. I agree with the early talks about finances. It actually helps avoiding problems later on. Now with “Have your own money” I have to say that I agree in theory but it might not be that easy. The moment you have children it all changes. For some it’s not possible or not easy to get back to work and even if you do, you might not earn a lot and it will all go into supporting the family. So even if you have your own bank account, it won’t really help if it’s empty.
    I guess it’s just very important that you try to stay as independent as possible. You never know and it makes you more secure for sure.

  7. Good advice for anyone in a relationship.

    I’ve noticed that some men (ok, me) neglect their independence within a relationship, and while that is typically less of a problem for a man than for a woman, rebuilding your life after a relationship is hard enough under the best of circumstances. In a relationship, maintaining independence is also a gift to your partner, the gift of a better you.

    There is a romantic notion of a relationship without boundaries, but a relationship where boundaries are thought out means you can really be more intimate. Erasing a boundary intentionally is relationship growth, thinking “there are no boundaries in love” doesn’t work with actual human beings.

  8. What a fantastic post. Thank you. I wish I’d read this 15 years ago! It took me a long time to take control of my financial education but I now feel much more confident in handling and discussing financial matters with my partner and feel it is an important foundation for our relationship. In becoming a mother this confidence was dealt a bit of a blow as it is hard not to lose momentum financially but I am back on track now and probably more confident than ever. I hope my daughter (and son) will arrive at this level of maturity from a very young age and we are certainly planning to educate them to ensure that is the case – they are only 2! I believe it will make them better people and partners.

  9. Thank you so much, Sara. It felt like this article is written for me, about me. I’m 31 year old, married 10 years ago. My husband has been a bread winner while I looked after kids. All these years I’ve felt insecure. Depending on my husband financially made me less confident. He is an extremely money conscious person and I’ve always hated asking money. He didn’t even join me to his bank account. One day I overheard teenagers’ conversation where they were discussing the amount of pocket money each get per week. My monthly allowance was less that that. Later I learned that this is called “financial abuse”. We’ve had so many arguments over money. I’ve had enough. Kids are starting school and I’m going back to uni and hopefully will get a decent job in the future. Everything you said is right and very very helpful. Thank you once more.

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