The most stalwart Independent Operators, I found, are not like Kate and Max or Mike and me: They are mostly unmarried and they don't have kids. Or if they do, the kids are more likely to be from a previous relationship.
Carol, 59, and Richard, 62, represent this kind of arrangement. (I've changed their names at their request.) They have lived together in Portland, Ore., for nearly 17 years and have no plans to marry. This is how '90s their courtship was: Richard wooed Carol by mix tape. Neither has children, and neither has been married before. Carol is a Young Adult novelist and freelance writer, and Richard's an accountant. "My money is my money, and I don't want anyone else to have a legal claim on it, even the person I love," Carol explains.
Typically for Independent Operators, according to my survey, Carol and Richard are in the same income bracket. This makes sense: If you're keeping money completely separate, you probably want to earn and spend at comparable levels, or else things could get uncomfortable. Think about a vacation for which one half of a couple wants to fly first class and stay at a five-star resort in St. Bart's, and the other can only afford to drive to Jones Beach for a day trip. "I'm a little more spendy, but it involves very minor negotiations over whether we should buy a $400 piece of furniture or a $250 piece of furniture," Carol says. "We're in the same range about how we want to live our lives."
Carol knows this is key from experience. Because she's a freelance writer, she's endured a few years when her income was quite out of step with Richard's. At her earnings nadir, she made only $15,000 a year. Richard loaned her a couple thousand dollars that year, and she scrupulously paid back every cent. Anya, 28, has a boyfriend who was laid off in January of 2009 and has been looking for a permanent position ever since. She says she realized recently she might "just have to bite the bullet and pay for him if I want us to do something fun," she wrote to me. The lesson for I.O.s: In the event of a large earning disparity, you have to either combine resources for a time or commit to the lifestyle of the poorer partner.
Research suggests that when low-income couples have kids, their relationships tend to suffer when they keep all their money separate. A recent study of couples with children in the journal Family Relations shows that couples who earn less than $50,000 and have independent money management systems "reported lower levels of relationship satisfaction and less agreeable methods of resolving conflicts than when couples share a joint account." This goes for both married and cohabitating parents. Another study of mothers with young children (PDF) and their partners showed that married couples who kept money separate were more likely to split. This makes sense: If you can pay to feed your kids only by pooling resources, it will lead to strife when you don't.
Even Carol, who describes herself as a "hard-liner" Independent Operator, concedes that she and Richard don't make enough to do it this way forever. "What will happen years from now if neither of us is earning income, we're living off our retirement savings, and one of us has some kind of horrendous medical or nursing home expenses?" she wondered. After thinking about it for a second, she said, "Towards the end of our lives there will be the impulse for more sharing without rigorous payback rules." When Carol says this, I fast-forward 50 years and see my wizened hand writing a rent check to Mike over the kitchen table at our assisted-living facility, his wavy white hair covering the tops of his ears (yes, he still has hair). This seems even more absurd. I don't think I want to wait for some kind of health catastrophe for Mike and me to support each other financially.
The How-To Part: Managing Independent Operator Accounts
For now, Carol makes sure she and Richard are truly splitting everything down the middle. They manage their household budget by putting into an accordion folder they call "the bin" a receipt with their initials on it for each bill paid toward shared expenses. This includes groceries, stuff for the house, vet bills for the cat, and travel tickets. Every few months, Richard pulls up a blank spreadsheet, and Carol reads every receipt aloud, saying who paid for what.