Surrounded by the romance of Paris, Peter Johnson proposed to his partner Franco Ramos in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral in 2015, presenting him with a radiant diamond engagement ring.
Without hesitation, Ramos said yes, capping off a dream holiday vacation. He couldn’t help wondering, however, how in the world Johnson was able to afford that beautiful ring.
“It was the best Christmas gift I had ever received,” Ramos recalled. “But part of me slightly panicked. We were in the process of buying a home, and I had to wonder how he was able to get enough money for this ring. To this day, I still don’t know. What I do know is that we made it work, had an amazing trip, and were well on our way to buying our home.”
Looking back now, Franco and Peter Ramos-Johnson realize that, until that moment, they had lived nearly autonomous financial lives. Though both had years of experience in the financial services industry, they really didn’t know much about each other’s finances for a long time.
As a couple, they’re not alone, especially in the LGBTQ community where, until recently, many couples found themselves maintaining separate finances amid the shifting and uncertain legalities of same-sex marriage.
Now, as the U.S. approaches the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, a growing number of same-sex couples have adapted to the new normal, using the communication skills that have long been the conventional wisdom for all couples in resolving money matters.
“We know that talking about money can generate tension in all relationships,” said John Lake, who leads the marketing efforts for Wells Fargo’s LGBTQ consumer segment. “This tension was often more challenging for same-sex couples because of legal uncertainty. With marriage equality, same-sex couples have fewer barriers and can reap more benefits from an honest financial conversation.”
Give-and-take strengthens relationship
For the Ramos-Johnsons, who are now business consultants supporting Wells Fargo Bank’s branch teams, years of open communication with each other have taken them from autonomy to unity in their relationship, they said. From the start, there were distinct differences that took time to come to the surface and resolve.
To be sure, both were committed, responsible savers — a habit ingrained in them as children of large families with many siblings and hard-working parents struggling on tight budgets. Peter Ramos-Johnson tends, however, to be a long-term planner, while his husband loves spontaneity and spending in the moment. In the give-and-take of learning to compromise, their relationship grew stronger.
“I like to spend — period,” Franco Ramos-Johnson said, laughing. “I used to think that if I had some savings, any other ‘extra’ cash I have should be spent on fun! But Peter has helped me learn how to better prioritize my spending and, reluctantly, I have worked on changing my ways.”
Talking openly and honestly about some money matters began early for them, like when they were dating and deciding something as basic as who should pay the tab for a meal, Peter Ramos-Johnson said.
“Traditional gender norms around who pays for dinner can leave a big question when it’s two guys on a date,” he said. “Navigating through that simple piece has grown and informed other elements of our relationship as we have matured together.”
Overcoming barriers of independence
Same-sex couples — especially older ones — often find it quite difficult to share their financials and collaborate on money decisions, said Maureen Ayral, a financial advisor for Wells Fargo Advisors in Tampa, Florida.
“There is a fierce independence among many same-sex couples,” said Ayral, 61. “Whether you are male or female, there are some factors that can inhibit sharing and lead to that separation of finances. If you have children from past relationships, for example. There’s just a different type of familial relationship in place that many people feel they have to deal with themselves.”
For some older couples, that financial separateness has become entrenched after living through decades when same-sex marriage was illegal, she said. Now, despite the marriage equality ruling, some are still reluctant to marry and combine their financial resources.
Still, there are signs those attitudes are changing as same-sex couples gain confidence that the benefits of marriage are for real and here to stay, Ayral said.
“Obviously, the ability to get married (legally) is still relatively new,” she said. “But I do believe more older same-sex couples are realizing there are benefits, like protecting your lifestyle with long-term health care, Social Security benefits planning, working to buy a house, and other cost-sharing together. It’s all part of having (legal support for) a more serious, long-term mindset in the relationship.”
From generation to generation
Older same-sex couples are not the only ones struggling with independence in their relationships. Some LGBTQ millennials also tend to put distance between their partners and their finances, said Fernando Velandia, a financial advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors in Tampa and a colleague of Ayral’s.
“In that age group, which is my own demographic, I have found that when it comes to sharing financials with a partner, millennials will often only go so far,” he said. “Eventually, some realize the value of opening up in the relationship, but of course it is very hard to do. They remember living through the recession. It’s tough to tell someone else about what they owe now or what they or their family lost then.”
A milestone moment in LGBTQ relationships — or any relationship — can come when partners begin talking about buying a home together, Ayral said.
“If you haven’t opened up with each other already, that is a great time to start sharing your financial assets, values, and behaviors with your partner,” she said. “Then you can determine for sure whether this is something you should own together and what sort of risks you would both be facing. It’s an important time to lay all your cards on the table, because it can also uncover some unhealthy or unsafe financial behaviors and give you an opportunity to change them.”
Marriage, home, and children
The Ramos-Johnsons had been a committed couple for years when the subject of buying and financing a home together came up. It was a relationship milestone, which revealed both their differences and their similarities, as they systematically examined their finances, savings, financing, and affordability of homes on the market, Franco Ramos-Johnson said.
“It was the right time because, at this point, we knew we would be spending the rest of our lives together,” he said. “We agreed upon a comfortable price range that would allow us the freedom to still enjoy vacations and not put all of our investments into one location. It was tempting to look at homes outside of our price range, but Peter was very diligent at reigning me in — even though I still snuck out a couple of times to look at some really expensive homes!”
The relationship skills they honed in the homebuying experience have helped the couple in every financial decision since, including their latest goal — saving to adopt a child, Peter Ramon-Johnson said.
“In my role at Wells Fargo Bank, I’ve reassured my clients that every couple will find their own level of financial intimacy,” he said. “There can be so many factors leading to how each couple manages their unique financial playing field. We have long said that the secret to our relationship is having separate bathrooms, and for years, that applied to our finances as well. But we have definitely learned how to grow together by managing our money together.”
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