The Definitive Guide To Budgeting For Unmarried Couples

“If you must keep score, play golf.”
Splitting expenses and saving money can be tricky when couples move in together.
gradyreese / Getty Images
Splitting expenses and saving money can be tricky when couples move in together.

There comes a time in all young people’s lives when they have to venture out of Mom and Dad’s house and into the world of autonomy. And as we all find out eventually, being an adult is really expensive.

That’s why when securing a first apartment, most people need a roommate to split costs and save money. But when it came time to find a place of my own, I had heard plenty of Craigslist horror stories and had no interest in taking chances on a stranger. So I did what 18 million others have done: I moved in with my significant other.

However, one of us earned quite a bit more than the other. At the time, I had no idea what that would mean for our new living arrangement.

Significant Others Are Not Roommates

Moving in with a significant other is completely different from sharing space with a stranger or acquaintance. Roommates split bills with you down the middle to the very last cent. You write your name on your food in the fridge and hide your three-ply toilet paper. If they don’t pay rent on time, you can kick them out and find someone else.

For most, living with a boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t work this way. One person buys takeout, the other grabs movie tickets. You went grocery shopping, he picked up more dog food. Relationships mean sharing many aspects of your lives with each other, so money naturally gets messier when you’re romantically involved with the person you live with.

Even so, it’s important to remember that you’re still two unmarried individuals with your own incomes and financial goals. So how do you keep order in the household budget without treating your loved one like a roommate?

How To Split Expenses

When both people in a relationship have the same income, splitting expenses is a no-brainer. But when one person earns significantly more than the other, splitting expenses down the middle can leave the lower-income partner financially strained — not to mention resentful.

Jennifer de Thomas, a certified financial planner in Portland, Oregon, said she has many clients who are unmarried and living together who struggle with splitting costs evenly. An even split is often considered intuitively fair — that is, until years later, when the lower earner has no savings and the validity of that intuition comes into question.

“A percentage of income is much more fair and reflects more closely how more traditional families handle budgeting,” said de Thomas. So if one person earns $60,000 per year and the other earns $30,000, it might be better for the higher earner to cover two-thirds of the shared expenses rather than half.

Remember That Time Is Money

In addition to putting money toward living expenses, partners in a relationship can also put in other types of work to contribute their share.

Taking on chores and other household duties in place of contributing money toward bills might be a compromise for couples when the income disparity is large or when one person spends more time at home than the other.

For example, maybe you hate doing dishes and are allergic to grocery shopping. Your partner can step up by covering all the supermarket runs and agreeing to dish duty for life.

But remember: Like finances, take a flexible, balanced approach to splitting responsibilities. One study found that couples who share household chores have the best sex lives. So pass the dishrag!

What About Savings?

When it comes to saving money, things get even trickier. Mary Beth Storjohann, a certified financial planner and the founder of Workable Wealth, said it’s important to determine where the relationship is going before deciding whether to save separately or as a couple.

“If this is a forever kind of commitment, consider saving equal amounts into a joint account each month to be utilized for travel, big purchases or even an eventual happily-ever-after event,” she said.

However, don’t neglect your own needs. If you decide to save jointly, make your personal savings the first priority so your “own accounts and assets are still being built upon should things not pan out as hoped,” Storjohann added.

And don’t take the decision lightly. Daniel Larsen, a financial adviser in Austin, Texas, fully advises against a shared savings account before marriage. “Due to the fact that an unmarried significant other has no legal claim to the savings of his or her partner, it is usually best to keep saving considerations separate until marriage,” he said. It’s important for both individuals to save for their own futures, because “relationships can and do end abruptly.”

To ensure your long-term financial goals are met, it’s probably smarter to keep savings separate from shared daily living expenses — just in case.

Don’t Let Money Problems Become Relationship Problems

Unmarried partners should pay close attention to their finances and be transparent with each other. However, if you believe in your relationship, there’s no reason to nickel and dime your partner.

Anne Nicolai, an editor, said that when she shared expenses while living with a significant other, “the less I worried about the numbers, the better the relationship felt for me.” When she earned more than her partner, she paid for more. When she earned less, she paid less. “The problems occurred when one or the other of us started counting. Once you do that, it’s a sign that the relationship is ending.”

It might go without saying, but living with a significant other solely for financial reasons isn’t the best idea. If there isn’t anything more substantial than a lack of money holding the two of you together, the relationship won’t last — and will probably end badly.

On the other hand, if there’s a solid foundation and you’re fair and trusting with each other, the numbers won’t always have to add up perfectly.

As Nicolai put it, “The question is not about math. It’s about maturity. If you must keep score, play golf.”

Of course, if you’re unsure about the future of your relationship, it never hurts to be prepared. According to de Thomas, a cohabitation agreement is something unmarried partners who share bills might want to consider. An unmarried couple’s equivalent of a prenup, a cohabitation agreement forces partners to address the responsibility each is able — and willing — to shoulder. Keep in mind that it can be expensive if you involve lawyers, but it is a good form of protection should things not work out.

A similar article by this author was previously published on HuffPost’s defunct contributor network in 2015. It has been updated throughout and republished under the reporter’s staff byline.

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