My partner and I have been together for about three years now. We don’t live together, but lately my partner has been saying that he would like to start cohabiting – not necessarily immediately, just at some point. Mostly I’m the one saying “let’s not.” There’s a few reasons for that, but a major one is financial.
I work full time at a higher wage than my partner, who works part time. He’s frequently out of money by the time his next paycheque comes, while I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been straight-up broke, even when our incomes were more comparable. When we go out, I usually pay, which is not a problem for me; I’ve also occasionally lent him money for things he really needed, like a bus pass at the beginning of the month, and when something is clearly expressed as a loan, he’s fairly good about paying me back. However, I’m not totally on board with the way he prioritizes his spending. For example, his bed frame has been falling apart for the last year and a half. He said he couldn’t afford to replace it – but in that time, he’s definitely spent more than the price of a cheap Ikea bed (let alone a Craigslist find) on books and games.
I’m not criticizing him for spending his money on things he likes. It is, after all, his money! He’s a grown-ass man and he earned it. I’m also not his mom, and neither he nor I wants me to nag him about financial responsibility. Basically, I just slap a big ol’ Not My Problem sticker on about 90% of his cash flow crap and move on with my life.
My concern is that if we do move in together, I will start shouldering not just most of our financial responsibilities, in accordance with my larger earnings, but ALL of them. I worry that if we did get together, he’d know that the rent would get paid and food would get bought no matter what, so why not go ahead and spend whatever he feels like – not inconsistent with what I know about his spending habits. He’s also got a big pile of student loan debt, and if we’re cohabiting and eventually end up being common-law, I don’t want to take on responsibility for that.
It feels cold, but basically, I’m afraid that moving in with my partner will mean taking a financial hit. It’s not necessarily one that I can’t afford, but it is one that I don’t want.
I’m not immediately on fire to move in with my partner right now – it probably wouldn’t happen anyway, for a number of reasons – but should I mention this to him as part of my reasoning? If so, how do I do that? And if we do decide to make that commitment together, how do we address this problem as a couple?
Not Subsidizing Anyone
Dear Not Subsidizing:
You are a smart cookie and you should keep listening to that voice that says “living together is not a good idea for us right now.” How to manage money and household chores is the kind of stuff people romantically and optimistically hope will work itself out because: happylovefeelings! and this is the kind of stuff that has people calling (very expensive !) movers and breaking leases vs. (arguably more expensive!) grudgingly cooking every goddamn meal for 14 years. You don’t have to have 100% the same spending priorities or views about money, but living together successfully means creating some shared priorities around money and making sure that you can talk honestly about money. Some couples split everything down the middle, some couples do a more proportional divide based on income, some have one partner supporting the other outright and all of those arrangements are dandy if they work for everyone involved and if there are opportunities to renegotiate built in.
My first question is: Do you see yourself ever wanting to live with him? You say you’re not on fire to do it right now for a lot of reasons. Do you see this as a long-term, possibly permanent relationship, like a marriage? Is your sole objection to the idea of this about his finances, or is his question disrupting the comfortable status quo in a way that makes you realize that you don’t truly see this as a long-term thing and maybe now you have to decide whether to move forward together or split up altogether? Before you have big talks, I think it’s worth sitting with the question “5 years from now, where do I want to be living” as a daydream. What does that dream space look like? Where is it? Who is there with you? Is it in your current town or is it in Tierra del Fuego? If his question is shining a light on things in the relationship you’ve been spackling over as “good enough for now,” you owe it to yourself to figure that out. After three years you probably have enough information to decide either way. You might say “I don’t really see us doing that” or “that’s not in the plans for me right now” and find that he is happy to not live together if that’s how to have you in his life, so it doesn’t automatically mean a breakup. Just remember, dumping someone is NOT the time to fix them, so if you break things off just leave the money talk untalked and go with “When you brought up moving in together, I realize I really don’t want to, and if that’s the case, maybe we’ve run our course as a couple.”
If you’re down with the plan of eventually living together, but you worry that his expectation for living together is that you’ll pay the bills and replace the broken beds and he’ll buy video games, that’s something you need to find out for sure. So ask. Do it when you’re both relaxed and when you actually have time to talk.
“Boyfriend, you’ve been talking about wanting to live together, and I’ve been thinking about it, too. I confess I’m still getting used to the idea and I’m not all in, yet, but I’d like to know, how do you see that coming together? What neighborhood or kind of place would you want to live in? What’s your timetable for possibly doing this?”
Let him tell you the exciting stuff he’s excited about. What is he imagining, even? Does it jibe with your imaginings? Then ask him, “How do you see us managing shared moving costs and living expenses if we did that? How do you want that all to work?”
Then let him tell you. Just listen to him, this isn’t the conversation where you try to reshape things. Be very gentle, with him and with yourself. This conversation might bring up a lot, and I mean, A LOT, of Stuff, and it can’t be a trap you are laying for him (if that’s what it is, just break up now!) He may not have thought it all the way through until you asked him, and he may say some things that he doesn’t realize are unrealistic until he says them out loud. He may have some plans for getting his life in better financial shape and using the idea of the move as a savings goal, and those plans may be realistic or unrealistic in the mostly forgivable way that everyone expects certain milestones to change who they are. If he carries a lot of shame about money and the financial disparity between you, it might be like pulling teeth to get him to say anything like “Well, since you earn more I was hoping you’d be the primary rent payer” out loud, but if that’s the truth then you’ll both hear it between the lines. Give him the chance to pleasantly surprise you.
Again, if you want to live with him eventually, I cannot over-stress the importance of making this first conversation NOT be the one where critique his financial priorities. It has to be less about fixing him than about you figuring out together how to regularly talk honestly about money and other logistical stuff. If you’ve got your prepared laundry list of Things that Need To Change, but it’s the first time he’s really thinking about it all and together you have no baseline, then the conversation probably isn’t going to go so well. He’s not oblivious, presumably, and the implication is already there when you bring it up, but I think you can say “Well, we handle money stuff very differently, and while we live apart it’s not really a thing we need to talk about ever, but if you’re talking about living together, then we have to figure out how to talk about it. I just wanted to get a sense of your plans and expectations around how this would work before we’re trying to make big decisions, and I want us to maybe schedule regular talks where we talk about money stuff and future plans. So I want us both to think about that more, and then you tell me when you want to talk about it next time, say, in a month or so?”
Then put on a movie or do something fun (something fun that doesn’t cost money – after you have this conversation, the next time you do things that cost money, expect that it will get a little bit weird and for you to both be a little self-conscious about Who Pays).
You’ve set the stage for both of you to think hard about money stuff. You’ve put it out there that it’s part of your decision matrix for moving in. Do some more thinking about what he said and about what your own priorities and boundaries are. The conversation wasn’t a test (honestly!) but if he said something really boneheaded like “I assumed you’d just handle all that stuff” then you have some information that you didn’t have before (or, maybe you had it, but it wasn’t out there like a fart in a car). Since you made a clear request for him to be the one to initiate money/logistics talks, it may be a long time before you have more money talks. Or, when a month comes up, you may say “I’m still thinking about some of the stuff we talked about last month, about moving in and money. Can we talk about it?” And that’s when you say stuff like “I want us both to be on better financial footing before we set up a household together, for example…”
For example…What kind of things would set your mind at ease and what would get you both on the right track? Has he enrolled in an Income-Based Repayment program for the student loans, which is a way of actually dealing with them, or is he just endlessly deferring/forbearing them into the File of Denial? Is he able or willing to get a full-time job, or a second part-time job or freelance thing, to pay down any debt and accrue some savings? Would you want each of you to have $X in savings before you moved in together, to cover moving costs and as an emergency fund? Do you set up some kind of proportional thing, like, you make a budget for household expenses and you pay x% and he pays smaller y% and you set up a few savings accounts (emergency fund, long-term stuff, fun) and both put x/y% of money in there, and once you’ve both done that all other money is yours/his to spend without judgment or having to consult the other partner? If you decided to change jobs, or go back to school, what would the plan for that be?Is it time for you to both save up together for a fun goal, like a trip away, and see how you do with a joint plan? What does he suggest, as this can’t be about you parenting him into good money choices or doing all the emotional work of figuring out a shared life? Keep in mind, it is all negotiable, and it all should be negotiated and not left up to gender roles or “I just assumed you’d be cooler about this” or optimism.
- Somewhere in the Offbeat Empire (hi, Offbeat Empire!) lurks a really neat notepad thingy that couples can use to have weekly talks about stuff, including money, so that you make a habit of talking about certain stuff routinely without it being a Big Make-Or-Break Talk. I can’t find the link right now (this is close, but I’m talking about an actual notepad thing with different squares for different topics).
Readers in the know, find me This Thing?We found the thing!
- Things To Talk About Before Shacking Up, from The Billfold (Hello, Hairpin Empire!) – this is a good agenda for a conversation that definitely covers money stuff but doesn’t single it out.
If that all feels like “yay, the person I love most in the world and I will be Adulting together in our shared awesome future” then you’ve got a pretty good shot, maybe. If your gut reaction is “graaaaah so much WORK”, I hear you. I hear you. Do the thinking you need to do, and start the process and the conversation.