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Dear Money Mom,
I have a long-standing issue with my boyfriend. We’ve been together for eight years, lived together for six. At first, made close to the same paycheck and could easily split shared bills equally. Then he was laid off and, after a long period of trying to find something that paid him his same salary, he ended up taking a full-time job that paid him less. Meanwhile, I’m in the stable office job that I’ve held for six years, and I now make significantly more money than he does. When I’ve approached him about splitting the bills, he reminds me that he makes less than I do and will be left with less “pocket money” if we split things, even though I frequently went without pocket money when he was unemployed and didn’t complain. When we try to sit down and do the bills together, we invariably end up arguing because we don’t agree with each other on what should be paid and when. Is there truly a peaceful way as a couple to handle the bills every month and make it feel fair and equal to both of us?
I recently surveyed a large group of friends to ask how they split bills with their live-in partners. The vast majority (all except two people) responded that they divided their shared costs down the middle, while the few who contributed disproportionate amounts (either more or less) said it was because of a significant income disparity that they viewed as temporary. One friend, a freelancer named Maria, is currently in your boyfriend’s shoes: Just as she and her partner were moving in together last month, her main contract ended unexpectedly, and she hasn’t been able to chip in for rent like they planned. “We had it all worked out to split everything 50/50, but then I suddenly couldn’t afford to, and I felt terrible,” she says. “Obviously, it’s not what I wanted. But my boyfriend is covering it while I look for new work, and luckily, our total rent is still less than what his was when we lived separately. I hope to make it up to him once I can.”
Striving for an even split is par for the course with many young couples, particularly since they’re more likely than ever to be making similar incomes; in fact, if they’re urban-dwelling, unmarried, under 30, and don’t have kids, females are statistically the higher earners (by a hair). This tends to result in convenient, equitable arrangements — one person pays for Netflix and cable, the other picks up the electric bill, you Venmo each other for half the rent; groceries and Seamless blend together because who cares, it all evens out in the end, right? The only downside is that you could hum along for years under the same roof without learning how to recalibrate the inevitable shifts in income that happen over the course of people’s lives. The chances of your respective incomes marching upwards in perfect lock-step for the next few decades are practically nil, so you’re better off learning how to deal with it now.
One potential fix is purely mathematical: divvy things up based on your comparative incomes. (For example, if you make $700 per week and he makes $300, then you’d pay 70 percent and he’d pay 30 percent.) However, this comes with its own set of problems. “In the past, I’ve been a big proponent of proportional expense-splitting relative to income, but my views have changed in recent years,” says Manisha Thakor, the founder of MoneyZen and author of Getting Financially Naked: How to Talk Money With Your Honey. “Given that women face stronger financial headwinds — we earn less on the dollar, spend an average of 11 years outside of the paid workforce to care for children or other family members, and live longer — we need to take greater measures to protect the money we make. I’m all for female breadwinners, but I am starting to see far too many young women picking up the slack for men who are no longer contributing equally but want to maintain the quality of life to which they’re accustomed. For the average woman, that burden has much bigger long-term consequences than it does for the average man.” (Exhibit A: Women over 65 are 80 percent more likely to live in poverty than men of the same age.)
Instead, Thakor advocates for cutting back across the board. “I often advise women in these situations to have a tough-love conversation about how the household income has decreased, and there will need to be a commensurate reduction in overall household expenses,” she says. “Sure, this may give her a little more in discretionary income than he has. But my concern is that otherwise, she might get royally screwed.” (In the meantime, make sure that you’re still tending to your personal long-term savings, ideally by following the 50/30/20 rule — 50 percent of your paycheck goes to “needs,” 30 percent to “wants,” and 20 percent to long-term savings, with at least 10 percent going to retirement investments, if not more.)
Lowering your standard of living won’t be an enjoyable process, but it can be a flexible one. Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, the author of Breaking Money Silence and founder of KBK Wealth Connection, recommends looking at it as a series of experiments. “Each couple needs to make it up as they go along, and check in and see what feels right at various points in time,” she says. “A lot of people think that if you decide on a strategy, you have to commit to it for the rest of your relationship. Instead, think of it as, ‘Okay, new job, new situation, we’ve just come out of a tough patch. Let’s try out this arrangement for a few months and see what it feels like.’”
While you’re at it, be sensitive to underlying anxieties that your boyfriend (or you, for that matter) might have about money. He might be a little spooked. A job loss — and subsequent income dip — would make any rational human more conservative with money. Try to approach your collective budget from an empathetic place rather than a combative (or a comparative) one.
It also sounds like you could use a more systematic approach to your expenses. This goes without saying, but it’s essential to pay all your bills (including loan payments) on time and in full, no exceptions. If they’re stacked towards one end of the month instead of the other, leaving you flush with one paycheck and strapped with the next, then tweak the due dates (many companies will shift your billing cycle if you ask). Then, work with your boyfriend to automate all your payments. Not only will that put a stop to your monthly arguments, but it’ll save you the pain in the ass of going online (or — worse — write actual checks) to settle up every couple of weeks.
It may take a while for things to feel “even” — and by then, your incomes could change again. But these temporary ebbs and flows are also natural in a long-term relationship. Writer Hanna Rosin has described this concept as a “seesaw marriage,” where the role of breadwinner tips fluidly back and forth between a couple over the years, depending on the phases of their individual and collective lives (one person goes back to school or takes care of kids while the other holds down the financial front, and then they trade off). “The division of earnings might be 40:60 or 80:20 — and a year or two later may flip, giving each partner a shot at satisfaction,” she writes. The key to fairness isn’t striving to maintain a rock-solid 50/50 at all times, but making sure you communicate what you need when the ratios tilt.