my two cents

What If I Don’t Want to Combine Finances With My Live-in Boyfriend?

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Dear Charlotte,

My boyfriend and I are about to move in together, and we’ve never really talked about money. We’re in our early 30s and have been dating for two years. I know we both have student loans and I think we’re in the same range of income, but besides that, we spend pretty differently and I have no idea what he has saved. We’re compatible in many ways, but the idea of combining our finances or even talking more about them seems daunting at best. (If I’m being honest, he’d probably be horrified by some of the frivolous stuff I buy.) Is it a bad idea to just split living expenses down the middle and leave everything else separate? Or will this create a situation where we’re not open with each other, and cause friction down the road? How do we even start this conversation without it turning into a fight?

You’ve probably heard the prognosis: According to a chorus of financial experts, couples who aren’t in constant, soul-baring communication about money are basically doomed. In fact, if you and your boyfriend aren’t dying to sit down, crack a bottle of wine, and whisper adorably about your salaries, retirement plans, and the price of that questionable skin-care product you just ordered on Amazon, red flags abound. You may as well go ahead and end things now.

Except: The quotidian realities of many relationships today, particularly among younger couples like you and your boyfriend, don’t fit the old standard of financial transparency. Previous generations got married earlier and built their assets together from scratch; today, Americans pair up later (last year, the median age for first marriages reached a historic high), so they’ve had time to develop individual financial habits and histories — for better or worse — that may not mix easily. As a result, you’re in good company: According to multiple reports, about a third of married and cohabitating couples born after 1981 don’t even have a joint bank account (compared to 13 percent of baby-boomers). They’re also less likely to have joint credit cards, with 60 percent stating they keep at least one card separate or don’t share any at all (compared to 48 percent of baby-boomers).

Not only is it the new normal to maintain financial autonomy from your partner, I would argue that it’s healthy. To be clear, couples who want to pursue the “what’s mine is yours” model should go right ahead, but if you don’t, that’s reason enough to take a different route. My own husband and I still keep all of our accounts separate, and Venmo each other when our collective expenses get uneven. Some might say it’s unromantic, more like a roommate arrangement than a marital one, but I think it reflects a mutual good faith — he doesn’t need to know the whereabouts of my money to be confident in my ability to handle it, and vice versa.

But there is a difference between laissez-faire trust and turning a blind eye — and the danger to being opaque is that you might not be aware of troubling behavior until it’s too late. How do you communicate effectively without becoming the money police, or keep certain expenses to yourself without being secretive? What’s the Goldilocks level of money discussion: not too little, not too much, but just the right amount?

First, know that your distaste for this subject is natural. “An aversion to talking about money is extremely common,” says Manisha Thakor, the vice-president of financial education Brighton Jones, a Seattle-based wealth management firm. “Reasons for discomfort can include shame about one’s knowledge level or circumstances, feeling like it’s too personal, or even a lack of interest in the topic.” The urge to put it off doesn’t necessarily mean anyone’s hiding something — this can be a boring slog of a conversation, and maybe you’ve had a long day.

Still, you’ve got to kick it off somehow. “The directive of ‘just be more open with each other’ doesn’t do much for most couples,” says Megan Ford, a therapist who studies family finances at the University of Georgia. Instead, she recommends starting with logistical queries. “A good way to wade in slowly is to talk about how you organize your money,” she suggests. “Ask about one another’s preferred ‘process,” or budget, and highlight what you feel you’re good at versus what’s more of a challenge.”

Meanwhile, do your best to stay neutral. Criticism — even if it’s meant to be constructive — will only backfire at this stage. “If one party feels judged or flawed, it will create avoidance, and that damages the intimacy of the relationship,” says Ford. “More practically, it can get problematic when important decisions or actions concerning money are not attended to — for example, someone was supposed to handle a bill, but didn’t want to discuss it and ended up with a late fee, or made an expensive purchase without the other’s knowledge and now can’t afford to cover other expenses.”

Chances are, you and your boyfriend might circle right back to the “you do you” approach, and that’s fine. But make sure you’ve explored other scenarios, and be honest with each other about why they don’t appeal. “I always ask couples to share their goals for their finances, as well as what they saw growing up, and any arrangements in past relationships that didn’t work or were detrimental,” says Ford. “Through that process, a financial arrangement typically begins to take shape. To pool or not to pool is an individualized decision, and there’s no one size fits all.”

Even if you decide to keep everything apart, you’ll still need to establish some expectations for transparency, especially since you’re moving in together and one person’s financial crunch will affect both of you. (For instance, you should both be clear on a backup savings plan, in case of job loss or some other emergency.) To make sure you aren’t just hearing what you want to hear — a common issue with couples and money — you might even draw up a contract of sorts (I love essayist Mandy Len Catron’s description of that process, here). Also, this isn’t a one-and-done talk. Ford sent me a list of the questions that couples who keep their money separate should ask each other regularly: “Will we share our financial data? If so, how often? Are we going to work toward shared financial goals? If yes, how do we want to contribute? What money situations (e.g., spending, saving, investing) should we consult one another about, if any? What may indicate that this arrangement is not working?” A template that you return to can help destigmatize the conversation, and provide framework to think about it independently — and together.

Finally, don’t underestimate the possibility of helping each other improve your finances, even unintentionally. When I first moved in with my now-husband, my bookkeeping was abysmal; I could hardly even remember to pay rent on time. When I watched him stack up bills and systematically pay them on Sunday nights, it practically blew my mind — and then it rubbed off on me. Meanwhile, I’d like to think I’ve given him good advice on initiating financial talks with some of his family members. Even if you and your boyfriend never pool your money, you’ll hopefully become a shared resource for each other, greater than the sum of your parts.

What If I Don’t Want to Combine Finances With My Boyfriend?