When I first moved in with my boyfriend, we only talked about money once. Specifically, we discussed how much to spend on rent, and I’m pretty sure it was settled via text (actually, BBM — this was 2010), and quickly. Not that there was much to hash out. We both wanted to pay about the same amount that we had previously, which was about the same as each other. That was that.
Once we officially co-signed a lease, we celebrated by co-purchasing a doormat with both of our names on it. Then we continued to split costs the way we always had — down the middle, like roommates. We wrote separate rent checks. If I ate the yogurt he’d bought, I replaced it. We even paid for separate laundry services, for reasons I don’t remember but apparently made sense at the time. We skirted the topic of money so thoroughly that we didn’t have our first financial disagreement until we were planning our wedding five years later. (Flowers. I still wish we’d had more of them.)
Ideally, the point of moving in with your loved one before you do anything legally binding is to make sure you’re compatible on certain logistical levels — finances being a big one, but also other life habits like tidiness, attitudes about dishwashing, and little things that can turn into deal-breakers if they hit critical mass. It’s a test run.
What many people don’t anticipate, though, is that you can easily keep ignoring money after you cohabitate, particularly if you both have similar incomes and can cover your respective expenses. Financial autonomy is good — essential even, in my opinion. But you shouldn’t conflate it with avoidance, which is a slippery slope. In our case, my spouse and I slowly became more and more entwined with each other’s lives and futures without knowing how to talk — or, more importantly, how to argue effectively — about our finances at all.
Fortunately, we’ve been able to sort this out, but that’s due to luck more than anything else. Looking back, I wish we’d talked about money at least a little bit more (actually, a LOT more) before we jumped into the same apartment together. Today, a lot of our financial conversations still feel like we’re catching up.
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here are the questions I wish we’d asked each other sooner. Maybe don’t bring them up tonight … or do! Romance and money may be unlikely bedfellows, but take it from me — the more you mix them, the less weird it gets.
1. How do you handle your money right now?
Part of the reason I was more than happy to let the money topic slide was that I was embarrassed about how badly I managed my own cash flow at the time. Throughout my 20s, I basically just muddled through each paycheck and tried not to overdraw my checking account (with varying success). If I were moving in with me, I’d probably want to know about this behavior, or at least not have it obscured.
I’m not saying I should have presented copies of my bank statements and delivered a blow-by-blow of my financial shortcomings. But I do wish I’d been more up front about how anxious and dumb money made me feel, and set a precedent of honesty. “Truth is always the best disinfectant,” says Manisha Thakor, the founder of MoneyZen and a vice-president at wealth-management firm Brighton Jones. “As a society, we all have shame around money, and there’s no magical way to discuss it. The thing to do is acknowledge that awkwardness, and start with the understanding that it’s a difficult conversation.” From there, you can open up about more specifics as they come, and as you feel more comfortable.
2. What expenses do you plan to share, and how will you keep track of them?
This process is what Thakor refers to as defining the three buckets: What’s “yours,” what’s “mine,” and what’s “ours”? It may seem straightforward, but it’s surprising how much we assume about which expenses should be joint and which ones shouldn’t. And even when you’re both on the same page, establishing a system of splitting costs can be another hurdle.
About a year into cohabitation, I exploded in a rage about how I was sick of being the one who always bought household stuff like paper towels and garbage bags. It wasn’t the money that bothered me so much as the presumption that I would do the chore (but yeah, the money bothered me too). I also didn’t want to have to ask him, because that still put the onus on me. Couldn’t he just, I don’t know, pay attention to when we were running out of toilet paper and go buy more?
Turns out, he had no idea that I’d been stewing about this. In fact, he assumed that I liked buying that stuff because I preferred certain brands or something. He was more than happy to pitch in. All I had to do was bring it up! I assume that you can see the lesson here, but because that was my mistake, here it is: Be explicit about the costs you want to share. And write them down if you need to. For bigger household items, we now keep a Google spreadsheet of who bought what and how much it cost. At the end of every month, we tally up the numbers and split the difference.
3. How was money treated while you were growing up?
Everyone has emotional baggage when it comes to money. Maybe your parents always argued about your dad’s spending habits. Maybe your mom lost her job when you were 9 and the family was super-strapped for a year. Or maybe no one in your household ever talked about finances at all and you have no idea where to begin.
“Our attitudes about money are shaped by how we grew up with it,” says Dr. Brad Klontz, a psychologist, certified financial planner, and founder of the Financial Psychology Institute. “It’s only by understanding that background and how has shaped your current behavior that you can make fully informed decisions about how you want to manage your finances, and how you want to integrate them with someone else’s.”
4. What does your credit look like?
Some of the sadder emails I get are from people who suddenly find out that their spouse of a billion years has a bunch of secret debt that has destroyed their credit. You do not want this to be you. But I also hate reading stories about people who want to discuss credit scores on first dates — like, really? If you are one of these people, you do you, but I’d cut and run if someone I barely knew felt entitled to that information.
My point is, there’s a time and a place to talk about these things. And it’s usually after people get to know and trust each other. Remember, people with bad credit scores are not automatically bad with money, just as people with good credit are not automatically good with it. The whole system is pretty dumb and arbitrary. Still, you want to know where your partner fits into it before you share a home, because it will affect your ability to buy or lease things in the future. It can also reflect a person’s general financial literacy. In my opinion, your actual score is less important than knowing what it is and why, and being able to talk about it.
While you’re on the topic, this is also a good time to disclose any debt you have. It’s normal to dread this. But if your partner reacts negatively, what does that mean for the future of your relationship? Better to find out now than later.
5. How do you picture your future?
The fun part! This is when you sit down and talk about big plans, even if they sound absurd. Do you want to start your own business someday? Own a house in Nicaragua? Buy a miniature donkey? Throw it out there. See how your partner responds. Riff off each other. You don’t need to plot out a 20-year plan, but maybe come up with a few things you hope to accomplish, finance-wise, in the next year, and come up with ways that the other person can offer moral support. When you live with someone you love, they see you at your highest highs and lowest lows, so they have a unique insight into what brings out your best. Let them.