my two cents

‘Can I Still Charge My Boyfriend Rent Once We’re Married?’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Dear Charlotte,

My fiancé and I live together. I own the house (it’s paid off) and he pays me $500 a month. The bills for the house are very low and come out to about $300 a month, so essentially he’s paying $200 in rent. He thinks that once we get married he shouldn’t have to pay rent anymore, and that we should split the bills evenly. He’s also stressed because he has accrued some debt (about $15,000) since we’ve been together, which is partly why he thinks he should pay less. This frustrates me, because I worked so hard to pay off my house early and I feel like he’s taking advantage of that. He has made less money than me the entire seven years we’ve been together, and it’s been a constant issue in our relationship. I think that the man should contribute a bit more than the woman. I’d love to split everything and own a house together, but he’s nowhere near being able to do that. What’s the fair option once you are married? 

Well, you can start by forgetting about the “fair” option. Sharing money when you’re married is like being married in general — it isn’t a static equilibrium. You might figure out a tidy system that works for a while, but then someone will forget a bill or change jobs or want to buy an expensive new lamp/bike/shirt/dog and suddenly you’re at each others’ throats again, haggling about who should pay for what. There’s no use seeking out a perfect algorithm or set of numbers, because you don’t live in a vacuum. Instead, you have to learn how to muddle through the weird, shifting ecosystem of your merged lives. Which means learning how to talk to each other about money, even if you don’t agree most of the time.

That said, your concerns about marrying someone who doesn’t have his financial ducks in a row — or anywhere near yours — are valid. I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories about women who, 40-plus years into a marriage, are still clinging to false hopes that their spouses will make more money, spend less, stop “investing” in harebrained business schemes, or worse. I’m not saying that your fiancé doesn’t have the capacity to evolve toward better financial habits — he might! But if he doesn’t, will that be okay with you?

“Part of marriage is accepting another person for who they are, right now,” says Laurie Israel, an attorney and author of The Generous Prenup. “Many people don’t ever change, on a basic level. Your fiancé may never earn as much money as you. He may never be as careful with spending.” If that makes your stomach drop, the quick and dirty solution would be to sign a prenuptial agreement. The particulars of what’s in it will depend on the marital laws of the state where you live, says Israel. But the gist is that you’d have a legal document saying that no matter what happens, your house will stay in your name, and your fiancé’s debt will stay in his. It will likely cost a couple thousand bucks and require annoying appointments with lawyers (see here for more information about the process). But it will also draw clear lines in the gray areas that are bothering you, and perhaps assuage some of your anxiety.

But a prenup could also exacerbate the underlying problem, which is that you have expectations for your fiancé that he may never meet. “Prenups work best when they are as equal as possible,” says Amanda Clayman, an L.A.-based financial therapist. “If one person feels disempowered, or feels disrespected by the process, it can be quite damaging to the relationship.”

So before you initiate the prenup conversation, zoom out. “Generally, there’s a reason why people team up with someone who is different from them,” Clayman explains. “In regard to money, I see a lot of couples where one partner wants their point of view to be imposed on the other partner, and for that partner to comply. What these couples need is to recognize that there is a wisdom in their differences.” For hyper-planners (like you, it would seem), a partner who’s more laid back with money could bring some much-needed spontaneity into the picture. And for someone who’s a little too loose with their finances (your fiancé, perhaps), a more structured counterpart is ideal.

While you’re at it, think about where your assumptions about marriage are coming from. Did your dad always make more money than your mom, for instance? Did your mom always want you to settle down with someone wealthy? Did your favorite aunt tell you that never, under any circumstances, should you marry someone in debt? In the context of your own relationship, these models for marital success may not really make sense, or deserve the weight you’re giving them. Maybe you’re simply better at making money than your fiancé, and that’s fine! (Just because there’s a persistent gender wage gap doesn’t mean that you should expect him to make more than you. He’s not the average man. He’s just a man.)

On that note, ask your fiancé about his beliefs about money, too. What informed them? Try not to judge or get defensive when you’re asking. Just listen. Your objective is to learn how to talk more openly, not to convince him why you’re right and he’s wrong. There’s no way he’ll ever relate to finances the same way that you do — the topic is too subjective. But if you can both explain where you’re coming from, you’ll both have better tools to work with, and he’ll be more equipped to give you what you want.

And if a prenup is still the answer, then approach it on tiptoe — it’ll require a series of very sensitive, awkward discussions. Clayman recommends bringing it up like this: “Here’s something I’m thinking about. It would make me feel safer about X, Y, and Z financial things. I’m afraid that if I don’t have this kind of protection, I will be really vigilant about some of your choices. What do you think about that?” And then give him space to process and respond to you.

As for your rent question: What’s the long-term logic? Nickel-and-diming over what he should pay to live with you seems like bringing a knife to the gunfight that is building shared goals. Just split the monthly bills and let him put that $200 in “rent” towards his debt. Ultimately, that should benefit both of you. If he’s shackled to an old credit card balance, he won’t be able to contribute as much to that cool vacation you want to take together next year, or whatever you want to pool your resources to do. Having the house in both your names may not be in the cards for now, but just because he isn’t homeowner material doesn’t mean he should be treated like a tenant.

‘Can I Still Charge My Boyfriend Rent Once We’re Married?’