I’ve been dating my boyfriend for about a year now, and when COVID-19 started, we went to stay with his parents in upstate New York. (We both live in Queens, but not together, and have roommates.) At first, we were both working remotely, and then I got laid off from my PR job. I’ve been looking for work, but it just seems pointless — no one is really hiring right now. I’ve been using my unemployment to pay rent on my apartment back in New York ($800 a month) and trying to save whatever is left over. I have about $5,000 in savings at this point.
My boyfriend’s parents recently brought up the subject of us paying them $400 each per month for food, utilities, etc. Which is fair — I’m happy to help cover expenses, especially since we’ve been here so long. But also, that’s a lot, and I feel like I have very little say in the matter — what food they buy, etc. Now my boyfriend wants us to stay here for the rest of the summer. He also suggested that I end my lease in Queens to save more money (the lease is up in August) and we’ll “figure things out in the fall.” I get that he’s trying to help me out, and his parents have been so generous — but I’m going a little nuts being cooped up without my own space, especially without a job. I also like my apartment, and I don’t want to lose it.
I can’t decide what to do. I’m torn between doing what’s cheapest (staying here and ending my lease) and what I actually want to do (keep my apartment). I’m scared of going back to the city and running out of money. And I don’t want to hurt my boyfriend’s feelings or seem ungrateful. How should I handle this? I’m feeling pressure to decide soon, because I have to tell my roommate if I’m moving out.
It sounds like you already know what you want to do: move back to your apartment in New York. You just have to figure out how you can do it without running out of money and hurting your boyfriend’s feelings — two very different challenges, but both surmountable. You have more agency than you seem to think you do. Sure, the coronavirus laid waste to all our plans, but that doesn’t mean you should throw in the towel on making new ones.
I know that a small voice in the back of your mind — in addition to an actual voice, coming from your boyfriend — is saying you should take this opportunity to ditch your apartment and save as much money as possible because the economy’s in the toilet and no one knows when it will improve. And that’s valid. But you have to separate your financial quandary from your relationship quandary, which is — I think — that you aren’t quite ready to move in with your boyfriend (or live with his parents for an undetermined amount of time). And that’s totally fine! You haven’t been together for that long, even though 2019 may seem like eons ago. The pandemic has obviously accelerated the relationship, but moving back into your own place isn’t a step backward. It’s more like a step toward restoring some healthy boundaries.
When I asked Megan McCoy, a family therapist and professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University, what she would recommend for you, she brought up the difference between “sliding” into cohabitation and “deciding” on it. “When you ‘slide’ into cohabitation, it’s because you’re reacting to life events, finances, and other outside factors that eventually just make it easier to live together, almost incidentally,” she says. “When you ‘decide’ to cohabitate, you’re making an active step towards commitment, and it’s more deliberate and intentional.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, research on these two types of couples showed that the “deciders” were more likely to stay together in the long-term than the “sliders.” The takeaway, says McCoy, is that if and when you do choose to move in with your boyfriend (ideally, you know, without his parents), you should try to not let money sway your decision.
Which is all well and good, in theory, but most people don’t have the luxury to make decisions about their relationships without considering their financial implications, especially right now. And nothing happens in a vacuum. (A major factor in my own decision to move in with my now-husband is that my apartment got bedbugs and I needed a new place to live. I wouldn’t call it “sliding” or “deciding” — it was more like a crash landing. But ten years later, here we are.) Anyway, my point is that you should be open with your boyfriend about your thinking — ultimately it’s your decision where you want to live, but this moment is an opportunity for you to talk about what’s good for both of you, too, financially and otherwise, and see how the communication goes.
Instigating these conversations will be tricky — and you might feel uncomfortable being assertive after depending on your boyfriend and his family’s support for these past few months — but the fact that you don’t want to seem ungrateful is a good instinct, says Debra Roberts, a couples therapist and author of The Relationship Protocol. “Start with expressing the gratitude that you genuinely feel for the generosity and kindness that he and his parents have shown you,” she says. “Make sure he knows that it’s heartfelt and appreciated on every level.” (And tell his parents, too. They probably won’t think you’re jumping ship just because you’re not getting a free ride anymore, but it won’t hurt to make that very clear.)
Roberts also recommends emphasizing that keeping your apartment isn’t a negative reflection on the relationship, or a black-and-white decision. “It’s not that you’re doing it to escape him, or his parents, or trying to get out of paying $400 a month to stay at their house,” she says. “It’s about the fact that you like your apartment and you want to continue living there as you look for a new job.” And honestly, I think anyone would understand that you need some space to yourself after all these months, even if it costs more than the alternative.
Also, I do want to point out that moving can be expensive, and renewing your lease could ultimately save you money if you factor in the costs of moving out, storing your stuff, and then getting a new place eventually. (You don’t need to make this argument to your boyfriend, but it’s worth thinking about.)
Speaking of finances — you do need a plan, and renewing your lease does carry some risk. It’s smart that you’ve saved, and you’ll need to stretch those dollars as far as you possibly can, especially since your unemployment checks will get a lot smaller when part of the CARES Act expires at the end of this month. Do the math and draw up a spending strategy (here are some helpful tools for doing so). Remember that it’s temporary; you’ll be less tempted to buy stuff if you remind yourself that this is just for now, until you find a job again. If you need extra help with budgeting, some financial advisers in the XY Planning Network are offering their services for free to people who are suffering from COVID-19-related loss of income.
Meanwhile, I know it’s discouraging to look for work at the moment, but you should start anyway, and cast a wide net. “A lot of people are feeling financial stress and anxiety right now, which can make us feel stuck and helpless,” says McCoy. “The best way out of that mindset is to remember that you have options.” Make lists of them, talk about them with your boyfriend, remind yourself of them every day. Most of them won’t be great, but at least they exist. And if the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that we’re capable of adapting to things we never could have imagined.