I moved in with my husband three years ago, while we were still dating. We both stood to save a nice chunk of change by living together before we got married. For him, it meant I’d be subsidizing his mortgage. For me, it meant a big savings on what I had been paying to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Milwaukee in 2014.
But figuring out finances while living with your significant other is bound to be more challenging than splitting bills with roommates. It takes some work to determine how to share costs in a way that’s fair to you both, while managing the emotions around money. With a little planning and plenty of open communication, however, you’ll be well on your way to cohabitation bliss.
Here are some tips and conversation starters as you prepare for life together under one roof.
Acknowledge income differences
When I moved in with my then-boyfriend, we made vastly different salaries. His job in procurement at a large corporation paid much better than my PR gig at a nonprofit.
For some couples, the solution to disparate salaries is to divide expenses by a percentage proportional to each person’s income, rather than splitting bills right down the middle. That’s how we handled shared finances, tracking every expense—including rent, Internet bills, and grocery trips. He covered 60 percent of the expenses while I covered the remaining 40 percent.
This approach worked for us, and seemed like a fair way for us each to have savings left over each month for the things we wanted to buy individually. For you, it could work better to simply go Dutch on shared bills. The key is to have an honest conversation about what works and feels right to you, so nobody comes away with hard feelings–or a depleted bank account.
Have the hard conversations so you can avoid fights and squabbles
Nearly one-third of spouses and partners say that money is a major source of conflict in their relationship, according to the American Psychological Society. Yet many of us were raised to believe it’s crass to talk openly about money. The reality is that honest conversations about money are a foundation for any healthy relationship.
The key is to have an honest conversation about what works and feels right to you, so nobody comes away with hard feelings
John M. Gottman, a relationship expert and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, writes that when we deal with money in our relationships, our reactions are guided more by our personal associations with money, rather than by logic.
But not all is doomed if your partner is a high roller while you prefer to hoard pennies under the mattress.
By learning each other’s personal histories with money, you can use that knowledge as a frame of reference and keep your discourse around finances civil and respectful.
“Work together with this new understanding of each other to create shared meaning around money that brings you closer, rather than pushes you apart,” Gottman says.
Your bedroom may be cluttered with a perpetual pile of your clothes and your partner’s mound of mismatched socks may be strewn everywhere. But finances are one area where you can’t afford to be messy.
Sit down with your significant other to decide the best ways to keep yourselves accountable. Will all the utilities be registered in one person’s name, or will you divide them? Will you pay bills each month by automatic transfer, or will you need to set up reminders to send in payments on time?
Make sure you’re both aligned on the same plan, so that no one comes home one day to find the electricity disconnected.
Anticipate big and unexpected expenses
Even with the best laid plans, life can throw you costly curveballs. If you stumble into a major expense together—like needing a new window AC unit after the old one breaks down—you can spare yourselves a potential headache down the road and decide now who will buy the air conditioner and who owns it, if for some reason the relationship ends.
Which leads me to one final point.
Keep your own rainy day fund
Unfortunately, some relationships don’t last, or can’t withstand a shared living space. That’s why it’s important to have your own rainy-day fund, which sometimes goes by another name that I won’t repeat here.
It’s also important not to get too accustomed to a lifestyle you can’t afford on your own, at least at the outset. If living together doesn’t work out, one of you could get stuck with the lease on a one-bedroom apartment that you could only afford together.
While I hope you’ll be living together for years to come, build up your savings in a bank account now, so that you can be financially independent in case your living situation changes someday.