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Dear Asking for a Friend,
I'm about to move in with my partner and we want to be open about money. Do you have some suggestions about how to talk about combining our finances and dividing up work (budgeting, taxes) while keeping the stress level down?
Dear Moving In,
First, congrats! It's wonderful to find someone you want to share a life (and expenses) with, and that should be celebrated. I'm glad you wrote, because it shows that you're thinking proactively about this, rather than just sort of assuming it will work out. That's a huge thing in your favor.
This can be a high stress topic for a lot of reasons. Talking about money can be embarrassing and make people feel shameful and secretive. But it doesn't have to.
Let's break it down into three parts. I call them values, the balance sheet, and everyday stuff. They're all interconnected but it can help to take them one by one.
The values can be the trickiest thing to discuss. This is where what you learned at a young age comes out. The conversations your parents had, or didn't have, about money. What you think money is for.
One of the hard things about this situation is that you're essentially having a conversation about your commitment to each other, so try to be patient and forgiving. Pick a nice, calm time to talk — I am a blurter and can fail at this, as my husband will attest.
Try questions like:
- How were you thinking about money before we got together?
- What do you see our shared money being for?
- What are we working toward?
- Are there things that make you excited and/or nervous about combining finances?
Video by Ian Wolsten and Sofia Pitt
Then you can move to the balance sheet. Who has what: debt, assets, etc. Many couples come into a relationship with commercial debt or educational debt. So you want to talk about who is responsible for that. Some people opt for a yours, mine, and ours approach (I do this).
For example, each partner paying their own student loans and credit card bills, and contributing to a 401(k) if they have it, but splitting expenses for rent, groceries, and house maintenance — the things that will come from your salaries or whatever money you are bringing in on a regular basis. This is the time to be very frank about what you make.
One side note: You mention taxes, but you'd only be eligible to file jointly if you are married or in a common law arrangement, which it doesn't sound like will be the case for you, if you're just moving in together.
That leads me to the everyday stuff, both how it's paid for and who keeps track of it. In our household, my husband is the designated budgeter. He really likes reconciling what we meant to spend with what we actually spent, and will calmly spend an afternoon checking the spreadsheets. I ... will not.
Once you have a budget, you can divide up expenses. Some couples go halfsies. Others, especially those who make significantly different amounts of money, will pay for things proportionately. Perhaps one person has a Netflix hobby that the other doesn't care about at all, and so they take sole responsibility for that.
What really matters is in all of this is that you find a solution that is workable for you, and that feels right for your lives.
Remember that this is a work in progress. You don't have to decide everything immediately, but you do need to be open, honest, and emotionally generous in the process.
Lizzie O'Leary is a longtime economic and policy journalist. She hosts the podcast What Next: TBD at Slate, and is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. Prior to that, she created and hosted Marketplace Weekend, and worked as a correspondent for CNN and Bloomberg TV. She has also served as an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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