Congratulations! You’ve decided to move in with your significant other. Trouble is, one of you makes more than the other. Maybe one partner has decided to go to school to improve their skills or get new ones. Or, perhaps, they’re paying off student loans? What if one person is starting their own business? Or they’re on maternity leave? Maybe one partner simply makes more money. Either way, how do you deal?
First thing is to have a conversation about money, says relationship expert and creator of The Kindness Journal, Dr. Natasha Sharma. “Money is tricky because it is often a sensitive spot for people, particularly in our culture, because we put so much importance on it and tie it to self-worth. But it’s a must-have conversation. Some people think, we’ll figure it out as we go along, but that doesn’t work well,” she says.
She recommends approaching the conversation as you would if you were talking about having kids, or getting married. “One person can initiate it and say, ‘I think it’s a good idea for us to chat about how we manage our money, and how we manage our life together in that respect.’ It’s unromantic but extremely important,” she says.
Toronto couple Melissa, 24, and Dylan, 25, who have asked for their last names to be omitted, seem to have the money talk down pat. The couple rents a house in Milton, and while they’re used to splitting expenses 50/50, since they moved to Canada from their equal-paying jobs in the United States, Melissa has been covering the bulk of the rent and bills while Dylan waits for his work permit to be approved.
“It’s been a big change; we’re figuring things out and taking it day by day,” says Melissa.
While circumstances are strained right now, renting together is something they’ve been doing a long time. “We’ve lived in three different states. We used to be roommates before we started dating. We were already used to that idea of splitting up our money. After we started dating, we thought, ‘This works, let’s just keep doing it,’” says Melissa.
While Melissa and Dylan are a great example of open and honest communication, Sharma says that for other couples, it can help to share the conversation with a third party. “Talking to a therapist, counsellor or financial advisor can be easier and can feel less personal. It levels the playing field, as opposed to one person running the show or being perceived that way,” she says.
When it comes to reaching an agreement, finance advisor Marylou Heenan recommends getting something in writing. “It’s good to put something in writing, and to make sure that the agreement is fair in a lot of ways,” says Heenan, a Certified Cash Flow Specialist (CCS(tm)) who provides clients in the GTA with a written plan and strategies to manage their cash flow to create wealth at all stages of their lives.
Heenan says it can be an informal agreement that sets out how you’re going to do things for the time being, and when you’ll take another look at the agreement. “Obviously the person who can’t put in as much rent is not bringing home as much money, but maybe they can contribute in other ways—doing the grocery shopping, looking for deals. Their contribution is not the same dollar-wise, but they can still be taking responsibility,” she says.
Heenan notes that there are ways to find equality when partners make different amounts of money. “If you can’t share the rent equally, try sharing other expenses equally—like groceries, or entertainment,” she says.
Once you’ve got a plan, Heenan recommends looking at it every six months or so. “If things change, those are the terms to look at in the agreement again and ask yourselves, ‘Do we keep things the same or shift things a bit?’ Maybe the one partner is ready now to make more contribution to the rent.”
Over time, the partner who is paying less can contribute more toward rent. “You can work out a schedule,” says Heenan. “When they’ve reached the point that they’re making an extra $200 in their business or at a new job, then $100 can go to an additional payment toward rent.”
While the partner who is contributing less shouldn’t be spending their money on luxury items, “Most people still want a little bit of mad money,” Heenan says. “Figure out where you can economize and leave yourself breathing room.”
Another thing to consider is what each person brings to the relationship, says Sharma. “These days, couples are bringing debt—whether personal or education. Discuss how you will make these payments, and how this factors into what you can pay toward joint expenses.”
When it comes to how joint expenses are paid, Sharma recommends a joint account. “I think the best money management solution is one joint account where each person makes a deposit on a regular basis to cover joint expenses like rent and groceries,” she says, noting that each person can keep a separate account for personal expenses and purchases. “The separate and joint accounts promote independence, as well as closeness and attachment,” she says.
The key to managing money as a couple is honest, open communication. “Just be super honest about it; the more you hide, the more it will bite you in the butt later,” says Melissa, who shares that 10 per cent of her paycheques goes to savings and that the couple has a separate account for emergencies.
“When we have some money, we talk about what we can do with it. If we have it, we share it. When money is tight, we’re always making money decisions in terms of budgeting. Those are conversations that need to be done together, openly,” says Dylan, who shares that they use Excel and Mint to organize their finances. “Sit down and talk. Make a monthly budget and spreadsheet. That way you can plan and see what’s coming up. You can actually save more.”
“No matter who is putting in what, it’s very important that couples communicate about living within their means and keeping what each makes transparent,” adds Sharma. “You need to be on the same page about how you can live. Especially today with FOMO and Instagram, it’s easy to spend more than we’re capable of. Don’t be ashamed of that as a couple. If you can’t buy a car, take an Uber. Living in your means is better than living large and in debt.”