Personal finance

3 financial tips for couples moving in together for the first time

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This August, two years into their relationship, Yumi Temple and her boyfriend, Daniel, moved into their first apartment together, in Denver.

It was Temple’s first time living with another person, outside of family, and she quickly learned there was a lot to navigate.

The couple decided to see a therapist, to work through their differences and find the best ways to communicate. Temple, 28, recently quit her full-time job and is trying to get a business off the ground; Daniel is a full-time engineer.

“I just wanted somebody on speed dial to help us with the issues we’d inevitably come into,” Temple said.

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Money is one of the biggest tension points for couples. And when people move in together for the first time, many financial questions and tasks arise, leaving room for disagreement and awkwardness.

Handling the transition proactively and honestly — and being open to vulnerability — can prevent a lot of problems along the way, experts say. Here’s a look at three financial tips for cohabitation.

1. Determine how expenses are paid

One of the first conversations a couple moving in together should have is about how expenses will be paid, said Wynne Whitman, co-author of “Shacking Up: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Living in Sin Without Getting Burned.”

Splitting costs evenly is not always fair, experts point out — especially considering that women still earn, on average, 18% less than men, according to a Pew Research Center Analysis of Census Bureau data.

“Is every expense split 50-50? ” Whitman said. “Is there another arrangement if one partner earns more?”

“Making a decision and sticking to it removes a lot of stress.”

After Hailey Pinto and her boyfriend graduated from college in Connecticut, they decided to take a shot at living together.

Pinto works remotely from their one-bedroom apartment in Charlotte, North Carolina, where her boyfriend got a job offer at a bank. They don’t split their $1,900 monthly rent 50-50 but instead according to their income levels, since it is their biggest expense.

“It’s almost like a 60-to-40 split,” said Pinto, 21. Meanwhile, they share their other expenses evenly. “We try to keep it fair.” 

When it comes to the lease (assuming you’re renting), experts recommend that everyone who lives in the apartment be on it.

Is every expense split 50-50? Is there another arrangement if one partner earns more? Making a decision and sticking to it removes a lot of stress.
Wynne Whitman

That way, Whitman said, “both partners are equally responsible and have equal rights.”  

For their part, Temple and her boyfriend also have a third roommate in their Denver rental. All three of them are on the lease of the 3-bedroom apartment, where they share rent according to square footage.

As uncomfortable as it sounds, you should also have a talk with your partner about what to do if the relationship ends, including who would stay in the residence, Whitman said: “It’s always better to have a plan,” she added.

Some couples who are first moving in together prepare a cohabitation agreement, in which they outline who gets what, such as the place itself and any furniture, if they go their own ways, experts said.

2. Talk about money like you do the dishes

Just as cleaning the kitchen and vacuuming need to be done on a regular basis, so do certain financial tasks, Whitman said.

“Include financial management as one of the chores when making a list of who does what,” Whitman said. This includes making sure you’re sticking to a budget, getting the bills paid and tackling any debt.

Forgoing initial conversations around money “will expose you to risks down the line,” said certified financial planner Sophia Bera Daigle, founder of Gen Y Planning in Austin, Texas. You need to learn about each other’s spending patterns and debt, Daigle said.

Whitman also suggests regular chats about your financial goals, big and small.

“If one partner is interested in saving to purchase a home and the other would rather spend every penny on going out, count on a lot of friction,” Whitman said.

Couples might have “money dates” once a month to discuss their financial anxieties and aspirations, said Daigle, a member of the CNBC FA Council. “Continuing these conversations will help hold each other accountable,” she said. “Make it into a fun topic rather than a taboo.” 

You shouldn’t expect your partner to be a mind reader, added Whitman.

“Share your views, ask questions, talk about what is and isn’t important,” Whitman said.

Knowing each other’s history is also important, she added. “If you have experienced food insecurity, share this with your partner.”

These discussions can help shed light on your financial behavior.

3. Don’t rush to combine finances

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Couples who have just moved in together probably don’t want to rush into combining their finances, including accounts and assets, Whitman said. There is time for that.

For shared bills, you can have a small joint account, “with each partner contributing monthly,” she said.

For those who opt to keep things completely separate, they can pay rent and larger expenses from their individual accounts by writing two checks, or with one person sending half their costs to the other, who pays the bill directly.

Taking the step of cohabitating is a kind of test run to see if your relationship could stand the long haul, said Benjamin Seaman, a psychotherapist in New York. That’s why it’s important to try to do things right.

“Put your cards on the table, come to an understanding of where you are and where you want to be, and use this as a chance to learn about each other’s raw spots and strengths,” Seaman said.

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