Money questions to ask before moving in together

Amy Fontinelle

By Amy Fontinelle
Amy Fontinelle is a personal finance writer focusing on budgeting, credit cards, mortgages, real estate, investing, and other topics.
Posted on Feb 14, 2020

Are you ready to take a step forward in your romance by moving in with your partner? Are you nervous about whether the experience will strengthen your relationship or reveal previously hidden deal-breakers? It’s impossible to learn all of someone’s quirks without taking that step. But you can plan ahead to help things turn out the way you hope.

Along with discussions about chores, guests, and bedtimes, you’ll need to negotiate shared finances. It might not be wise to commit to cohabitation before learning each other’s expectations. Who will pay for what, and how much?

Couples may want to discuss these topics:

If you’re not sure how to have this conversation, consider using the framework below to plan it out.

Starting the discussion

If you’re moving in together, you probably have a strong relationship with a promising future. Still, many people are uncomfortable talking about their finances, even with the people they’re closest to.

Dan Dollevoet, or Dan the Money Coach, is a retired director of finance who now works with individuals, families, and small businesses to guide them on finances. He suggests that couples who want to move in together create a joint budget for their future living situation. (Related: How to make a budget)

The budget acts as a tool to communicate without judgment, Dollevoet said in an interview. Through the budgeting process, you’ll learn something about where each person stands financially. You’ll gain a clear understanding of what the shared expenses will be and whether you can each handle your share comfortably.

How will we share the rent?

Whether you’re renting a new place together or adding one partner to the other’s lease, you’ll want to decide who will pay how much and why. In most cases, a 50-50 split will be the logical choice. However, some couples might prefer to pay rent commensurate with their incomes if one partner earns substantially more.

If you don’t already know your partner’s credit score, you might want to ask before applying for any rentals. One partner’s poor score could mean rejections, wasted application fees, and lost time.

Overall, it’s important to get on the same page about what you can comfortably afford so neither partner gets in over their head. If you start off living together from a position of financial strain, it could easily lead to relationship stress.

Also, think carefully about your lease term before you commit. “A month-to-month lease is the easiest to unravel if things go sideways,” Dollevoet said.

How will we share property owned by one of us?

Moving in together adds a series of business transactions to a personal relationship. Those business transactions can be trickier if one partner will be moving into a home that the other partner owns. Technically, the owner will be building equity with the help of the other partner, their new renter.

Your hope may be to one day get married and own the home together, at which point it won’t matter who paid what when.

But in the meantime, “Whoever owns the property would absolutely want to have a lease drawn up,” Dollevoet said. “It’s a formality and people may not be comfortable doing it, but it protects each party.”

You may or may not need an attorney, depending on where you live and the complexity of your agreement, but at a minimum, getting the signed agreement notarized will strengthen it.

Buying a home together ... sans marriage has additional challenges.

How will we handle hard times?

Regardless of your living arrangements, it’s important to address what you’ll do if one of you can’t pay the rent one month, several months, or several years due to unemployment, serious illness, or disability.

One partner might decide to cover more of the bills until the other gets back on their feet. Or, the partner who is still working might make a personal loan to the one who is down on their luck. This arrangement, too, can be formalized. It’s important to acknowledge up front that bad things might happen and discuss how you might deal with those possibilities as a couple. (Related: Is disability income insurance worth it?)

“Ultimately, the other party is responsible for their part of the bills,” Dollevoet said.

One thing that can help, he suggested, is to avoid living in a place at the top end of your budget. Find a place that meets your criteria for comfort, convenience, and safety but is more affordable than the nicest option.

Consider a renter’s insurance policy to cover both your and your partner's belongings. If either partner owns anything especially valuable, inquire about adding a policy rider to protect it.

How will we share the utility bills?

Dollevoet suggests that couples moving in together use the same approach to paying utilities that college roommates use. As with housing, start from the assumption that you’ll split everything. Then, if it turns out that one partner is always cold and runs up the heating bills, the couple might negotiate on that person paying more.

If you’re setting up new utility accounts, it may be easiest to trade off. One person can put the electric bill in their name, the other person can put the gas bill in their name, and so on. Other couples may prefer to open shared accounts with both individuals’ names on each account.

Speaking of shared accounts, does living together warrant a joint checking account?

Michael Roloson is the founder of PEO Focus, a small-business consulting firm that assists with employee benefits and retirement accounts. His company uses MassMutual’s MapMyFinances platform for its clients’ retirement vehicles. He told us how he and his now-wife, then-girlfriend managed joint finances when they moved in together.

“We set up a joint account and we contributed a set amount of money each month,” Roloson said. “Everything we bought that was for us came out of that account,” including living expenses, meals, travel, and dog care.

“We both had access to the account, so we could both see whatever we wanted,” he said. This arrangement worked well in part because “we are both pretty laid back people. We both do well at managing money but we do not scrutinize every penny,” Roloson said.

“The reason why we did what we did is we felt it was a way to set up our finances as a couple without making it complicated,” he said. Putting money into the joint account each month just felt like paying another bill. Instead of focusing on splitting expenses all the time, “we were able to focus on what we were trying to build together in our relationship,” Roloson said.

How will we share food costs?

Food is a minor expense compared with housing and utilities. But food spending can take up a small or a large part of your budget depending on your habits and preferences. And if couples aren’t on the same page, it can cause friction in the relationship.

Food choices also tie in to the division of household labor. Who will do the grocery shopping — or will we have groceries delivered? Who will cook the meals? Some couples share these tasks equally. In other relationships, the partner who enjoys cooking takes over that task and the partner who doesn’t mind grocery shopping handles that chore.

It’s also important to consider how often you’ll get takeout, delivery, or go out to eat. How much room do you have in your food budget? And what if one of you buys pricey health food and the other likes to shop at the discount grocer? You might discuss whether to divide all food costs evenly, or pay in proportion to your preferences.

What happens if things don't work out?

Acknowledging to each other that living together might not work out, for reasons you can’t see now, is an act of mutuality. It shows maturity and respect for your partner. How you set up your living arrangements ahead of time can minimize any financial strain that could result from a breakup or a decision to return to living separately.

Discussing these financial questions before moving in together might feel awkward or even silly. But, remember this: Your goal is to enjoy a smooth relationship going forward. That’s something you both want. Ideally, the money conversation will bring you two closer together and increase your confidence in the relationship.

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.