The views expressed here are those of the essayist and not the LearnVest staff, but we look forward to opening the floor to debate and discussion, so tell us what you think. This Money Mic is part of a conversation about living with your partner—click here for the opposing view.
A Seductive Idea
First off, let me say that I have no moral qualms about cohabiting: No “Why would he buy the cow …?” arguments here.
In fact, I lived with my ex-boyfriend through most of my twenties before we finally broke up—which is why I would never move in with someone again, unless I was certain I was going to spend the rest of my life with him.
Why? We’ve all done the back-of-the-napkin math, and, when you do, living together can look seductive. Half the rent! Half the utilities! With the added fun of playing house.
I get it—that’s why I did it. And in the short-term, I agree: Living together can look like a good deal. But in the end, it can turn out to be ugly, financially and emotionally. In the long-term, shacking up can cost you far more than any savings you rack up. And don’t just take it from me.
Despite the fact that the commitment-shy tend to use living together as a litmus test before saying “I do,” it’s actually a better predictor of divorce.
The Financial Perils of Playing House
“I moved in with my boyfriend mainly because I was tired of commuting to Brooklyn,” says Sarah*, 24. “But I did only pay $700 a month. So that was a perk.” In six months, she’d saved $4,900, as compared to living in her old apartment.
Then, just six months in, the relationship ended. All of a sudden, Sarah needed somewhere to live—and fast. She paid for movers ($300), for storage ($100) and for a real estate broker to find her a new place ($1,800). And now that she’s got one, she’s faced with refurnishing: “I have to buy all new furniture because I got rid of it all when I moved in with him,” she says. “I don’t even want to think about how much that will cost.”
Financially, at least, she’s pretty much right back where she started—and that’s to say nothing of the emotional toll. “It was super-stressful,” she says. “Now I tell my friends, ‘I’m getting a studio and not moving out until I get back from my honeymoon.’”
My experience—and Sarah’s—are actually typical of cohabiting relationships. A 2002 study found that only half of first-time cohabiting couples will stay together for five years, and despite the fact that the commitment-shy tend to use living together as a litmus test before saying “I do,” it’s actually a better predictor of divorce.
That same study, published by the National Center for Health Statistics, found that when couples cohabited first, the likelihood their marriage would last ten years or more decreased by 6%. (And Bankrate cites the cost of the average divorce at a cool $20,000.)
But the relationship doesn’t need to end in divorce for things to get messy. For couples who never make it to the altar, the law doesn’t automatically provide the same protections it does for those who are hitched—which can be a costly lesson to learn.
Getting Cohabiting Right
The thing is, there are two types of living together: “Prenuptial cohabitation” is the type where you already have a ring and a wedding date in the not-so-distant future. So far, no study has shown that moving in before the Big Day will hurt your finances—or your prospects. (To prenup or not? Figure it out with this article.)
The iffier kind, of course, is long-term living together when you a) move in on a whim, b) don’t know (or want to look) where the relationship is headed, or c) do it out of convenience.
Ready for the Next Step?
Learn how to prepare yourself before moving in with your partner
If you’re going that route, at least consider cohabiting in a way that could spare you a lot of inconvenience later: Namely, get your rights in writing.
The Alternatives to Marriage Project at Unmarried.org suggests that anyone intent on sharing a roof consult a lawyer to draw up the following:
1. A Living Together Agreement: A legal contract that covers how you’ll handle property and assets when you’re together—or when you break up.
2. A will: If either of you were to die without one, the survivor inherits nothing—and inheritance law often penalizes the unmarried.
When you crunch the numbers, it all comes down to the fact that living together is a bigger decision than just how much you’ll save: If you’re savvy enough to factor your bottom line into your romantic picture, be wise enough to take a step back, look at the big picture—and protect yourself—before signing on the dotted line.
*Names have been changed.
Carrie Sloan is the Executive Editor of LearnVest. She is now happily married, and moved in with her husband-to-be shortly after getting engaged.
The debate’s not over! Read the opposing view explaining why cohabitation is actually great for your finances here, and post your own opinion in the comments section.