The number of unmarried people living together has increased tenfold between 1960 and 2000, and the majority of couples marrying today cohabited first, according to the Alternatives to Marriage Project, a national nonprofit organization advocating for equality for unmarried people. All the same, 40% of different-sex couples living together break up within five years. So, before you call the movers, read our tips to save you headaches and heartaches down the road.
Express Your Expectations
Romantic or not, "It’s essential to talk about what you want before moving in," says John Curtis, Ph.D. and author of Happily Un-married: Living Together and Loving It. Curtis suggests making a date for this discussion in a neutral location within a set time frame, like a business meeting. During this sharing session, go over fiscal priorities, spending and saving habits, debts, incomes and financial goals. It's at least as important to listen as it is to state your expectations. “Make sure you don’t ignore what your partner is saying. If s/he’s talking about how much more convenient it will be to split rent in living together, you need to know that convenience is a motivating factor.”
Read on for how to deal with accounts, big-ticket items, and more.
Decide How to Divide
Talking in advance about who pays what (and how much) is key to setting your expectations. Some couples opt for a joint checking account for rent, groceries, vacations and other communal purchases. Each partner can contribute to the account equally, so that both feel fair ownership. But, what if one partner makes a lot more? If that's the case, Curtis suggests arriving at a compromise to split the expenses based on income.
Split the Big Items
Don't forget about the big-ticket items like furniture and appliances, which go beyond daily expenses and regular bills. Curtis suggests writing down which items will be whose if you part ways. Although this might seem pessimistic and even awkward, the experience of fighting over who gets the couch will be much more awkward down the line. As you become serious in your relationship, you should be able to talk frankly and practically about your commitments to each other. “You don’t want to end up with a ‘War of the Roses’ situation where you need a chainsaw to divide your belongings,” says Curtis.
Keep Your Own Accounts
Curtis strongly recommends keeping debt and assets separate until you are certain that your commitment is long-term. “Over 60% of married couples live together first. If you’re marrying in a few months and everything will be legally split when you marry, then you may want to start that process when you move in,” he says. “But if you’re just ‘trying things out,’ then keep personal finances [401(k), debt, investments, credit cards] completely separate.” Otherwise, you put yourself and your finances at unnecessary risk.
Create a Contract
It may actually help relieve tension later to make a cohabitation contract now.
The contract puts in writing how you'll handle your finances and much more. “Making a written statement in advance forces partners to sort through issues that may damage or destroy the relationship later,” he says. Your contract should include a strategy for splitting bills and making major purchases.
Don't let these utilitarian concerns diminish your enthusiasm for this new stage of your life. Making things official now might be good practice, especially in case the time comes to make things even more official later.