February 16, 2021
Dr. Curry Dicusses Relationships
I’m moving in with my girlfriend at the end of the month. She’s a few years older (I’m 26; she’s 29) and makes significantly more money than I do. She can afford a pretty spacious one-bedroom by herself in Brooklyn, whereas I’ve been living with roommates my whole adult life and pay much less in rent. When we’ve talked about what I should contribute when I move in, she has suggested that I just pay whatever I’m paying now, which is still less than half of what the apartment costs per month. That sounds fine to me, but I want to make sure that we’re setting up our life together in a way that doesn’t lead to imbalances or resentments down the road. We also have not yet talked about splitting utilities or other household costs. We haven’t really talked much at all about money, actually.
Are there ways to share the costs that are equitable, but still allow for the fact that I can’t afford much more than what I’m already paying? We’re definitely not ready to combine our finances or anything, but I want to make sure that I’m being fair and respectful. I also don’t want to set up a dynamic where she feels “held back” by the fact that I can’t afford the same things that she can. Any tips you can offer for couples who are sharing living expenses for the first time would be helpful.
Congratulations! It’s a big step to share a home with your significant other, and hopefully a fun one. When I first moved in with mine, it felt like playing house, in a nice way — we picked out paint colors, made grocery lists together, and did each other’s laundry (my love language). But it also gave us a bunch of new stuff to fight about — dirty dishes, shelf space, his habit of leaving the contents of his pockets all over the coffee table. As for money: It seemed like such a fraught topic that we didn’t even go there, and spent years avoiding it almost entirely. I don’t recommend this. (Yes, we both have avoidant tendencies; yes, we’re working on it.)
All of this is to say: What you’re doing seems like a much better idea! Planning ahead for how you’ll handle money as a couple, before any financial conflicts come up (which they will), is infinitely preferable to just winging it like we did. That includes laying out some ground rules for how you’ll pool and split expenses, as well as figuring out how to communicate in ways that make you both feel heard.
First and foremost, I recommend setting up a regular meeting to go over money stuff. My husband and I now do this once a month, which works well for us; you might want to do it more often at first, as you’re getting your sea legs. When we started this routine, my husband and I would even set a timer to add structure (each of us got ten minutes). The point of these sessions wasn’t to “fix” everything; instead, we were trying to get into a rhythm for communicating about money without letting issues bleed into the rest of our relationship or pop up suddenly when one of us was in a bad mood and annoyed about paying for dinner three nights in a row.
Shannon Curry, a psychologist who regularly works with couples who are experiencing financial conflicts, is a big advocate of these regular talks. “If you have a meeting on the calendar, then nobody feels like they’re in trouble, or that something is going wrong,” she says. “It allows you both to think about what you want to say, and takes some of the heightened emotion out of it.”
What’s more, these talks allow you to regularly evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. “Just because you’ve created a plan doesn’t mean you’re done,” says Curry. “When we don’t check in with our partners regularly, it compromises our understanding of one another.”
It’s also important to remember that no amount of preparation will prevent disagreement. “Money is often the number-one issue between partners, and struggles will inevitably come up,” Curry adds. You also can’t expect these struggles to go away just because you talk about them. According to the Gottman Institute, which researches romantic relationships, about two-thirds of all problems between partners are “perpetual” — meaning that neither party is ever going to change their mind. It’s essential to understand this, says Curry: “You and your partner are never going to be exactly on the same page about everything. These issues are probably unsolvable, so the goal is not to solve them. Instead, you want to learn how to dialogue about them, so you don’t become gridlocked, and each person still feels appreciated.”
To do so, Curry recommends an exercise: “Before any couples move in together, they should write down two things: (1) What is my position on pooling money? And (2) What is my position on managing money, and how spending and saving should work?” In answering those questions, ignore what you think you should say, and answer the questions based on what’s guided your decisions in the past.
Next, get together and take turns reading your responses. When each person is talking, it’s the listener’s job to make sure their partner feels comfortable enough to delve into the reasons behind what they wrote, says Curry. “This involves asking questions like, “Is there a story tied to your position on this? Where were you first exposed to these values, and why did they become important to you?’”
Once you understand the foundations of each other’s financial outlooks, you’ll be much more equipped to give each other the benefit of the doubt (i.e., your partner isn’t cheap because she’s a selfish asshole; she’s vigilant with money because her mom struggled to raise kids with very little and she doesn’t want to be in that position). Again, that won’t solve your financial differences, but it will lay the groundwork for dealing with them constructively and empathetically in the future.
From there, you can address the more concrete stuff. Like, what expenses do you want to share, and which should you keep separate? For the costs that are pooled (like rent, utilities, toilet paper, etc.), how do you want to split them? There’s no right answer here, but there are lots of possibilities. For example, you could try the “proportional split”: If your income is half the amount your girlfriend makes, then you’re responsible for one-third of your total shared costs. Or, if you have a budget that you’re used to working within, you could keep contributing those amounts and she’ll make up the rest if she’s comfortable doing so. Or you could ignore both of those and come up with your own system. Just remember that it needs to be flexible, and you should check in regularly to see what needs tweaking. Your circumstances will change, and so will your expenses.
There’s also a question of what you should disclose to each other before you move in together. This is a tricky one; I would argue that you don’t need to be transparent about every single monetary detail — yet — if you don’t feel ready. (However, if you were getting married, this would be different; you and your partner should absolutely know what you’re getting into, financially, before any legal commitments.)
That said, if you feel ready to lay all your financial cards on the table, great! But no matter what, you should still talk about them. That could mean saying something like, “I have some student loans that I’ll be paying off for a while. I’m not ready to tell you exactly how much, because I’m self-conscious about it, but I want you to know that it’s part of my financial picture, and it’s something I need to budget for.”
Finally, when financial misunderstandings do come up, address them kindly. Curry recommends a special formula for doing so, derived from another Gottman Institute method known as the “gentle start-up.” The secret is to structure the confrontation in a way that avoids blame and doesn’t provoke defensiveness, no matter how “at fault” you think your girlfriend is. This involves making statements that start with “I” and describe how your partner’s action made you feel. For example: “I felt left out of the loop when you bought that thing without talking to me about it first. I know that you paid for it, but in the future, I’d feel a lot better if we could make more of these decisions together if they’re going to impact both of us.”
Then, Curry recommends throwing your girlfriend a bone. “If you say something like, ‘I know you didn’t mean to hurt my feelings,’ then your partner will feel like you’ve given her the benefit of the doubt, and it’ll make her want to see your side,” she says. After all, resolution may not be possible, but mutual respect and understanding always is.