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How to Budget as a Live-In Couple

Claire Murdough

When my boyfriend and I first moved in together, we had a falling out over utensils.

OK, maybe “falling out” is a little dramatic, but things started to get heated when we broached the topic of household furnishings. Almost as soon as I turned the latch on our new apartment, I began spouting off the things we needed. Top of the list was a set of silverware and plates so that we could move beyond our move-friendly diet at the time: Pizza directly from the box. Cutlery seemed like a perfectly rational addition.

He immediately disagreed.

With two perfectly functional pairs of chopsticks ‘recycled’ from a Chinese restaurant, and two Halloween themed plastic plates that we used when we camped, he saw no need for spending on extras and living beyond our current means.

After all, he argued, we had just put down a deposit, paid two months rent and had a non-existent emergency fund. I saw his point, and yet I had a $10 bill ready to take action in the kitchen department. What I saw as non-negotiable, he saw as a place to save some cash as we pumped up our savings accounts over the next month.

Not having the same expectations for spending while living under the same roof was an eye opener for both of us. Just maybe I was a little too lenient with my cashflow. And just maybe he was a little too protective. But one thing was certain: We needed some budgeting talks to sort through our differences of opinion.

Based on what I’ve learned, here are a few tips to help you take on the challenge of setting up a budget as a live-in couple:

Look at the Whole Pie

Your budget as a live-in couple goes beyond splitting rent down the middle and calling it a day. There are other costs you’ll need to consider, such as utilities, gas and electric, food, furnishings and, yes, maybe even chopsticks. Instead of tackling each and every single separate bill one at a time, make a list of items you agree should be split and then combine the costs to get a cohesive idea of what the whole will all add up to. Though to be fair, the budgeting pie will definitely look less delicious as a spreadsheet.

Share Some Numbers

Admittedly, this one’s tricky. Financial transparency opens you up to vulnerabilities and exposes information that you may not feel comfortable sharing. But it doesn’t mean you have to share a spreadsheet of your passwords and bank account numbers. A general knowledge of what each person can contribute realistically to a budget will help to prevent uncomfortable feelings down the road. Part of being a couple includes discussing things that may or may not affect your partner — finances included.

Track Spending, Write It Down

As you keep tabs on your purchases, write down your expenses. Putting the facts to paper can be the perfect way to reveal spending differences. Whiteboard, leather-bound planner, wood carving … The medium doesn’t matter quite as much as the actual info you gather.  Some people are more spendy than others based on their means, experience with finance and personality — problems arise when they’re unaware of the extra spending, or differing spending habits cause friction. The only way to really understand where some budgeting TLC needs be applied is to write it down.

Communicate Your Financial Goals

Communication is key. Communication is key. It’s been said so often that saying it twice seems essential to ensure that it’s not skimmed over. When it comes to any kind of relationship, keeping problems under cover can quickly lead to a wildfire of passive aggressiveness. The best way to find a budgeting balance is to actually talk about it with one another. Much of disappointment or frustration comes from expectations that weren’t met or communicated. Communicating your longer-term financial goals can open up an essential line of communication that helps you avoid disappointment or frustration.

Send Your Ego Out for Ice Cream

Have your ego take a walk — at least while you’re having your budgeting talks. As you move in with your partner, and move forward with budgeting, you’ll have to make concessions and you’ll have to make compromises. Neither of you will be right 100% of the time — there’s a unique kind of volatility that goes along with finances and pride. It can get pretty petty, pretty quickly. So remove your ego from the mix as you hash out your plan. And maybe you’ll even have ice cream at the end of the discussions. Preference of flavor is a whole other talk, of course.

If It’s Not Working, Change It

It can be time consuming and frustrating to crunch the numbers and put forth the effort to create a budget — only to realize it doesn’t seem to be working. But the truth is, most budgets are imperfect and that’s a-OK. Budgeting magic isn’t achieved by financial smarts alone, but also comes about from experience and through trial and error. Write down the first few plans in pencil. If after a month or two you realize that it’s simply not working, rework your plan of attack. In most cases, you won’t formulate the ideal budget on your first go around. It takes time and a little flexibility from both parties. After all, you want to set a budget that you can not only stick with, but live with as well.

You may have already learned that they prefer Pepsi over Coke, dogs over cats, and green grapes over red. But personality quirks alone don’t define a person’s financial persona. Budgeting as a live-in couple can be stressful and confusing, particularly if you have student loan debt, credit card debt, or a mortgage payment. But it is possible — as evidenced by my happy drawer of budget friendly silverware coexisting quite happily with a couple of plastic Halloween plates.

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