Saying yes to the lease: A financial checklist for couples moving in together
While shacking up doesn’t share the legally binding aspects of marriage—it’s a whole lot easier to break a lease than to get a divorce—it is a major commitment. Even if you and your partner don’t create a joint bank account, sharing your living space (and your life) requires some degree of financial merging. Whether you’re planning to get married in the near future, the distant future, or never at all, taking this step with your new roommate merits a conversation about a household money plan. Pop a bottle of wine or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s to create good vibes and use this checklist to get started.
What’s your background?
No matter how long you’ve been together, you’ve probably observed at least some of your partner’s financial habits and preferences. But whether you’ve watched them living off ramen and dollar pizza, investing in their buddy’s vaping startup, or lecturing your friends about responsible 401(k) planning during happy hour, chances are you don’t have the whole story.
Getting a full picture means talking about financial liabilities like student loans, credit card debt, ongoing medical costs, or any support one or both of you may be providing to kids, parents, and other family members. This is also an opportunity to learn how you both think about money before moving in together.
Ask your partner what money conversations were like in the house they grew up in—and share your own experiences. Not only will laying this groundwork make you closer as a couple, it’ll make the nuts and bolts parts of the conversation go a lot more smoothly.
What’s your rent budget?
With shared living space and a roommate who’s (hopefully) going to split those grocery bills, one of the major benefits of moving in together can be saving money. But that’s not always the case, or even your top priority. The types and locations of homes you look for will depend on many factors, from commute time to amenities to how much room (and how many rooms) you’ll need to cheerfully cohabitate (i.e., you’ll still need your own space). That 300-square-foot studio with the Murphy bed might be appealing budget-wise, but can you live in it without driving each other crazy? Is it worth it to move into the fancy new high-rise so your gym rat partner’s bench press session is just an elevator ride away, or should she just stick with the YMCA membership?
Based on your salaries and preferences (along with any other monthly expenses), come up with a realistic rent range. (Pro tip: My home budget calculator can handle two incomes.) Some rentals may have household income requirements, or ask you to have a guarantor with sufficient funds. If your new landlord requires a credit check, the strength of both of your credit scores can decide whether you’re seen as viable renters. (If you’re buying a house with your partner, income and credit are larger factors. You’ll also be looking at additional costs—and conversations. Check out this infographic for help navigating the homebuying process.)
Take advantage of any opportunities to trim the price on your new place. Especially if you’re in a broker-dominated city like New York, search Craigslist or Zillow for no-fee apartments. You can even talk to your landlord about negotiating the rent (more possible than it sounds if you’re a good candidate).
Finally, though you trust your partner completely (right?), make sure both your names are on the lease—as you would with any other roommate. Unless there’s an extenuating circumstance, like one of you has a credit score that’s not up to snuff for your landlord, this is something you should go in on together. That way there is legal recourse if the relationship sours and someone decides to skip out on rent.
What’s your moving budget?
Moving isn’t cheap. Whether you and your partner are coming from separate roommate situations or Mom’s basement, if you’re signing a new lease together, you’re probably looking at a security deposit, and possibly other costs like first and last month’s rent and broker’s/finder’s fees. Plus, whether you’re DIYing with a truck or hiring movers to do it for you, schlepping your now-shared stuff won’t be free, either—though there are ways to cut costs. For example, if you’re coming into this with two sets of furniture, consider selling what you don’t need beforehand to finance the move and lighten the load in the U-Haul.
What’s your cost-sharing plan?
Cohabitation bliss is built on a foundation of communication and negotiation about every aspect of life, but especially about money.
Many couples choose to split all costs 50/50. If you’re one of them, get a tracking system; an app like Splitwise can be a lifesaver here. Some couples may choose to split rent and household costs in a way that’s proportional to their respective cash flows—say, if one partner earns more than another, or has more burdensome student loans to pay down.
Another option: You don’t have to be married to open a joint bank account to pay for these shared costs. If you decide to do this, remember to read the (morbid) fine print: Some banks will automatically set it up so the joint account co-owner retains full ownership of funds in the event of the other co-owner’s death—a joint account with “right of survivorship.” However, some accounts will be set up with only “right of convenience,” which does not guarantee the co-owner will retain all the money. Think about what makes sense for you in a worst-case scenario.
Whatever you do, come to an agreement that feels fair. (It never hurts to get this kind of thing in writing.) Speaking of fairness, remember the in-kind financial contribution of housework; even in 2019, women still take on the majority of household chores. Come up with a plan to be equitable on the laundry and bathroom-cleaning front, too.
What’s next for you?
The last step in this conversation…is to promise to keep having financial conversations. Once you’re living together, chances are that the next few years will feature new financial (and emotional) milestones and challenges. After renting as a couple, you might start wondering whether it’s worth it to buy a house instead. Weddings, babies, and planning for those babies to go to college could be in the cards. Don’t rule out graduate school, career changes, and anything else life might throw your way. As you drain the rosé or scoop the last bite of Cherry Garcia, vow to keep talking.