Millennials are waiting longer than previous generations to get married, but that doesn’t mean we’re navigating our finances solo. About 30% of millennials are married, and about 15% of people age 25 to 34 live with an unmarried partner, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Married or not, for most couples, managing money eventually becomes—at least in part—a team endeavor.
You don’t have to divulge every dollar, debt and detail when you start dating, but if you’re moving toward a future together, you need to cover the basics. Start with up-front conversations about income, goals, spending and debt. Even if you’re not combining any accounts now (or ever), a partner’s finances can affect yours. For example, one low credit score can impact a couple’s ability to rent an apartment together or qualify for a mortgage. As your situation changes, consider your plan for sharing expenses, how you save for shared goals and more.
“Talking about money is often one of the most uncomfortable parts of a relationship,” says Ted Rossman, industry analyst at CreditCards.com. But most experts recommend that couples schedule money meetings at least once a month—think of them as money dates—and use the time to review budgets, check in on goals and revise the approach as your lives or relationship changes.
A cautious strategy. Couples who are just starting out (or who want to maintain more individual control) often keep their finances firmly divided. My boyfriend, Justin, and I spent last summer culling our possessions as we moved in together and made the shared space a home for both of us. For now, we share household expenses and information about our finances, but separate accounts still work best for us. In time, we’ll likely combine some things, while maintaining small individual accounts for personal discretionary spending.
If you’re splitting shared expenses, consider each person’s income and other liabilities. If one person earns significantly more than the other, you may want to divide shared bills proportionally—a 60-40 split, for example. To streamline payments for shared expenses, you may want to open a joint checking account where each month you both contribute enough to cover rent and other household expenses.
Limiting that account to cover the cost of shared expenses, keeping separate credit cards and waiting to buy a home together are particularly smart moves for unmarried couples because they don’t benefit from the same legal protections as married couples. Eventually, you may merge most of your accounts, draft one shared budget and set guidelines for how much either partner can spend without checking in with the other first.
For most couples, sharing finances isn’t an all or nothing deal. And over time, as your relationship evolves, your financial strategy will likely change, too.
“Long term, I often recommend a yours, mine and ours approach,” says Britton Gregory, a certified financial planner in Austin, Texas. All income goes into a joint account that covers shared expenses, including the rent or mortgage, groceries, utilities and other agreed-upon items. Also drawn from the shared account: an agreed-upon amount or percentage of income transferred to individual accounts for each partner’s personal or discretionary spending. To prevent one partner from running up debt the other isn’t aware of, Gregory suggests couples use a shared credit card for the joint account but stick to debit cards for their individual accounts.