It’s time to have ~the talk.~ With your partner, with your friends, with your kids, with your parents … everyone. No, we don’t mean the birds and the bees — people actually tend to be more comfortable having that convo. We mean the money talk. Because this particular societal taboo is keeping us from earning, saving, and investing more. Here’s a toolkit of helpful info and conversation starters to help you talk through the whole “splitting expenses” thing through with your long-term partner.
You did it. You took the leap, decided to get a place together, and two people’s finances are about to become one. (At least, more “one” than they were before.) Grocery budget? Shared. Internet bill? Shared. Housing costs? Shared (thank goodness).
How to split expenses with a partner is one of the most common questions we get about love and money here at Ellevest. There are plenty of different ways to do it, so we can’t tell you what will work best for you … but we can help you talk through the options until you and your partner land on an approach that feels right.
Here are some expense-splitting topics and strategies to help you dive in. And if you can wade in gradually, that’s even better. Money talks can take a lot of mental energy because they often feel so personal. So having all the conversations at once can feel like a lot.
Sharing your current financial state
If you haven’t yet, the first step is to get (and give) the download on your money situation. There are a few things you’ll want to learn about one another, like how much each of you makes and whether or not you typically follow a budget each month.
But at this stage, it’s time to dive deeper. Talk through how much you’ve each got saved in the bank and invested, how much debt each of you has, what kinds of insurance policies you have, what your credit scores are, and things like that. It might help to gather up all your individual account statements and look over them together.
Yes, that’s quite the ~real-life~ convo. But these conversations aren’t about judging or evaluating the other person in any way — they’re about understanding where you both stand today so you can move forward (hopefully to an even better financial future) together, as partners.
For that deeper dive, try an opener like this:
“I’m seriously so excited to move in together. But I was thinking, and I realized that I’ve never told you exactly how my finances are doing at the moment, and I don’t know that about you, either. I want to kick off this next phase of our relationship feeling like we can be open with each other about everything, including money. Can we go through some of that stuff together this weekend?”
Becoming a money team
Everyone has a slightly (sometimes very) different approach to money. Whenever two people combine their finances for the first time, you’ll have a few spots where your approaches don’t quite line up. So next, it’s helpful to get clarity about how you’ll approach money together.
The idea is to start to understand each other enough that you can trust the other person to make money choices that won’t hurt your joint finances. Here are some things to talk about:
What are your short-term goals, together and separately? Maybe you want to build an emergency fund together, or save up for a big trip to Europe next summer. Maybe one person needs to put money toward paying off a credit card, while the other one doesn’t.
Which of your expenses are you actually going to split, and what’s reasonable to spend on those things? Maybe you only share the expenses that “belong” to you both, like rent and groceries. Things like your cell phone bills or your individual car payments would be on you in that case. Another option would be to include any expenses that must be paid, no matter “whose” they are. Or maybe you find a middle ground between those two extremes.
How will you decide together about big purchases? Maybe you agree on a dollar amount, and agree to touch base about any purchase beforehand if it’s going to cost more than that. Or maybe you only need to talk about purchases that will touch your joint budget.
What kinds of purchases are needs, and which are wants? This is a big one, and probably the part that it’s easiest to disagree on. A gym membership might seem essential to one of you, but frivolous to the other. The convenient meal kit delivery service might feel vital to just one of you. And women face a lot more societal pressure to look a certain way in order to appear “professional,” so certain people might need to spend more money on clothes and grooming than a partner who doesn’t face these same standards. The more you talk through these decisions in the beginning, the less likely they are to cause tension in the future.
We recommend having this conversation after you’ve shared your individual finances, so that you each understand where your partner’s person is coming from — but before you start deciding how you’re going to split things, so that you each go into that convo with respect for your partner’s way of thinking.
Maybe kick things off like this:
“You know how they say that the #1 reason couples fight is money? I don’t want that to be us! I was hoping we could talk through some things — like what counts as a ‘big purchase,’ or what we might want to save up for together — so that we’ll be on the same page going forward and everything will be that much easier. What do you think?”
Actually splitting the expenses with your partner
Your goal here isn’t to magically agree on every priority. Instead, it’s to find a method of splitting the bills that doesn’t make anyone feel guilty for spending money, or like they need “permission.”
You could split everything 50-50 … but if your salaries aren’t even close to equal, that might mean one person is putting entire paychecks toward shared bills, while the other has a lot of extra money to spend. Or you could both throw 100% of both your paychecks into a joint account and then pay everything from there, including the bills and the fun stuff … but your partner will see everything you buy (which means no surprise presents) and have access to everything you have (which could put you at risk in case of financial infidelity).
Those two ways have the advantage of being easy, and they work for some couples. If that’s not you, here’s a different way (with variations) that we think can act as a fair (or, at least, fairer) starting point.
Each person pays the same percentage as they make
Here’s how it goes:
Keep your individual bank accounts, but also open a joint checking account together. You’ll use the joint account to pay your shared bills.
Add your individual incomes together to get your total household income. Then calculate the percentage of that total each partner makes.
Add up all the expenses you’ve agreed to split. Then use the percentages from step two to see how much you’re each responsible for.
Every month, both partners transfer their share into the joint account. Whatever you have left in your individual account is yours to do with what you will, and the same goes for your partner.
Let’s look at an example
Say “Sam” makes $42,000 a year and “Alex” makes $63,000 a year. That’s a total household income of $105,000.
Sam’s portion of total household income: $42,000 / $105,000 = 40%
Alex’s portion of total household income: $63,000 / $105,000 = 60%
Then let’s say their shared monthly expenses add up to $2,500.
Sam’s portion of shared expenses: $2,500 x 40% = $1,000 per month
Alex’s portion of shared expenses: $2,500 x 60% = $1,500 per month
Let’s assume they each get paid twice a month. Sam puts $500 from each paycheck into the joint account to reach $1,000 a month, and Alex puts in $750 from each paycheck to reach $1,500 a month. Et voila, the bills are covered.
And if they had been splitting 50-50, Sam would have been paying $1,250 a month — about 36% of a $42,000 salary. Alex would have been paying $1,250 too, but that’s only about 24% of a $63,000 salary. So one person would have been paying over a third of their income, and the other person would have been paying less than a quarter of theirs. Not so fair after all.
Adjusting the split for privilege
At a first glance, this proportional approach to splitting the bills seems super fair. And that might be true for some couples. But when one person has more inherent privilege than the other, things start to get murky.
A big one: Women face pricing gaps (like the pink tax) and the pay gap. So if a woman is in a relationship with a cis man, $1 of her spending money (which she already has less of than she should) won’t go as far as $1 of his.
Racial pay gaps are very real, too, and there are expenses that some people of color might have that other people wouldn’t. For example, Black women are often held to unfair societal standards about their hair (especially at work), and caring for it can be really freaking expensive.
Some people are overly burdened with debt because of circumstances outside their control. Not everyone’s family can afford to help out financially — wealth tends to reinforce itself, and generational wealth is a big factor in the racial wealth gap. Non-disabled people don’t face the same struggle against medical debt that many disabled people do. Et cetera.
Adjusting for pricing gaps
There isn’t a perfect way to adjust the way you split expenses to account for the pink tax and other pricing gaps, but there are a couple adjustments you might make.
First, you could agree to put all the price-gapped expenses into your joint budget so that both partners contribute to them, and the person subject to the pricing gap doesn’t have to go it alone. Take personal care, for example. Pretty much everyone gets haircuts. But some people might need more expensive haircuts, regular manicures, and cosmetics to conform to beauty standards at work. The same thing goes for work clothes — everyone needs them, but one partner might have to spend more. And smaller pink-taxed items, like razors, could get absorbed into the grocery budget.
Another thing you could do is change your percentages (like Sam and Alex’s 40% and 60% above) by a little bit, so that the person subject to pricing gaps has a little extra spending money. For example, if you’re a woman dating a man, you could shift to account for the pink tax. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that on average, women’s products cost 7% more than men’s. So you could subtract 3.5% from your share of the bills, and your partner could add 3.5% to his percentage (to add up to a total difference of 7%).
Adjusting for pay gaps
There are a lot of reasons why one person might make more money than the other, like age and years of experience or your chosen industries. But maybe you’re in similar roles and still find that there’s a pay gap between you. Or maybe one of you recognizes they hold more privilege and wants a very simple way to correct for it that doesn’t involve doing pricing math. One alternative approach is to just divide all the “fun” money evenly. That way, each of you would have exactly the same amount to spend. This approach may just feel “right” even if it’s not exactly reflective of circumstances, or it may feel too one-sided at first, but make perfect sense for splitting expenses if you get to the long-term commitment stage later on.
Agan, it’s not perfect — eliminating the pay gaps entirely is the perfect solution — but it could be a step closer.
The thing about talking privilege into account
If we had it our way, correcting for privilege would be a gimme in every relationship. (Actually, if we had it our way, everyone would be fairly paid and this conversation wouldn’t even be necessary to begin with.)
But the thing about privilege is that it doesn’t necessarily recognize itself. Your partner might not even realize that you’re price-burdened, or that you face pressure to spend on some things. They may not be aware that the wealth gap is systemic, and not just a result of personal choice.
One option is to broach the subject with a story or two from your personal experiences with this kind of discrimination to help them see where you’re coming from.
No matter how you choose to break up your expenses, though, the most important thing is that you’re both clear about your shared money — how much is coming in, how much is going out — and what your shared goals and values are (and aren’t). That’s how you make a plan to get there that works for you as a couple.
Short for cisgender. Describes a person whose gender identity matches cultural expectations for the sex they were assigned at birth.
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