Ah, the thrills of dating and new relationships. Movie nights, ice cream dates, walks on the beach, a romantic candlelit dinner on Saturday night followed by…

…a $150 bill!

If you’ve dated — even for a short time — you know that dating involves spending money. And, if you’ve been in a long-term relationship, you know that splitting the check at dinner is just the beginning. One date leads to frequent nights out which may someday lead to splitting the rent.

Although deciding how to manage money as a married couple is usually a daunting decision for newlyweds, smart couples won’t wait until marriage to discuss finances. Indeed, if you’ve been living together for two years and have no idea what’s on your sweetheart’s credit report, you should probably get on that.

Our couple’s money conversation guide can help.

What we’ve found is that money management for unmarried couples always seems to bring up questions in these areas: handling joint expenses, learning to live with a partner’s opposite personality, discussing money, and saving for goals.

We reached out to our focus group to get your thoughts on these issues and will do our best to give you some answers.

How should you split joint expenses with your significant other?

When we asked our focus group how they divided expenses with their main squeeze, here’s what they said:

  • 41% said they split expenses 50/50.
  • 40% said they paid for things in proportion to their income.
  • 17% said they don’t have a system for paying for joint expenses – they just deal with them as they come up.
  • Finally, a lucky (or unlucky, depending on which person you are) 2% said that one person pays for everything.

As you can see, different people have their own ways of divvying up the costs. Like with all money  matters, it comes down to communication and compromise with your partner and deciding what works best for you.

No matter how you decide to divide expenses, it usually helps to write it down and keep track of who is in charge of what (especially if you’re living together and/or using various percentages if you’re not splitting 50/50). It’s not the most romantic thing in the world, but keeping a record usually helps prevents arguments down the road, which are even less romantic.

And since it helps to know what other people in your situation are doing to track joint expenses, here’s what our focus group said:

  • 36% take the traditional money management route with a spreadsheet or pen and paper.
  • A whopping 53% have no system at all.
  • The rest – about 17% – shared a joint checking account to pay for joint expenses.

Again, there’s no right or wrong answer here. What works best for you might not work best for another couple. My husband and I generally split things down the middle when we were dating, but we still tried to treat each other to special dates throughout the year when we didn’t split the bill. I think that preserved the romance in our long-term relationship – especially when I was the one being treated…

Should you combine finances before marriage?

Okay, big disclaimer here: Do what’s right for you!

I have a friend who says she will never marry her boyfriend and never combine finances with him. On the other hand, I have a friend who combined finances with his now-wife shortly after they started dating. Personally, I was adamant about not combining finances before marriage. Any scenario for combining finances with your partner can work – as long as you agree.

Before you even think about combining your finances, you need to do two things:

  1. Address your own money management techniques and your concerns with possibly combining finances, then…
  2. Talk with your significant other about the process. Discuss your concerns and both of your money management techniques.

Here’s a checklist of things to cover during your discussion:

  • list of bank accounts to combine
  • how much is “too much” to spend without consulting the other partner
  • mock budget
  • why you really want to combine – is it a good reason?
  • bank account buffers™
  • cash vs. credit vs. debit spending
  • combining all or just some accounts?

A couple words of caution: For one, do not combine finances after your first and only money talk. This decision should come after a long time (years) of developing trust and having open conversations about finances.

Secondly, and very importantly, remember that married couples can lean on the legal system to separate their finances in the event of a divorce; unmarried couples don’t (usually) have a legal system to separate their finances if they separate. In other words, if you’re not married, put all your money into a joint account, and your partner dumps you and drains the account, you could be both heartbroken and broke.

So if you do combine finances before marriage:

  • Don’t combine everything! Leave some accounts separate.
  • Create a simple contract that outlines what savings accounts and investments belong to each other (and what will be divided 50/50) before you actually combine any money. It may or may not help you legally recover funds in the event of a nasty breakup, but it’s better than nothing.

Is it okay to keep financial secrets?

No!

Okay, sorry, that was my gut reaction.

In my very humble opinion, I think you should put everything out there if you’re really committed to someone. Besides, secrets always seem to come out and look even worse when they’re revealed.

When we asked our focus group what the most difficult thing about managing money with their boyfriend or girlfriend was, here’s what some of them had to say:

  • “It’s difficult from a trust perspective…”
  • “Having the initial [financial] conversations…”
  • “We had trouble talking about our goals and spending habits.”
  • “Discussing what is fair…”
  • “Working as a team.”
  • “Managing expectations…”

As you can see, many of their concerns revolve around trust and communication – two things that secrets can destroy.

Maintaining a healthy and committed relationship is often hard enough. When you bring money into it, it can either weaken or strengthen the relationship depending on how each person handles the situation. This is why it’s so important to avoid keeping financial secrets with your significant other – especially ones that could affect them in the future.

Overall, managing money as a couple is a lot like managing other aspects of your relationship (schedule, future, vacations, etc.). It all revolves around communication, respecting the other person, and trust. If you have a solid foundation with your partner and can agree on  how to manage your money, it can become a rewarding part of your relationship.

Of course, if you feel any hesitations at all about combining your finances or becoming in any way more financially committed to someone, don’t jump in too fast. Money management can’t be taken lightly, so it’s important to communicate with your partner before making any decisions.

What bout you? Have you been successful creating a system to divide finances with your partner? Any horror stories? Leave a comment!

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About the author

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Amber Gilstrap is a twenty-something CPA from Kansas City, Missouri who loves writing, working out, and---of course---finding fresh ideas for saving money.