Dear Dr. Hurd:
First of all I greatly enjoy reading your columns since what you write is like my unexpressed thoughts put into words! With that out of the way…
My boyfriend of two years has just moved in with me. He just finished his university degree and is now studying to get licensed so he can start work as a nurse. I told him that he did not need to help me pay the rent until he passes his license exam and gets a job (which would not take more than a month). He currently helps me pay the groceries.
My question to you is for once he gets his job. What is the proper and moral way for couples to split expenses? Should it be 50/50? Or should it be based on how much each person makes out of their total income be it 60/40 or any other ratio?
To decide what’s “proper and moral,” we first need a definition. I define it as what’s under one’s control and what one is able to pay.
If a person is moral, reasonable and self-responsible, he will want to pay an equal share, or as close as possible. If he’s able to do so and evades the subject, that’s a red flag. Similarly, if he’s both able and willing, and you don’t want him to do so, that’s a cause for concern as well.
It’s not an issue of numbers so much as initiative, effort and self-responsibility. In some relationships or marriages, one partner makes considerably more or less than the other, not because of effort or self-responsibility, but because of what the market for a given field commands.
Mutual agreement is also key. If you come together or marry when you’re making equal income, and your new spouse abruptly changes careers (with a reduction in income), without informing or consulting you first, that’s a problem. While it’s true that career or job decisions are his or her own choice, that doesn’t give a person free rein to change the terms of your lives together without you both first agreeing.
Sometimes things are not 50/50, even with ability to pay, because of mutual agreement. For example, one partner makes a lot of money while the other the other goes through medical or graduate school (by mutual consent). Eventually the student graduates and goes on to make a lot of money himself. It’s not obligatory for the former student to start paying half of everything if each agrees there are better uses for that additional income — a second home, travel, etc.
It does trouble me when one partner fosters an unnecessary or irrational financial dependence. “I don’t mind if you don’t pay, so you don’t have to pay.” A healthy response to this would certainly be, “But I want to pull my weight, in some respect.”
This healthy attitude can manifest in ways other than money. For example, if the person unable to contribute financially can contribute in other ways—such as doing more than his or her share of the chores or errands, for example—this can serve as a perfectly valid arrangement.
In most cases, people wish to spend more than they have. In the typical household, there’s a desire for more spending than income exists. Consequently, communication about spending is highly important.
Households with huge amounts of income tend not to suffer, because everyone usually has more than what they need to purchase what they wish. Ironically, households with very little income are less subject to conflict, as well, because everyone agrees on the basic priorities—food, shelter, basic clothing, fuel.
In the majority of households where there’s enough to take care of the basics, but not enough of a surplus to agree on discretionary spending, there’s always a possibility of resentment based on failure to communicate or misunderstanding. So if you’re in a relationship where you share household and expenses, make sure you talk about your spending desires and priorities, and respect the exact same in your spouse.
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