Advice

How to Split Finances Without Dividing Your Relationship

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Splitting bills

My boyfriend and I were celebrating our two-year anniversary with a trip to San Francisco. We’d split the cost of our plane tickets to get there ($483.20), our Airbnb apartment ($538), and a rental car ($192) down the middle; he’d bought me a smoothie before our flight. It was my turn to pay for something, for anything.

That night we went out to a very fancy restaurant. After finishing our preliminary bread, an appetizer, three entrees, a bottle of wine, and two glasses of port, I grabbed the check. He protested, “You don’t have to pay! Why are you doing that?”

I responded, “Well, first of all, feminism. You pay for things all the time and I don’t want you thinking that’s a thing you need to do as a man. I am going to treat you too. Secondly, you pay for things because you like me and want me to be happy, so I’m doing the same for you.”

How can you fight over that?

Any pair of people who spend a lot of time together have to make a decision about finances, but it becomes even more difficult when there’s romance involved. Here are some helpful tips to keep things easy.

Set Some Ground Rules

If you volunteer information about your $50,000 windfall, your SO may expect you to pick up the check a lot more often. If you keep a large amount of debt a secret, you may be seen as not paying your share. Be open about what’s going on in your wallet, even if it doesn’t include specific numbers.

“A date is usually the first time a couple talks about money, but it shouldn’t be the last,” said Jon Bittner, founder and CEO of Splitwise, an app that keeps track of who’s paying for what, sending you reminder emails about your balance at the end of every month. “Once you are no longer just ‘dating’ but are actually in a relationship, you should find a way to set expectations about money.”

Keep a Paper Trail

It’s a little tedious, but keeping track of all the purchases you make as a couple ­— be it rent, furniture, or plane tickets — will help you have a more specific look at where your money goes, even if you keep your finances separate.

“Spreadsheets are an awesome way to keep track of money, but even just a piece of notebook paper will do!” said Courtlandt McKinlay, an accountant in the Bay Area. “It’s easy to figure out your fixed expenses (student loans, car payments) but it’s much harder to budget for things like food, going out, even just fun purchases. For budgeting, I will take the bank statement for what I think is a regular month and separate all of the expenses into categories such as groceries, transportation expenses, going out and see how much it actually comes to.”

Spreadsheet too difficult? Try an app that will help you track expenses and divvy them up evenly, like the aforementioned Splitwise, SpotMe, which helps you track roommate bills and lended money, or Divvy, which lets you split expenses by items on a receipt.

“I was using Splitwise to split with my girlfriend (now wife) from the day we launched, but I thought that was just because I was the founder,” said Bittner. “When one of us would buy a plane ticket, or pay a bill, we’d just throw it into Splitwise, and we could figure out who should pay for the next thing. It was a huge shock to me to learn that nearly 25 percent of our users use Splitwise with their significant other.” Though significant others aren’t necessarily roommates in the traditional sense, many of the expenses that will crop up—soap, cleaning supplies, Seamless orders—are things you don’t envision when planning your love nest.

For major purchases, like splitting airline tickets or rent, there’s always in-house bank transfers, but if you have different banks like my boyfriend and I, there’s also Venmo, an app that lets you transfer large amounts of money between checking accounts with the same security of bank without incurring a fee.

And If You Live Together, Be Open About Finances

Living together but keeping your finances separate is a smart scenario that can easily get messy, but it doesn’t have to. The ground rules that you set during the beginning of your relationship should be even more fleshed out now, and should include some specifics. For instance, while it may have been acceptable have a bit of mystery early on, if you’re not comfortable telling someone how much you make, why would you live with them? Important questions need to be addressed. If one of you makes vastly more than the other, do you pay rent proportionally? If both of you are strapped for cash and rent is due, are you allowed to ask someone’s parents for a loan? How do you split up groceries, utilities, or household items? There’s no way to plan everything that will come your way, but keeping the lines of communication open will help you stay afloat and in sync.

“I’ve known couples that have split everything equally in an attempt to keep emotions out of the equation, but it always leads to more disagreements when one person makes more than the other,” said McKinlay. “I think dealing with money issues is a big test for any couple because it makes you really think about how you view your partner and if you really think you have a future together.”

If you’re splitting things evenly, another option may be to get a joint credit card for all shared expenses. Keep the limit low, and set rules with each other about using it, like checking in before making a large purchase. Then, at the end of each month, you can split the bill down the middle — no headache at all.