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Cohabiting and Money: Roommates, Inc.

(NOTE: While this blog presents a cohabiting couple keeping their money separate and the dynamic it creates, many married couples keep their money separate.  Married couples, which keep their money separate, have the same dynamic around money as cohabiting couples!  YIKES!  The reason I’ve found that many married couples keep their money separate is the couple started out cohabiting where they kept their money separate and when they got married they did not change this habit.  Others were burned in previous relationships around money and want to protect their own money so they don’t get hurt again on this issue.  In either scenario, the couple dynamic is the same.)

If you’ve read these blogs on occasion you know that I frequently point out the downsides of cohabiting before marriage.  The reasons are many, but they are all lost on a generation raised on divorced parents and a society that touts sexual freedom as a God-given right.  I use the word god without the capital G because the God I worship doesn’t tempt anyone to sin, so no, you can’t pray to Him to help you take off your date’s bra.  There is a god you can pray to for that, but his name doesn’t start with a capital G either.

In brief, for new readers and to remind my regulars, cohabiting sets the founding stages of your new relationship for the rest of your life.  Habits are born, for good or ill, and habits, once formed, are difficult to break.  If the cohabiting couple marries, it is very difficult to change the unhealthy habits the couple developed during cohabitation (By the way, I see many cohabiting couples and this is one of the main things we do: try to establish healthy habits so the couple can confidently marry.)

How cohabiting couples handle money is a case in point.  Cohabiters haven’t made any promises to each other for the future yet.  Marriage is the complete giving of your future to your spouse for the rest of your life, come what may, for good or ill.  Cohabiting is the giving of today with the possibility of tomorrow, maybe, assuming you’re meant for each other, which means the sex stays hot and you don’t fight.  Since, whether married or not to whomever, sex stays hot for about 6 months, because that’s how long it takes to get familiar with each other and the newness wears off, cohabiting couples quickly burn through each other’s welcome.  Adrenaline can only keep you interested so long before you need another buzz.  This is how couples end up in perversion land, looking for another high.  Married couples will also burn through the hot sex period, but they have a long view (Well….we hope so!) and can, with a little patience and perseverance and humility, adjust to each other and learn to take sex from the adrenaline stage to the land of relationship, compassion, tenderness and connection.  This takes time.  After twenty years you’re just warming up.  For my wife and I it really kicked up around year thirty.  Love is patient?  You better believe it, baby.

Cohabiters don’t realize this because they’re too busy trying to keep the adrenaline fix alive, which causes hurt feelings and tendencies toward manipulation, and, even abuse.  I gotta get some.  “Get some” is not on a married person’s vocabulary and if it is you need to stop the porn and come see me so I can slap you around a little (figuratively speaking).  If the couple does marry, by the time they do, sexuality is tainted because if they’ve cohabited longer than six months, they are past the adrenaline stage in sexuality and they enter marriage with pretty hurt feelings around sexuality.  This is sad, because the idea of marriage is that it is the wonderland of discovery for those who wait.  For those who don’t, there’s a bitter taste in their mouths.  Turns out there’s a good reason God wouldn’t answer that prayer about the bra deal.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been able to help a lot of these couples overcome these foundational issues, but, you know, why borrow trouble?  Life is tough enough.

The same thing happens with money.  Cohabiting couples are by definition roommates.  Roommates each pay their own way.  They don’t share bank accounts.  They quibble about whose turn it is to clean the toilet.  They quibble about everything.  Instead of cohabiting couples we should call them quibbling couples.  Nothing’s fair.  They earn different amounts.  Do they pay the same amount for the rent?  Shouldn’t it be based upon percentage?

Listen in on a typical conversation between partners in a cohabiting relationship where they keep their money separate

(based upon dozens of these arguments I’ve heard):

He: I’m upset about having to pay for the trip to your grandma’s this weekend.  She’s your Grandma.

She: But I paid for the last trip and it was to your family.  On top of that I paid for the gift for your niece for her baby shower.  Why should I pay for gifts for your family?

He: That’s because I hadn’t gotten paid yet.  I thought you were just being generous.   I didn’t think you were keeping score.

She: You’re the one keeping score.  I’m paying more than my fair share of the house payment.

He: That’s crazy.  I’m paying more than you.

She: But you earn more.  You should be paying more.  Based upon the percent of what I earn compared to you, I’m paying a higher proportion of my pay.  This leaves me less money for my other expenses.

He: It all evens out.  I’m paying for your cell phone.  And you had all those extra stupid minutes.  I never asked you to pay me back for those.

She: I’m paying the Internet.  I don’t charge you to use that.  We both know that you are in debt up to your eyeballs and I’m paying on your credit card.

He: Well, you should.  You didn’t have any money last winter and I had to bail you out with my credit card to pay for your timing belt and water pump, remember?  That was over 700 bucks.  You still haven’t paid that all off yet.

She: I’ve paid on it every month.  In two months that’ll be done.

He: So are you planning to keep paying on it when you’ve get your car repair paid off?

She: No.  I need to start saving for a new car.

He: So much for paying off my credit card.  You’re the one with the debt.  You’ll never get that student loan paid off.

She: Well, if you’d help me, we could knock it off earlier.

He: Help you?  I got my own debt.

She: In proportion to what you earn versus what I earn, my debt is higher.  You earn more than me and have more left over than me after all the bills.

He: So.  I have this house here.  You just pay me rent.  It doesn’t cover all of the maintenance and repairs.  I get stuck with that.  I just feel like you are taking advantage of me.  It’s my house and you barely take care of it.

She: I don’t feel at home here.  Why should I clean your house?  I’d be fine cleaning “our” house.  You won’t even let me decorate anything.

He: I’ve lived here a long time.  I like my stuff.  You come in and want to change everything.  All I ask is that you pick up after yourself.

She: Pick up after myself?  I’m the one doing all the dishes, the laundry, the toilets.  You name it, I do it.  Living with you is like having a kid.

Listen in on my wife, Mary Sue, and I (Married 36 years next week.  We keep our money together.) after I found out the cost of replacing our broken garage door.  This occurred a week ago Monday.  This is an actual conversation from memory.

Bing on phone to Mary Sue:  Hello?

Mary Sue: Hello.

Bing: Hey, the garage repair guy just called me and gave me a bid for our garage door to be fixed.  They can’t fix it and have to put in a new one.

Mary Sue: That’s too bad.  How much is that?

Bing: Around $1150.

Mary Sue: Ouch.

Bing: Yeah.  Do we have enough in our main account to cover that?

Mary Sue: I don’t know.  I didn’t check today.  We may need to put some in from another account.

Bing: Okay.  We have XXXX in X account.  I could take it out of there.

Mary Sue: Let’s do that.  We can replenish that account after we get paid Friday.

Bing: Either way’s fine.

Mary Sue: Okay.

Bing: For another $25 they’ll fix the side molding, too. That’d be nice.

Mary Sue: Yeah.   Let’s do that.

Bing: Okay.  Well, I guess I’ll call them back.  They can have it fixed by Wednesday.  We pay half today and half on Wednesday.

Mary Sue: Okay.


Note: To hear Dr. Bing read these two conversations check out his “Ask Dr. Bing Podcast #3,” where he quotes from this blog and comments on it.

Check out Dr. Bing’s entire eight-part series on “Money and Marriage”

See also his 14-Part series on Living as Roommates vs. Living as Husband and Wife


Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.

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