Things to Talk About Before Shacking Up
by Katie Wilson
Lisa and Bryan are Moving In Together, and maybe you are, too. Mazel tov! My husband and I have been there, I can’t help but want to help them. The key to a smooth transition is talking openly about everything that is going to come up before it comes up. So I made them a list of questions to talk about. It’s loooong. In the interest of not getting overwhelmed, I think that more smaller conversations are better than one big conversation. Actually that should be a disclaimer: Do not try to talk about these all at once. Take your time. Have many conversations.
1. Will you pay for a house cleaner?
After five years of living together, we just started doing this, and it’s a godsend. I felt guilty about it before — I mean, I have the free time in which I COULD be cleaning, I just really don’t want to spend it that way. Plus the place was never as dust-free as I’d like it. But it still feels weird to employ someone to clean up after you.
2. Even if you do pay for a house cleaner, how will you divide the other duties?
House cleaners just dust, sweep, and clean kitchens & bathrooms, basically. So there’re plenty of other odd jobs someone has to do. My husband does the laundry; I cook (mostly); we do grocery shopping together; and we switch off on garbage and dish duty. I hate doing dishes, and I think that’s the chore he resents the most, too, so we have to work hard to make sure neither of us feels things are out of whack. It IS a little hard to think that housecleaning is not some sort of barter because my husband’s income (as a lawyer) is more than mine (as a grad student) and his time is less flexible. But I’m getting over it!
3. Dietary stuff and food: Do either of you have any restrictions? Will you both eat the restricted diet, or will you make separate meals? Will you do your grocery shopping together?
4. If you both get up at the same time and need to leave the house at the same time WHO GETS TO BE IN THE SHOWER FIRST?
May require one of you go dirty hippie for the day, depending on how much time has been allowed.
5a. Decorating. Do you need new furniture? What do you get/ who does the internet research/ who chooses it / who actually goes and picks up the thing?
We jointly make almost all decisions, but which one of us initiates alternates. On a related note: joint purchases? Individual purchases?
5b. What do you do with your book and media collections?
We are old-skool and still have many bound dead trees (1000s) and obsolete plastic discs (also 1000s), and it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the merging of the CDs into a unified, alphabetized-by-genre system was about as big a commitment as getting married. There’s no going back.
1. How many nights a week will you spend together?
This was…not a thing for my husband and me. We were pretty serious pretty fast and have spent nearly every evening together during the years we have been in the same city. But I’ve had plenty of friends have to negotiate how much independent time they get to hang out with friends or go to drawing class or book club.
Related question: Will you eat dinner together? Another related question: If you’re both in the apartment but need alone time, how do you deal? Read a book in the bath tub? (Must have bath tub.)
2. How will you spend the time you spend together?
When you’re not living together, it’s pretty natural to plan an activity as an excuse to get together. (Let’s have a picnic in the park!) It’s also sometimes nice to plan to make dinner at home and watch a netflick just to be together. But when you are living together, it is very easy to get sucked in to just vegging at home, which can feel kind of gross after a while.
I have really enjoyed having joint hobbies with my husband. We took a darkroom class together and go on photo-taking expeditions around LA. (FUN!) We go to the farmer’s market. We jog together on the weekends. We plan trips together. Having the activities be joint means both of us get to share in them together — I’ve seen other friends have disagreements when one of them has an expensive hobby (skiing, scuba diving, fancy cocktails out…) that the other doesn’t partake in. It’s a balance to strike.
3. Who keeps your joint social calendar?
It is easy to say to your mutual friends, “Hey, partner and I should have dinner with you sometime.” And then you make a plan over the water cooler, and mutual friend and you are all settled on it, until it’s the day of and you tell partner and s/he is, like, “But I told someone else we could see them tonight!” Our solution: shared Google calendar. This also goes for where we spend which holidays where and booking plane tickets and things. Either make a mental note to talk about it or send an email as soon as you think of it. Actually, Google docs for all kinds of things. We also have a running grocery/drugstore list and a list of chores to take care of at home.
4. What’s your timeline?
Having seen friends do the dating/move in together/get engaged/get married in under a year and a half and others stretch it out to ten years has shown me that people can have different timelines. Personally, I think talking about TOO much all at once and up front puts unnecessary pressure on a relationship, but it’s still something to be aware of. My husband and I these days tend to bring up big scary next moves over dinner and say, hey, you’re scared of this thing, and I am, too, but it’s out there, and let’s agree on a time horizon, then we can confront the big scariness together. Engagement and marriage planning, house buying, kid having. There will always be something looming in the distance.
5. Do you need a hello/goodbye routine?
OK, this sounds weird and micro-manage-y, but just hear me out. My husband and I kiss goodbye every morning when the first one of us leaves and hello every evening when the second of us arrives home. It is what we do. My sister and her husband? Do not notice when one or the other leaves or arrives. They can have both been in the apartment for an hour before they actually interact. I think if I did that to my husband, he would think I was mad at him. So just, y’know, sort it out so there’s no miscommunication.
There are some things which happen inside a relationship which need to be aired out with friends (hundreds of them on the interweb!) and other things which are nobody’s business. Agree on where the line gets drawn.
FINANCIAL STUFF — SHORT TERM
1. Whose name are the bills in and who pays them? Like, who opens the envelope and cuts the check or logs in to the website and types in the numbers?
2. How do you deal with joint expenses? Cut each other a check each time something comes up? Keep tabs each month and cut the check at the end? Get a joint checking account and jointly contribute to it?
It took me a long time to work up to it, but I have to say, joint checking account is THE BEST. It is just so nice and comforting to not worry about keeping track — or cashing each other’s checks. We only have joint accounts at this point, actually. All paychecks are direct deposited to the joint checking, all bills get paid out of it (including credit cards, which are also joint), and there’s a twice monthly transfer to savings (also joint). Retirement plan contributions are withheld pre-tax.
3. What percentage of your budget do you spend on nonessential lifestyle stuff, especially food and booze?
This is one where we legitimately had to compromise early on. My husband would order take out or actually go to a restaurant six nights out of seven, I think, if left to his own devices. It makes my soul hurt not to have a home cooked meal most nights. I always chalked this up to our upbringings — his in Manhattan, mine in small town-Southeast. But we had to really talk it out. Nowadays we cook or have leftovers probably four or five nights and do something else the other two or three (which are not always the weekend ones). I think both of us have come to like this balance better than either of the extremes.
When the marriage part draws closer, let’s say sometime after you get engaged, it’s probably worthwhile to talk about percentages of money spent on non-food and things, like clothes, personal care, furnishings, electronics, concerts and movies, and travel. It’ll probably work itself out, honestly, but best to keep communication lines open in order to preempt bitterness.
FINANCIAL STUFF — LONG TERM
1. What does your balance sheet look like?
Regardless of how early it is, a serious taking stock of all debts and assets and income is a good idea. We didn’t do this until, oh, a few months before we were married, so it’s lucky neither of us had any surprises!
2. What are your goals?
Pay off the credit card and student loans? Travel? Buy a flat screen TV or a sofa? Buy a house? Go back to school? Save for retirement?
3. What is your plan for meeting your goals? Do you have a budget?
I find a rough estimate of percentages of expenditures in various categories along with pretty regular checking in to Mint.com to be really useful.
4. Carrying the burden.
I think it’s worthwhile to have some shared vision about roles. At the moment, it sounds like Bryan has less debt and more income than Lisa. Is that a forever thing? Is that ok with each of you? You can pause and let that one sink in.
For us, rotating is what makes sense. I worked while my husband was in law school. He is working now while I am in a Ph.D. program. He may scale back into something with less demanding hours and lower pay when I’m out and take on my career-trajectory job, or maybe he will become the primary caretaker of our future kid(s). To us, it feels fair. But to some other people, even if there’s no trading off, if each person is happy in their career, it feels fair. In the end, it’s up to you, but you both have to be in agreement. You also have to have a plan if one of you loses your job or goes through a dry spell.
And just one final note: There is nothing innate to a person about being “bad with money” or “never being able to earn money.” Those are all choices. I have picked up new, good habits from my husband, and I think he has learned some things about financial management from me. If all goes well, you can bring out the best in each other.
I think it would be irresponsible not to at least mention that moving in together can bring up a whole host of other issues not directly related to how you spend you money: How do you show affection? Where are you spending the holidays? How do you deal with your families in general — in stressful situations, in ill health, just when you want to see your nieces and nephews all the time? What part does faith play in your life, if any? Do you want to have kids? How do you want to raise the kids? How will you decide where to move, if one or both of you wants to move? What kind of a career do you want to have? Sex — all the questions. How do you want to confront health issues? What would you do if you broke up?
Now that I’ve written all these out, they seem really overwhelming.
Maybe you don’t have to know all the answers right away. Maybe it’s better for some of them to come up organically. Sure, in hindsight, I could point to friends who were surprised by any of these issues and ran into problems in their relationships. But it’s also fine, I think, to take things one step at a time and to know that most decisions are reversible. You can find a new apartment. You can sell the table you hate and buy a new one. You can spend the holidays apart and be unhappy and together the next year. All it takes to have a successful relationship is communication, compassion, and a willingness to make it work. Coulda called that one commitment to stay with the alliterative pattern, but that isn’t exactly what I meant.
Katie Wilson lives in L.A. (with her husband).