Do It Jointly

My Renter Became My Lover. This is How We Split the Bills.

I bought my home by myself and for myself. It was one step of many in a five year plan to tackle my student loan debt. It’s a small house, and my mortgage is cheaper than any rent I ever paid. I enjoyed knowing that my housing costs would be consistent, and I wouldn’t need to front the $2000+ to move at the drop of a hat, as often happened with renting. I also fancied the idea of using my home as a side hustle, which is exactly what I did.  My boyfriend initially moved in to my second bedroom as an acquaintance and renter. The details of our ascent from roommate to more than roommates is not the subject of this essay, but for six months, he was just a friend and our initial financial arrangement reflected that dynamic. We have revisited our agreement several times since then, but very little has changed.

When I initially sought out a renter, I had been renting for 10 years. I knew the ranges in my area and the cost-analysis of a flat fee vs. variable rate. I know several other people who rent out rooms in their homes, so I spoke with them about their experiences. I looked on Craigslist and rental sites. In the end, I preferred the flat rate approach for several reasons. Hopefully, it would give my renter a consistent budget and a stability that would benefit both of us. Though, if I’m being honest, the biggest factor for me was the ease of communication that comes with a set monthly fee.  I’ve lived with partners and roommates alike, and nothing stresses a relationship like sitting down and splitting up bill liability. The water bill is higher than last month, and a snide comment is made about someone’s long showers. Or the worst—a final amount is reached, only for one party to remember a fronted dinner tab that chips away at resolution.

In the end, I picked an amount that is around the average to rent a room in a smaller house in my part of town. It would be a flat monthly fee, to cover room and utilities. It was a competitive rate—I wanted to draw a large pool of potentials, so I could be selective in my choice. My eventual-boyfriend was attracted to the consistency offered by a flat rate, the affordable price, and the simplicity of avoiding bills. He also loves my house. Ironically, we made our first connection because our financial philosophies vibed well enough for a platonic living arrangement.

When we started dating and as our relationship has progressed, we reviewed the arrangement. But ultimately, it’s still preferable to us both to keep things almost the same. He continues to Venmo me half of his flat monthly fee with every bimonthly paycheck. We have made a few minor changes. He signed a year lease when he first moved in; I printed a blank form and had it notarized at the library because I’m a huge nerd. After that first year, I asked if he wanted to sign another lease. He said he would if I preferred, but it wasn’t important to him. That was our first move to really blurring that line between landlord/tenant and partners.

An ongoing lease would address some residual issues, but we talked those out. My home has plaster walls, so he agreed to hang items with foam tape or adhesive hooks. He wanted to attach a bookshelf to a wall to display a collection and I agreed, if he preemptively purchased a plaster patch kit. He had already agreed to put felt on the bottom of his furniture legs to protect my hardwood floors. Honestly, if he wasn’t receptive to finding compromises in these areas or if these conversations resulted in significant tension, I would consider that a huge red flag. As it stands, I could come home one day to find he’s moved out, and I’d have very little recourse—but I don’t know that I’d want him legally tethered to me if he didn’t love me anymore. We don’t have/want children or own property together, and break ups are difficult enough already.

Flexibility is a huge component of making this work because few situations are static. Similarly, honest communication helps enforce the rigid areas and assists us in bending the pliant parts. The first year of our relationship I would not let him help with yard care. It was not an initial rental responsibility, and I would not ask a man I’d been dating for a month to come to my house and mow the lawn. He was quick to let me know he didn’t mind helping, but I told him this boundary was important to me. We both needed space in different ways to navigate dating a roommate.

I greatly appreciate the respect he showed in situations where another man might have assumed I was being coy. He trusted that I said what I meant. The next summer, I casually mentioned it was getting hot outside, and I might like help trimming the hedges. He smiled, agreed, and now he and I handle the front and back yard respectively. There are several other areas of soft arbitration.

When we decided to get a first and second dog, we both agreed that I would keep them if we separated.  They belong to both of us, and we split the cost of their care now, but his schedule isn’t conducive to caring for two dogs on his own, and he can’t guarantee a fenced yard if he rents with someone else. That said, if his situation changed or he felt strongly about making it work on his own, I would do everything I could to find a compromise.

We keep separate rooms—now well into the second year of our relationship. We sleep in the same bed every night, but move between the two rooms sporadically. This was such a good idea! Not only did it give us healthy personal space when we started dating, but it prevented disagreements: conflicting décor, my terrible habit of leaving clean clothes all over my room, or his disgusting mid-twenties discovery that one should wash their pillow cases (and their pillows!) regularly.

A few weeks ago, I initiated a discussion about possibly condensing down to one bedroom and turning the second bedroom into something we would both enjoy. It wasn’t an ultimatum; I made sure he knew I was happy to keep our current setup if he preferred, and then I gave the hard sell. He was on board, if I agreed to knock $50 off his rent and store his bedroom furniture in my garage. Neither of us had strong feelings about which bedroom got nixed. My bed is bigger and he has less furniture in his room, so it worked out well. We easily moved on to brainstorming about the new space. In these instances, it is crucial that we are honest about our feelings. If I truly hated the separate bedroom set up or if he did not feel comfortable consolidating, we should say as much, so our partners can be informed in their decisions.

We keep food costs and preparation relatively separate, as well. His work schedule varies, so we never know when our meals will be together. We also have different food preparation styles—I like to prep a week’s worth of meals at once, and he prefers impromptu dishes made of whatever we have in the cabinets. It works well, because we’re both good at sharing. If we find ourselves home for a meal, he might whip something up for us. Or if he’s not in the mood, I offer whatever I prepped for myself.  But cooking is a shared passion and we both usually plan and purchase one joint meal a week. This is the only consistent meal-planning conversation we have between us, and it feels more like a hobby than a chore.

The business end of this is a bit more rigid. From the moment I bought the house, all the utilities have been in my name and auto-draft from my primary checking account. In my monthly budget, I pay my mortgage and all utilities with my own income. The rent my boyfriend gives me goes straight into my savings account. I do this for two reasons. Primarily because I assumed the responsibility of home ownership on my own—he can walk away anytime. I am accountable for repairs and yearly upkeep when he lives with me and when he does not. Also, I am his landlord, and I want to take that seriously. The money I use to replace a washing machine or maintain my yearly termite contract comes from my savings.  This means I am financially incentivized to become more informed on lawn-mower repair, plumbing, gutter upkeep, or minor electrical work. Learning self-sufficiency and undertaking home projects was a huge part of my decision to be a homeowner, and when I learn to do these things, I save myself money.

My hope is that we can maintain a mutually beneficial financial relationship and stay madly in love. As I mentioned, my choice to buy a modest first home was personal—I aim to play a longer game. But the effects of my decision have positively impacted his life, as well. I rented a similarly sized home in the same neighborhood for the years before I decided to buy and my entire rent was about 53% higher than my mortgage is currently. The flat monthly fee I charge my boyfriend is the same amount as my total mortgage (homeowners insurance included), but comes out to be the amount one would pay in the area to rent a room in a two bedroom home. Our partnership expanded his domain to encompass the entire house. Ultimately, I passed that savings onto him. He has been able to stabilize his budget, grow his savings, and buy a nice used car, cash-in-hand, since we’ve lived together. I have been able to increase my 401K contributions, refinance my student loans, and complete some home upgrades. Together, we’ve gone on some lovely vacations. For a pair of millennials, these are significant gains over a two year period.

Our personal relationships with money inform our logic, our goals, and our emotional responses. Before you can successfully navigate money with a partner, I believe you must thoroughly understand your own financial philosophy. This involves developing and exploring ideas such as:

How do I budget?

What are my weaknesses and strengths?

How does my family history or previous relationship history inform my feelings about money? What are my financial priorities?

What is my least favorite fiscal habit in myself and in others?

What is my current situation and goals?

How are my expectations informed by gender roles?

What should I do with my savings?

What is the end goal of successful money management?

Fiscal decisions are difficult for couples, because they ultimately become an obstacle course of emotional labor: communication, planning, flexibility, patience, and follow-through. However, you will not be able to communicate with your partner about money if you do not know what you want to communicate. You will not have realistic conversations with your partner about money if you don’t both know where the other stands. There are objectively poor money decisions, no doubt. If they come up, they should be discussed immediately. But financial philosophies are as varied as the people who hold them. Like most things in your relationship, your budget should be an effort to harmonize your subjective experiences and improve both of your lives.