A couple of months ago, a friend sent me a text message asking if my partner and I split our rent down the middle.
“I’m considering asking my husband to cover more of the rent because he makes more money than me,” she wrote. “I don’t know why it never occurred to be before, but I am constantly running out of money.”
To which I replied: “Girl, we have never split rent equally for that very reason!”
Since we moved in together nearly three years ago, my partner and I have always split rent proportionate to our incomes. Because he earns about $20,000 more a year than I do, he handles 60% of the rent, and I cover the remaining 40%.
My friend and her husband also earn unequal incomes, but they were still splitting their rent 50/50. Changing that wasn’t something they’d talked about all that much. But they were soon going to move into a new apartment, which presented a perfect opportunity to bring up the conversation.
“Definitely ask,” I told her. “He will be more understanding than you think, I’m sure of it. It shouldn’t be 50/50 when the playing field isn’t equal.”
Discussing how to split shared expenses like rent with your significant other can be a real point of contention in a relationship. Having to share details about your finances with someone you love can stir up uncomfortable feelings like shame and guilt.
“We place a lot of value on tying money to self worth,” says Dr. Natasha Sharma, relationship and parenting expert, and author of The Kindness Journal. “But we have to get beyond all that crap and get above that because that’s rubbish.”
Here’s what experts have to say on how couples should split their shared expenses when the incomes are imbalanced — and how they can go about having that conversation in the first place.
A relatively new conversation
Discussing how to split shared expenses with your partner is, for the most part, a fairly recent development. When we think of our grandparents discussing how they would split the bills, for instance, it feels a bit funny to imagine.
“In the past, men traditionally were the ones who made money so there was no question of combining,” says Sharma. “They were the only ones who had it. It was one big fat account and if you were lucky, and you had a really nice guy, and a nice marriage, then you would just draw on it as you and your family needed.”
But when more women started joining the workforce in the 1960s, that began to change. For the first time ever, it became common — even mainstream — for women to contribute to household earnings.
It helps to think of your life together not just as a romantic life but also a little bit of a mini-business
“The birth of the pill and women going into the workforce and actually contributing financially to the household — these are still relatively new things,” says financial planner Jackie Porter. “It hasn’t even been 100 years. It’s just a whole new world.”
But for anyone born after 1970, Sharma says, this concept of divvying up shared living costs isn’t all that foreign.
“Gen X and beyond is a generation of double-income, dual-career households, generally speaking, in the Western world,” she says.
While that might be true, the women in those households still don’t earn equal pay for equal work. Viewed from this perspective, Porter says, a 50/50 split just doesn’t make sense. “Can we truly, in a partnership, split expenses down the middle if you’re the lower-income spouse — typically that’s the female — and you have a partner who earns quite a bit more than you?” she asks.
Broaching the subject
“The best way to bring it up is straightforwardly and simply,” says Sharma. That, however, is sometimes easier said than done.
“I see a lot of conflict or relationship challenges or problems arise as a result of finance,” says Sharma. “People can sometimes be sensitive about having that conversation.”
To confront your sensitivities, Sharma suggests asking yourself: what’s stopping or blocking you from talking about it? Are you ashamed of your financial situation? Are you feeling guilty? Often, she says, it’s one of those two things.
Once you confront the truth about what’s holding you back, move forward with a practical approach in mind.
“It helps to think of your life together not just as a romantic life but also a little bit of a mini-business,” says Sharma. “A really important part of a long-term relationship is how we manage our money together. So, what’s our plan? Let’s start talking about this now.”
Involve a professional
One of the best ways to talk about how to split shared expenses is in the presence of a professional third party, like an accountant or financial planner. This will help the discussion become less about emotion, and more about numbers.
“We can have these awesome conversations around money where no one feels like they’re being singled out or attacked, but we’re leveraging,” says Porter. “A best practices conversation around how expenses should be split is way different than, ‘you earn way more money so you should pay more!’”
The best way to have a productive conversation, Porter says, is to look at your shared budget together.
“Then I can just ask questions and talk about the implications. ‘So, how do you guys divide expenses?’ and ‘Let’s talk about some ways that different people do this.’ Then it just ends up being a conversation.”
The good (and maybe bad) news is: there are no hard-and-fast rules around how to split expenses. Typically, financial experts recommend spending no more than 36% to 42% of your income on expenses, says Porter. Of course, this will vary based on where you live, whether you rent or own and what you like to spend your money on.
Living beyond your means is so ’80s. And so bad for you. That doesn't mean you can’t enjoy and splurge, but do it responsibly and intelligently
“The more general and more important rule is: after expenses, what do you have left over?” says Porter. “And what’s your goal of what you want left over? You kind of want to reverse-engineer that.”
Sharma says that it’s also crucial to be upfront early on about what you’re bringing into the relationship, finance-wise. “It’s good to have an important conversation about where your starting point is financially.”
“Your debt is very much a part of the financial situation when you have that first conversation,” she says. “What does your financial map look like? It’s like a balance sheet. And you want to share your balance sheet with your partner from the beginning and at regular intervals throughout your relationship.”
You and your partner may realize it’s best if one handles the mortgage or rent, for instance, and the other partner pays for all of the bills. Or maybe you split all shared expenses proportionally.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all,” says Porter.
Have regular financial check-ins
Just as there’s no one approach that works for everyone, there’s also no guarantee that the approach you adopt will work for you and your partner forever.
It’s important to have regular check-ins with each other to see if the way you’re splitting expenses still serves both of you financially. If, for example, you decide to split proportionate to income and then one partner gets a substantial raise, you may want to look at adjusting the percentages of how expenses are split.
Similarly, if one partner loses their job, things may need to shift again as incomes fluctuate.
“It’s a conversation you have to have over and over again through the relationship,” says Porter.
And when you have these check-ins, you shouldn’t be placing unrealistic expectations on one another, either.
“The higher-earner should not be expected to buy a super fancy engagement ring or a trip around the world simply because they can afford to,” says Sharma. “How a person decides to spend their excess money beyond just surviving is really up to them. It’s important to make sure we manage our expectations of both the lower earning partner as well as the higher earning partner.”
No matter how you decide to split your bills, the most important thing is for you and your partner to live within your collective means.
“Living beyond your means is so ’80s,” says Sharma, with a laugh. “And so bad for you. That doesn't mean you can’t enjoy and splurge, but do it responsibly and intelligently.”
The idea of initiating such a conversation can be intimidating, but your partner might actually be more receptive than you think.
In the end, my friend decided to talk to her husband about changing the way they share the cost of their rent. She was nervous about how the conversation would go and had prepared a whole speech, complete with relevant statistics that could justify why he should be paying more if he earns more.
“We need to talk about something,” she stammered as he returned home from work one day and began preparing himself a bowl of cereal.
“I think you need to start paying a bigger share of the bills because you make more money than me,” she said, ready to launch into her stats-filled spiel.
But, to her surprise, he immediately replied, “Okay!” — his mouth still full of cereal.