Lina*, 34, used to live in the same New York City neighborhood as her boyfriend — let’s call him Tom. After dating him for about a year, Lina found she was spending more time at Tom’s apartment than her own (“It was nicer,” she notes). When the time came for Lina to renew her lease on the two-bedroom apartment she shared with a roommate, the couple decided it made more sense for her to just move into Tom’s place.
“We never discussed what would happen if we broke up,” Lina says. “You know, you don’t want to think about that when you’re doing something optimistic like moving in together.”
These days, cohabitation isn’t the exception — it’s becoming the norm. According to Pew Research Center, as of 2016 18 million adults in the U.S. were cohabitating, up 29% from 2007. As marriage rates continue to fall, Americans in relationships are choosing to just live together instead.
In many large cities, where rental prices are ballooning and work culture is increasingly competitive, some millennials choose to move in with a partner out of convenience as much as romance, much like Lina and her beau did. And yet, by giving in to the allure of practicality — and, let’s be real, subsidized rent — some are rushing into cohabitation without thinking through the possible financial repercussions.
Lina moved in with Tom and his roommate, Ian*, in a large, centrally located riverside apartment complex in Manhattan. She was unable to afford her full share of the $3,200 monthly rent and instead took on a smaller portion, around $800. After all, both partners knew their financial circumstances were not the same. “He was further along in his career than I was; at the time I was a struggling artist pursuing acting and bartending most of the time,” Lina says, noting she was barely able to scrape together any savings. “When we went out for dinners, he’d pay.”
This dynamic gradually became a source of contention. “The last few months we were together, we weren’t happy. We were fighting a lot, and a lot of it was about money,” Lina says. “Eventually, there was more fighting than not fighting, and one of those fights was more or less a breaking point.”
I knew if I moved out, I’d be stuck in a shitty situation in some far outer-borough walk-up shared with a bunch of strangers.
Unable to swing a new apartment in New York City and unsure of her next step, Lina eventually moved back in with her parents in the greater D.C. area. “That time was the worst,” she says. “My life as I knew it ended; I was bereft not just of the relationship but of my beloved city.”
Today, Lina is engaged and once again living in New York City. And while she was able to get back on track after her breakup, it took a year and a half.
Setting boundaries before the ink is dry
For Jessica, 33, moving in with her partner, Jake*, was precipitated by a familiar set of circumstances: They were both living in Brooklyn, paying steep rents, and spending a considerable amount of time at each other’s apartments. “It got to the point where we wondered why we were paying two rents,” says Jessica. “It was a live-in-the-moment decision. There was no thought about ‘what if this goes wrong?’”
Jessica and Jake, however, had a somewhat unique set of circumstances: They were not only dating but also best friends and playing in a band together. Because of this, the boundaries between their finances were already somewhat blurred.
“We tackled everything as a team: There was never really my money or your money, it was always our money,” Jessica says, adding that their finances only meshed further once they moved in together. “We were both working freelance and incredibly poor. It was always: Who made money this month? Who can pay rent? Who can get groceries?”
We were both working freelance and incredibly poor. It was always: Who made money this month? Who can pay rent? Who can get groceries?
Though this fluid financial situation certainly sounds like a progressive, if not lovestruck, decision, it may not be a smart idea — at least not for every couple. Before you sign onto a joint lease, setting boundaries based on your specific financial needs and resources is not only good planning, it could potentially save both you and your partner from unnecessary financial heartache.
Jenn Monahan, finance expert and trainer at the Financial Gym in New York City, acknowledges that housing costs are millennials’ largest fixed expense, which leads many to live with someone, including a romantic partner. But Monahan notes that many clients may not be emotionally ready, since the timing for moving in with someone is often dictated by a pre-existing lease.
Monahan outlines a number of protective measures one should consider before signing a lease with a partner — no matter how solid a relationship seems. Her most important tip? Asking yourself whether you would be able to afford the entire rent every month, and if not, could you get a subletter? This question, she says, is absolutely crucial not only in the face of a breakup but also in the event that your partner loses their job.
After that’s been settled, Monahan recommends coming up with a joint system to keep track of expenses, clearly outlining who is responsible for and entitled to what. While there may be no legal recourse, such as a prenup, it’s important to define boundaries.
Lastly, Monahan underscores the importance of an emergency fund. She generally recommends saving at least three months’ worth of fixed expenses as a cushion, but adds that you may need to double this if you want to be able to provide for a partner, as well.
We were still sleeping in the same bed, and being in this small space sort of amplified the negatives that we saw in each other.
Because Jessica and her ex never discussed what might happen if things unraveled, they found themselves having to continue living together even after they broke up. “We were living in a faux two-bedroom railroad apartment; we sublet the actual bedroom to roommates, so we were in this windowless room, because we were super broke and couldn’t find work,” Jessica says. “We were still sleeping in the same bed, and being in this small space sort of amplified the negatives that we saw in each other.”
Untangling your life after a breakup
Though Jessica was lucky to amicably, if awkwardly, continue living in the apartment she had shared with her ex, not everyone has the option to stay. Ana*, 27, found herself in a much more hostile situation after breaking up with her ex-boyfriend, whom we’ll call David.
Before moving into a shared apartment in Los Angeles, Ana lived with roommates and David with his dad. The two were both uncomfortable in their respective living situations and decided it would be more convenient to just sign onto a lease together.
Then, this past December, Ana confronted David for cheating on her, and he demanded that she leave the apartment, even though she, too, was on the lease. “When he is mad, he is stuck in a rage and will do whatever he can to break me down,” Ana says. “He knew my only option was to go home to my parents’ house, which was small and uncomfortable. I ended up having to sleep in my brother’s toy room, and I’m still there.”
He knew my only option was to go home to my parents’ house, which was small and uncomfortable. I ended up having to sleep in my brother’s toy room, and I’m still there.
Looking back, she says David had long displayed concerning financial behavior. “He had no savings, and every time he would get paid, he would spend his first paycheck on weed and clothes and going out, and the second paycheck he would use to pay bills,” Ana explains. “I made less than him, but he would always end up asking me for money.”
With any split, there are already numerous challenges, particularly for those who are low-income, and controlling or even abusive partners only further complicate the process of moving on. In fact, amid rising rental prices, there is a growing concern that many women are forced to stay in bad relationships because they have nowhere else to go.
Monahan points out that there are a number of steps you can take to lessen the stress of an already emotionally draining situation, beginning with asking yourself: How can I start to untangle? She encourages individuals to get an accountability partner, either a friend or family member, who can help to develop a clear exit strategy and also provide emotional support. Many times, an exit strategy may simply mean locating a temporary, safe place to stay — whether that’s a friend or family member’s sofa, a co-living space, or a sublet.
Monahan also urges individuals going through a breakup to be gentle with themselves; though frugality has its merits, it’s important to build in time — and a budget — for self-care, whether that means therapy, massage, or yoga practice.
From there, Monahan says that contacting, and clearly communicating with, your landlord, utility companies, and any other financial shareholders is crucial. This way, you can establish how much it’ll cost to break or extend a lease, move around utilities, and mitigate anything else that could potentially hurt your credit score. Same goes for separating “assets” such as furniture: Figure out if it’s worth it to sell, pay for movers or a storage unit, or just let it go.
Make sure you’re not doing this on your own; it is going to be overwhelming when you’re already in a vulnerable place.
Your accountability partner can play a supportive role in this. “Keep giving yourself short, achievable lists that you’re trying to tackle,” says Monahan. “Make sure you’re not doing this on your own; it is going to be overwhelming when you’re already in a vulnerable place.”
Onward’s cofounders, Lindsay Meck and Mika Leonard, both experienced messy breakups while cohabitating with partners, and they understood the need for a service that eases the transition. “If you don’t have a strong social network and disposable income, this is an incredibly derailing process,” says Mika. “We realized there had to be a better way.”
Onward has joined forces with a number of strategic partners, including co-living spaces, financial experts, therapy networks, and storage and moving companies, in order to help their broken-hearted clients create a clear roadmap after a split. Its concierge plans, which start at $150, are tailored specifically to an individual’s budget and designed to help them get back on track, whatever that means for them. “Our mantra is that a breakup shouldn’t also break the bank,” says Lindsay.
Learning how to rebuild
With the gift of hindsight, Ana now sees that she moved in with David much too soon. Like many millennials, they were tired of living with roommates or family and wanted a living situation that was convenient and inexpensive. But Ana realizes that her priorities were not where they should have been. “We got together because the rent’s cheap, instead of because we wanted to progress our relationship,” she says.
Ultimately, the most important step before moving in is to slow down and carefully analyze your motives for doing so. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. “Trust your partner, really get to know them,” Ana says. “Slow and steady is the best way to see if you’re compatible. You don’t want to wait and find out you’re not two months into a one-year lease — that shit sucks.”
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
*Names have been changed
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