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How to handle rent when your significant other moves in with you

As a clinician specializing in financial behavior, Amanda helps people live empowered, engaged, and educated financial lives.

Dear Amanda: My long-distance boyfriend and I have decided to move in together. While I'm thrilled that we're taking this step in our relationship, during our initial talk about household expenses he mentioned that he's carrying some credit card debt.

It turns out that it's a lot; I was shocked when he told me the total. He didn't seem to think it was such a big deal. I think that paying it off should be a priority, and since I'm used to paying my full rent anyway I've offered to keep doing so on the condition that he puts the money toward paying down his balances. He has agreed to this, but the situation has thrown me a little. Am I doing the right thing here?

Thanks,
Going All-In In Iowa

Dear All-In:

It is always smart to have the money talk before your sweetie arrives at your door with a truck full of moving boxes. A live-in love is not just a roommate with benefits, and all cohabiting couples need to have a basic financial agreement with each other even if they don't plan to share a bank account.

But your question is a lot more complicated than who should pay for cable. In offering to give him a free ride on household expenses you're giving him a tremendous gift... with strings attached.

If this works as agreed, then he'll have a valuable leg up toward his own financial stability and you'll have the benefit of a more financially secure partner. It's a win-win, right?

I hate to be a Negative Nelly here, but there are some potential red flags in this scenario. In order to avoid headaches down the road, I suggest you think about a few things before you hand over a copy of your keys.

woman angry about finance with boyfriend

Photo credit: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/360/Getty Images

Do you know where his debt came from?

All debt tells a story. Is his story about something that hit him out of the blue, maybe a job loss, an expensive health issue or an unsuccessful business venture? Sometimes life throws something unexpected our way and we don't have the resources to cover it (this is why having a cushion is so critical!).

Or is his story that he didn't want to deny himself certain comforts even though they were beyond his means? Perhaps he simply wasn't paying attention to his spending, and when you asked him about his financial picture he was surprised to discover his own level of indebtedness.

Consider what that story tells you about him, and what it means for your current plans together.

Debt that comes from an unexpected event can teach important lessons about being better prepared in the future. If that's the case your offer to help will allow him to realize the fruits of the lesson that much faster.

But if the story is about long-term issues like overspending or not caring enough to pay attention to money, then you have to wonder if he will recognize the value of the opportunity you're giving him. He may have a lot of personal work to do before he's able to understand why it's important to respect money, and appreciate what you're offering.

Is this your goal or his goal?

Which leads us to issue two: Who wants this more? Your offer comes with the expectation that he will make his debt a bigger priority than it's been so far. You care about him, so it's worth believing that he truly intends to do what you're asking.

However, if he doesn't want this for himself as much as you want it for him, then there's a high likelihood he's going to struggle to live up to his end of the deal. This is especially true if his debt is the result of chronic overspending. Spending habits are difficult to change, and downright impossible without strong personal motivation.

So as hard as this is to hear, you need to think through how you will react if he's not able to follow through with his end of the deal. If he "defaults" on his payments, will you require him to pay his share of rent? Will you silently simmer and resent him? Will you feel like he should always give you your way in every disagreement since he "owes" you? The important thing here is to figure out how you're likely to feel, and then talk to him about this before you set a move-in date.

The bottom line is this: Despite the many ways that we might try to get other people to do things, even things in their best interest, there's no way to make them do it. You are about to take a big leap in your relationship. There is every reason to hope it will all work out and you'll be able to work together as a team. But having a solid plan B never hurt a girl.

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