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When Does ‘Yours’ and ‘Mine’ Become ‘Ours’?

Yours, Mine and Ours
In long-term relationships, the transition from individual ownership (property, possessions or finances) to shared ownership can be stressful and confusing.

Marriage is a natural milestone typically associated with sharing assets and belongings. But for couples in long-term relationships who choose not to marry, the decision regarding if, when, and to what extent to merge resources can be difficult.

Marriage represents a social contract— formally acknowledged and with commonly-understood implications. By contrast, the nature of a long-term relationship between two unmarried partners is largely self-determined. Defining your own terms for your relationship can feel liberating … or overwhelming. As there is no clear roadmap regarding when or how to pool resources, many unmarried couples in committed relationships find themselves without a clear sense of direction.

Some considerations to think about before merging finances or possessions with your partner:

The length of relationship
If you have been with your partner for less than a year, be cautious about combining lives. Be sure you have a clear understanding of your partner’s personal and financial history and habits first.

The stability of relationship
If your relationship is volatile—with explosive fights or frequent breakups—think twice before living together or pooling resources.

The financial health of each partner
Have a candid discussion about your respective financial states. Assess your personal debt and assets and run a credit report on both parties. This will allow you to make an informed decision regarding whether you are comfortable combining finances.

The trust factor
Unmarried couples generally do not have the same legal obligations as married couples—neither do they have the same legal protections. Do an honest mental assessment of your partner’s character—if your romance ever broke down, would they deal fairly and honestly with any debt or responsibilities? Or would they leave you holding the bag?

Do a cost-benefit analysis
Living together and sharing resources can reduce your individual expenses. The economies of scale that come from living together can result in financial benefits for each partner. However, if some of the considerations listed above concern you—or if you have strong gut feeling that combining resources with this person is a bad idea—the risks may outweigh the rewards.

Beyond the numbers
While living together can save you money, never move in with a partner out of economic desperation. If you have reservations about the relationship, find another solution to your financial problems—consider living with a roommate or even your parent(s). Many individuals in abusive or unhealthy relationships remain in such relationships in part because they feel trapped by economic and logistical complications tied to co-habitation.

If you think you are ready to begin merging your lives and money, ask yourself:

How extensively will you merge your finances?
If you buy a house together, will you put both of your names on the mortgage? Do you want to maintain separate bank accounts and just your split bills, roommate style? Should you put utility bills under both of your names or divvy them up another way?

How will you pay for everyday expenses? 
If you live together, but choose to maintain even partially-independent finances, how will you pay for groceries, date nights, etc.? Think through any potential sore spots—your dog, his beer, her magazine subscriptions.

How will you pay for major debts and expenditures?
If you buy a big-screen TV together and break up, who will get it? If you go on expensive vacations and one only person pays, will he or she expect repayment if the relationship falls through? Who gets what jointly-purchased furniture? If you help put him through medical school, what do you expect in return, should the relationship collapse? How will you handle all debts accrued before or during your relationship?

Would you be more comfortable putting it in writing?
If your finances are complex or if you would just feel more comfortable doing so, consider a written contract detailing your respective financial obligations. Even if it is not a formal document prepared by a lawyer, putting it all in writing may help you think through the various financial repercussions of sharing assets.

While there are no strict rules for if and when unmarried couples should pool resources, observing time-honored rules of personal responsibility, fairness and common sense goes a long way in any healthy relationship.