In the past, when asked about sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner, our advice has boiled down to one word: don’t.
There are two main reasons we’ve tended toward this perspective. First, many of the specific questions we’ve gotten on this topic have been, um… ill-advised? Often they’ve come from young people with limited life experience asking how to most expeditiously derail their lives. (“Myself and my four best friends are juniors in college, and rent in our city is super expensive, so we want to buy a house together! We haven’t been roommates yet, but we’ve all been best friends since grade school and have never fought about anything. None of us have credit yet. Can we all just co-sign five separate loans for each other? Thanks in advance!”) We will continue to answer such questions with a gentle yet robust one-two slap.
Reason #2 we’ve historically cautioned against sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner?
Times were different.
Sooooooo much has changed since we started this blog. Political unrest, widening inequality, spikes in unemployment, a global pandemic, war, inflation, a new recession… during all this turmoil and strife, I’ve found it clearer than ever that none of us can weather these changes alone. Total independence is a luxury few can afford anymore.
Our systems are designed to make it easy and safe to share money with only two categories of people: spouses and immediate family members. If you don’t have—or want—those traditional ties, it puts a lot of pressure on you to fully and independently support yourself. And if there was ever an era in which that was doable and sustainable, that era has officially passed us the hell by!
Which means we need to reevaluate our stance on sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner. We need to do better to legitimize chosen families and normalize community support. So today I’m offering a high-level overview of some of the best ways for sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner.
In the example in the intro, I laid out a scenario in which someone wanted to buy a home with friends. There were a lot of red flags in that example: too many people with too little experience at a transitional life stage with high potential for conflict.
But we don’t think it’s always a bad idea to share assets with someone other than family or a partner.
Think of two friends who’ve lived together for years. They have a long track record of mutual respect and honesty, and they have experience with conflict resolution. They’re at similar life stages, have stable incomes, have researched their legal liabilities and protections, and have already agreed on how to divide their shared asset if one or both parties want out later.
If you’re in a situation like this, YES! You can ABSOLUTELY own a house or other major asset with someone other than a partner!
When it comes to sharing finances, there is no legal protection unique to marriage that can’t be obtained in other ways. You can craft contracts, share assets, and open a joint banking account with anyone—not just the traditional parents, children, and spouses. It may require more patience, creativity, and research, but you’re paving the way for others with unique family structures to enjoy all the perks that come easily to partnered people.
If you missed our recent discussion on the structural punishments for being single, please check that out.
Finding the right people
Next time someone tells you “never mix friends and money,” ask them why. In my experience, the answer is usually something about things going wrong, feelings souring, and a painful, messy disentanglement process with money lost on one or both sides. And honestly, that’s a fair and realistic point.
But here’s the thing: Isn’t that the exact same thing that happens during a divorce?
If you told the same advice-giver you were merging finances with your new spouse, they would probably congratulate you for reaching a relationship milestone. That’s because our culture takes romantic relationships really seriously. It’s in poor taste to criticize or express pessimism about them. I kinda really hate this, because it suggests a relationship model supremacy. Like heterosexual monogamous spouses and the nuclear families they create are the only truly legitimate bonds one can form. It delegitimizes bonds with friends, chosen families, and broader communities. Lemme tell ya, I’m not here for that.
Sharing finances with ANYONE introduces risks. The relationship’s conventionality has nothing to do with it. Is the risk acceptable given its potential rewards? You can only find that answer by communicating openly and reflecting deeply together on your unique relationship.
I share finances with my spouse. But I also share them with a friend! Piggy and I co-own assets, file taxes together, and share a bank account and credit cards. I do so because I’ve evaluated both relationships, deemed both people eminently trustworthy, established our values and goals together, and taken reasonable steps to legally protect myself. Anyone can do that with anyone.
And I do trust Piggy with my money. Despite her somewhat dubious grasp of investing concepts, as evidenced below.
Method #1 to sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner: Splitting bills
Right now, two out of three American households live paycheck to paycheck. Excluding the super wealthy, everyone is spending a greater percentage of their income on core necessities like housing, transportation, and food. The Rent is Too Damn High Party remains the most viable third party option in America. Change my mind.
Given that, it makes a ton of sense to split bills wherever possible. There’s a reason that “get a roommate” is cliché money-saving advice. On average, Americans spend 30% of their income on housing and 14% on transportation. And I know plenty of people who spend closer to 50% or more. Since our dwellings and cars are the two things we spend the most on, it makes sense to start there.
Living alone and traveling freely shouldn’t be a luxury. But right now, realistically speaking, they are.
Sharing these assets requires legal safeguards that vary from state to state, so that’s beyond the scope of today’s article. You should understand your rights and liabilities before you let someone move in with you or drive your car. But if you take the time to protect yourself, the reward is often well worth the risk.
Although Piggy and I graduated with the same amount of student loans as our peers, we were able to pay them off early and start saving toward buying our first homes much faster than they were. If I could point to one key decision that set us apart, it was choosing to have roommates—and lots of them!—wayyyyy past the point of comfort. When our peers were moving into studios and one-bedroom apartments, we lingered a few extra years packed in like sardines with 5+ roommates each. Piggy even had a roommate who slept in a tent in the backyard to save money on rent!
Often, I’d say it was genuinely great. Piggy and I met as randomly assigned college roommates, after all! Roommates can become friends for life, expanding your total social circle. We were able to save hella money and live in a much nicer place by splitting the rent and utilities among so many people. My roommates often functioned like a supportive family—by saving me a trip to the grocery store, or walking my dog when I was stuck late at work, or gifting me an unwanted piece of furniture. It was reassuring to know someone was waiting for me at home, even when we weren’t especially close.
Now, are there drawbacks to sharing housing? Oh my, yes! I am not much of a cryer, but I’ve definitely shed tears of frustration over roommate conflicts.
In the moment, I was entirely jealous of my friends’ solo living spaces. But in retrospect, the extra years spent living with roommates was so worth it. Our housing bill was 45% less than my friends living on their own. Sharing finances by rooming with others saved us around $50,000—exactly what we needed as a downpayment for a home, bypassing the brutally high cost of renting alone. That decision changed our lives for the better.
Sharing a vehicle
Which is… fine. Cars are expensive, and getting by without one is wonderful. You just have to be lucky enough to live in an area that has alternative infrastructure like rail systems, busses, bike lanes, or good walkability. Which definitely isn’t the case everywhere in car-crazed America. (“TEN CARS?!“)
But even the frothiest bikevangelists will sometimes need access to a vehicle. And it doesn’t make sense to own one alone if your needs don’t justify it. Here are four ways to split car expenses with individuals or your community.
- Join a carpool with someone else headed your way, either directly (such as with a coworker) or via services like Lyft.
- Borrow a car from a friend, roommate, or family member.
- Rent nearby cars by the hour via services like Zipcar.
- Rent nearby cars from neighbors with services like Turo and GetAround.
Many more car-sharing services are in development right now. For example, ShareNow is a car subscription service available at all hours of the day and night and doesn’t require extra fees like parking, fuel, or insurance. There’s growing recognition that sharing cars can be done safely, save consumers money, and reduce the pollution and waste of redundant vehicle sales and production.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t share our utterly indispensable advice on buying a used car in the first place:
- Buying a Car with the Bitches, Part 1: How to Choose Your Car
- Buying a Car with the Bitches, Part 2: How to Pay for Your Car
Obviously, if you have roommates, you’ll end up sharing vital utilities like heat and electricity. But you can get more creative than that.
In our second apartment together, Piggy and I introduced ourselves to a trio of geeky boys living next door. (No, not those ones.) Upon observing that their wifi signal was plenty strong in our apartment, we offered them $20/month to share the password with us. They saved money; we saved money; Comcast lost money; so we all lived happily ever after!
Method #2 to sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner: Borrowing
To be clear, I’m not talking about borrowing money. That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms I ain’t opening today. This is about saving money by borrowing stuff.
I grew up feeling a lot of shame about borrowing. My lil’ undiagnosed ADHD ass never came to class with the right stuff, and I had to beg for the correct books and school supplies constantly. I developed a complex system to never borrow from the same person too often, lest they discover my weakness. One of my first important friends was a girl who came from a super poor family, and she had to do the same thing. We shared everything with each other because we vibed on each other’s shame.
Now, I recognize how that shame has roots in capitalist programming. “Owners are strong; borrowers are weak.”
Today, I borrow and lend more than I ever thought possible. Power tools, kitchen supplies, professional attire for job interviews, whatever. It’s a way to share what you have, help others, reduce waste, and earn valuable social goodwill. It’s community-based, flexible, reciprocal, and free.
Of course there are potential drawbacks—you may have to occasionally badger someone to return an item, or accept damage or a loss. But I’ve saved thousands of dollars borrowing expensive items I rarely need from friends and neighbors. I’m never looking back.
Method #3 to sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner: Sharing assets
The biggest potenetial asset to share with someone other than a partner is a home. It’s absolutely a viable strategy for enduring high housing costs, for the right people who’ve done their homework.
Communally owned property isn’t that rare! I live in New England, where it’s not unusual for multigenerational families to mutually own a triple-decker, or even a shared vacation cabin. That said, it’s a complex issue, so if there’s hunger for more on this particular topic, let me know in the comments below and we’ll do a deep dive.
Smaller assets are a lot easier to share. I’ve shared ownership of expensive items like furniture, electronics, and bicycles with other people because neither party could afford them independently.
Two recomendations will help this run smoothly. First, it’s much easier to agree to buy something than to agree to sell it. So before you do, hash out how you will divide the asset in advance. For example, if you buy a couch together with a roommate, agree on a fair price for one person to buy the other out in the future.
Second, scale the cost of the item with your trust in that person. In school, I split the cost of my musical instrument with another girl who had band class at a different time than me. I barely knew her, but it was fine, because the cost to replace those atrociously annoying bells was probably less than $300. If the asset costs $3,000 or $30,000, I would’ve wanted more protections, such as a contract or a security deposit before agreeing to the shared asset.
Method #4 to sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner: Community and peer-to-peer investing
I’m really intrigued by creative community and peer-oriented savings and investing opportunities.
Take sou-sous. I’m somewhat obsessed with sou-sous, because they’re brilliant. It’s a community-based lending club where members pay in during a set period, then take turns collecting the full disbursement. It’s legally informal, but socially strict, coming from Afro-Caribbean cultures where members know and trust each other, following an honor code to lift each other up.
Yeah, they’re awesome. I keep submitting them at the annual meetings where white people decide what to steal next from Black culture, and I am always outvoted because the Emmaleighs want to nab “finna” instead. TRAGIC.
It’s just one of many innovative ways to share finances with someone other than your partner. You have to invite a community into a role typically reserved for parents, children, and romantic partners. And it requires the same level of mutual trust and forethought as merging finances with a more traditional parter.
Method #5 to sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner: Mutual aid networks
Mutual aid networks became a lot more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, though they existed long before that. They generally exist to fill emergency needs, and their numbers grow in the aftermath of violence or natural disasters. They are similar to—but distinct from—charity. Mutual aid assistance comes from a desire to manifest meaningful political and social solidarity within a closed group. Members are urged to ask for what they need and offer what they can.
Freecycling and Buy Nothing groups are asset-based offshoots of mutual aid networks. They’re hyper-local networks of people asking for what they need, and offering what they have, completely free of charge. I’m part of one in my neighborhood, and the things people give away are astonishing. Our area just had its first heat wave of the summer, and someone posted several air conditioning units that they could’ve sold for hundreds of dollars. For free. Just to help their neighbors and avoid waste.
Mutual aid networks are a fantastic way to offset the ugly realities of an underpaid, overworked society of people who are unprepared for disastrous emergencies. And freecycling groups are a great way for neighbors to help each other and themselves.
Method #6 to sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner: Embracing creative payment structures
Financially, our society doesn’t have a lot of flexibility. I cannot walk into a local Kroger and start haggling over the price of a six-pack of Fever-Tree Ginger Beer. Not that you asked, but that shit is so fucking good. Like if ambrosia could reach up and punch you in the nose. BUT I DIGRESS.
When you’re exchanging money, goods, and services with your community, you have more options. These include…
Buy now, pay later
When my little brother came to live with us, I didn’t charge him rent. He was a recent grad without a job, and I didn’t really need the money.
He didn’t feel good about mooching. Because I raised him right. But I assured him he could pay me back later, when he was fully on his feet. This kind of buy now, pay later model is unheard of in the open market without hefty interest. But it’s something you can easily negotiate with any trusted member of your community.
Pay what you can
After my little brother found a job, as promised, we revisited his rent. We settled on $400 a month—half the market rate for the room if we’d rented it out to a stranger. He could contribute to the household while focusing primarily on beefing up his emergency fund and early investments. And we could afford to tackle a few household projects ahead of schedule. Win-win!
This is a pay what you can model. I love it because it’s flexible, renegotiable, and works well for everyone if you set it up wisely. Broadly, it’s the same model that drives mutual aid networks. And occasionally people will surprise you by paying much more than you’d expected.
One day, a neighbor knocked on my door. He explained that his sister had come to live with them during the pandemic. (Big brothers and big sisters, the unsung MVPs of 2020!) His household now had one car more than could fit in their driveway. He saw I had an unused space, and offered to rent it from me. I declined money, and asked if he’d feed my chickens whenever I went away on vacation. He agreed, and we drew up an informal three-sentence contract stating as much.
I love trading favors as currency. It’s so mutually beneficial, but it can only be done from one person to another. Target won’t let me walk out with a linen sheet set because I spent 45 minutes weeding their parking lot.
Granted, this one is also easy to get wrong! See these two articles for instructive horror stories:
- The Delicate Art of the Friend Trade
- Are You a Frugal Mooch?: Mooching Off Friends Is Not a Valid Savings Strategy
Our love of shopping secondhand is well documented. It keeps usable goods out of landfills, slows wasteful production of new stuff, and saves you money.
- Almost Everything Can Be Purchased Secondhand
- I Am a Craigslist Samurai and so Can You: How to Sell Used Stuff Online
- Ethical Consumption: How to Pollute the Planet and Exploit Labor Slightly Less
Whenever I’ve told someone in my community that I couldn’t afford something they were selling, their response has often been to lower the price. In America, prices are usually fixed. Haggling and bartering isn’t done except in a close community. But friends and neighbors are often happy to negotiate if it makes the sale easy and keeps it “in the family.”
A new vision of family
I would love to see more representation of—and respect for—diverse intimate relationships. Spouses are great and all, but it’s limiting and exclusionary to classify them as both the default and the pinnacle of all relationships. Queer people are absolutely already on top of this. Chosen family is so important to us. It’s myopic and rude to imply that blood or matrimony is a special sauce without which no financial sandwich can be made.
Huge thanks to our Patreon donors, who suggested this topic. Our awesome donors directly inspired AND sponsored the creation of this article. I asked for stories about sharing finances with someone other than a romantic partner, and they delivered! It was a huge help to get my brain thinking creatively about how real-world chosen families solve financial problems together. Thanks to all who shared their stories!
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