Five simple methods for managing joint expenses

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Young adulthood is fraught with peril. You’re young, you’re on your own, and you only know about 10 percent of what you ought to know about being a responsible, functioning adult. You’re in that dangerous emotional space between being a child who isn’t responsible for anything and an adult who’s responsible for everything. It’s a difficult transition, to say the least.

Money will always be a tricky subject, but it gets trickier when it involves more than one person. That’s why money has a tendency to become an issue in otherwise healthy relationships.

It also makes cohabitation a bit complicated. Who pays for what? How do you split bills? What happens when someone can’t pay their share?

A lot of people make the mistake of heading into roommate situations – either as a couple, or friends, or complete strangers – without first creating a plan for managing shared expenses. Everyone is different, so there’s no one plan that will work for everyone, but here are a few variations. There’s a good chance one of them might work for your situation.

Bill Masters

I used to live in a house with four other roommates. The set-up was pretty simple. Each of us controlled certain bills – I was in charge of cable and internet – and when those bills came due, we were responsible for collecting everyone’s share. We bought our own food, all paid towards rent, and then cut each other a check or two every month. It was a lot of checks, but it kept things (relatively) drama-free.

Shared account

One way to manage shared expenses that makes a bit more sense if you’re living with your significant other, is to create a joint savings, checking, or credit card account. You each pay equally into the account, which is only used for shared, household-specific expenses.

Of course, creating a shared account can be potentially dangerous if one or both of you abuse it. It can also turn pretty messy if the relationship doesn’t work out, so tread carefully when opening shared accounts.

Track and total

Some people prefer operating autonomously and then hashing out their expenses at the end of the month. In this method, you buy groceries and pay bills independently, then come together at the end of the month with your pile of receipts to sort out who paid what and how much. You can then either pay out the difference to whoever paid more, or you can factor the difference into your rent or mortgage payment (if you paid less in bills you’d pay more in rent).

This keeps your money separate, but requires that you keep records and set aside time to discuss the month’s spending.

Half of everything, all the time

If you don’t like to do any sort of math that isn’t dividing something by two, then you can simply split every bill and expense as soon as it arrives. That means writing a check (or making a transfer) every time one of you pays a common expense, including irregular expenses, like groceries. This is more work in the short-term, but saves you from having to total up expenses at the end of the month.

You can try using an app like Square Cash or Venmo to help facilitate money transfers between roommates.

Don’t keep score

If you want a truly hands-off approach, you can look at the average amount on certain bills, assign out those bills as evenly as possible, and then stop paying attention. You won’t pay exactly the same amount every month, especially as certain expenses rise and fall from month-to-month. Instead, you’ll be paying roughly the same amount.

This requires the least amount of work, but the highest amount of trust and understanding. You need to feel okay about the fact that you’ll be paying marginally more on certain months. Because of that, this only works for certain personality types, and preferably for committed partners with clear financial goals.

Make sure you pick a plan that fits your style. You can use one of the five listed here, or create something totally new. The important thing is that everyone agrees to the system and feels comfortable. Like all important money conversations, this isn't one you can't afford to skip.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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