When I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut dinosaur wrangler. When I learned that’s not a real job, I shifted to wanting to be a graphic designer. Then it was professional field goal kicker. Eventually, I made my way into a writing career.
My girlfriend, on the other hand, has wanted to be a journalist since, well, forever. And she recently scored an amazing opportunity to launch a new magazine! The downside: She won’t be getting paid for the first few months. We live together, so accepting this delayed-income position would put all of our financial responsibilities — rent, groceries, transportation — on me. Yikes.
I wanted to be supportive and encourage her to chase her dreams. But I also worried about what the financial strain of becoming a one-income couple might do to our relationship. We like to go out — to concerts, festivals, sporting events, restaurants, comedy shows. But all those things cost money. If we had to scale (way) back, would we still have fun together?
Spoiler alert: We’re making it work. Here’s what we’ve learned along the way.
Have a plan
This is something we learned ahead of time… the hard way. About a year and a half ago, my girlfriend got laid off, so we moved in together to save money (and for romance). We had to react to changing circumstances, but this time, since we knew about the situation ahead of time, we could be proactive and make a plan.
We grabbed our computers, copies of our bills, and a few beers, and got to work. We’re kidless, we live in LA with our dog, and our major expenses are my car payments (hers is paid off), utilities, rent, and our phones. We went through every single bill, adding up those costs as well as smaller ones like Spotify, Netflix, contact lenses, and gym memberships. We subtracted our total number from my monthly take-home pay, to figure out how much we had to spend on food and fun each month, which came to about $500.
Sure we could have had an app do all that for us, but this was a bonding experience. And having the hard facts has really helped give us a financial baseline to work from. Knowing our spendable cash has helped us be flexible and deal with ever-changing expenses.
Find a stress release
Fact: Money can be stressful. Second Fact: Knowing that another person is financially dependent on you… well, that just ups the stress level a few clicks. Being dependent on me was stressful for my girlfriend too. While she loved what she was working on, she wasn’t proud of the fact that she wasn’t contributing financially to our household.
You’ve got to be prepared because all that stress will lead to arguments, both valid and very silly. And by being prepared for fights, I don’t mean start studying up on your partner’s weaknesses so you can win every argument because that would make you a sociopath. That’s why, while we could have let the pressure build and build, instead, we turned to hobbies that helped us blow off steam. My girlfriend likes to run. I play tower defense games on my iPad. We also try and de-stress together by analyzing our favorite shows and playing video games, which are both free ways to bond and stay close.
Show your love in free ways
My girlfriend is into this “love languages” thing. Have you heard about it? I hadn’t until recently. Quick summary: Dr. Gary Chapman says there are five ways people show love and want to be loved — words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, quality time, and physical touch. Those are the “languages.” But each person favors one or two of the languages more than the others. The ways my girlfriend likes to receive love are “words of affirmation” and “quality time.” Mine are “I haven’t figured mine out yet” and “I should probably do that.” Knowing this about her makes boosting her confidence and showing that I love her very cost effective. Saying something nice (words of affirmation) and making an effort to be present (quality time) are both extremely free.
That’s why if and when you ever end up a single-income household, figure out how you can meet your partner’s needs in ways that don’t cost money. If he needs words of affirmation, thank him for doing little things around the house. If she’s a gifts person, here are 23 ways to make her feel awesome for less than $5. Acts of service? Try cooking dinner for a week. Knowing what makes your partner happy and being flexible if that isn’t something you normally do are essential couple skills, regardless of your income situation.
Recognize the benefits
While we’d prefer to be back to our dual-income situations ASAP, this period hasn’t been without its upsides. We’ve gotten more flexible as a couple, learned more about each other, and stretched ourselves to make it work. And as a result, we’re closer than ever. We know if we can get through this time, we can get through anything together.