How Living Apart Can Change a Couple's Approach to Money


There’s a saying about distance and its ability to make the heart grow fonder.

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But distance does a lot of other things, too. It makes you stronger. It forces you to test your limits. And, if you’re smart, it can make you better with money.

When I met Jack in the summer of 2009, we lived in cities that were an hour apart—something that we saw as more of an inconvenience than a deal breaker. At the time, he was working for a music startup in his hometown, and I was just starting my last year of college.

The following years brought a lot of life changes for me: I graduated college, moved back to my hometown, landed my first job, moved into my first apartment and began to navigate the waters of financial independence.

Jack couldn’t have been more supportive. He knew that living in my own place was a huge priority for me, and he never once pressured me to consider moving to his town. We were content with our long-distance relationship (LDR)—and the independence that it granted both of us.

From Living Together To Living Even Farther Apart

All of that began to change on February 14, 2012, when Jack resigned from his job and moved in with me. For the first time in our three-plus-year relationship, we lived not only in the same city, but also under the same roof. The transition from long-distance to no-distance pleasantly surprised both of us.

Before Jack and I lived together, I had a very structured budget. I knew exactly how much money I could afford to set aside for savings (and splurges) after my bills were paid each month. But soon after Jack moved in—while he was in mid job-hunt and taking on intermittent freelance work—it was clear that we both had to adjust our behaviors if we wanted to support us primarily on my income.

His habit of eating out three times a week came to a screeching halt. My clothing budget shrank to allow for just a few clearance or thrift store finds per season. We combined our modest income to pay for groceries, utilities and the occasional concert or dinner out with friends.

When we focused on separating our needs from our wants, it was enough to keep a roof over our head and food in the fridge … even if it was just peanut butter and jelly some weeks.

Of course, we also knew it was just temporary—since Jack wanted to stay in the music industry, his job search was focused on Nashville, Los Angeles and New York. When he got a job offer at a music startup in New York last November, “our” apartment became “my” apartment once more.

Now that he’s in New York, there’s more wiggle room in my checking account. However, my perception of that extra money—and what I can do with it—is completely different. Before Jack left, we had a long talk about how we would make our LDR work without going broke. We decided to commit to seeing each other at least once a month, and to take turns flying, so that we share the burden of paying for plane tickets.

Rather than purchasing expensive gifts for each other, we’ve agreed to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries by making sure we’re together for those milestones. Each month, we talk about what weekends are free for visits, and we constantly scour travel sites for discounts and special offers.

There was a time when a spare $50 would go toward a new dress or a lavish night out with friends. I now think of spare cash in terms of travel costs. By skimming just $25 a week from my budget, I can afford to pounce on a flash-sale fare, like a round-trip weekend special to New York for $160 (thanks JetBlue!).

I stash my travel money in a savings account with my credit union until I’m ready to use it. Between airfare, weekend parking at discount lots and weekend excursions to other cities, I’m budgeting for about $2,000 in total travel costs this year. Jack has always been less of a saver than I am, but our travel arrangement is manageable for him, too. In the end, the money we’ll spend on travel this year will represent an investment in our relationship.

The Cost Isn’t All Financial

Of course, anyone in an LDR will tell you that the fun weekends together come at a cost that surpasses the currency spent to facilitate each visit. There’s a loneliness during the weeks apart that’s unique to individuals who choose to forego the convenience of dating someone in their own city in the name of love.

But there is one major perk to our arrangement: We both have the freedom to spend our time exactly as we please. I know that one day, when I have a family of my own, I’ll look back wistfully at the amount of free time I now have at my disposal. I’ve learned to budget my time as strictly as I do my bank account.

When people ask me how Jack and I make our LDR work, I tell them that I have faith that this arrangement is what’s best for both of us at the moment. Jack was offered an incredible opportunity to help build a new company in an industry that he’s passionate about—a rare and exciting gift, especially in today’s economy. And I’m lucky to be able to say that I’m employed in my desired field, too. There will be plenty of time later for us to make compromises for the sake of being together.

Still, I’d be lying if I said that I don’t daydream about living in the same city again. Time together is a luxury that I hope we’ll never take for granted once this phase of our relationship ends.

We’re in this thing together, and that’s what counts. Besides, I have an excuse to go to New York all of the time now. I can think of worse fates.

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