Money Talks, So Should You

Suitcase Finance: Economics of a long-distance relationship

Sarah K.
by Sarah K., Dimespring 30

If you’re anything like me and millions of others out there, you’re either currently in a long-distance relationship, or came out alive from one that didn’t succeed (but that’s a topic for a different time, and a different blog).

For many young adults, career advancement or post-graduate schooling forces relationships to exist in different states, or even different countries. This practice has become so widespread that the U.S. Department of State has even coined a new term for people in such situations: “geographic singles.”

For my boyfriend “B” and I, it became obvious about one year into our relationship that a long-distance partnership was necessary. We both needed to make moves to further our careers, and within the span of eight months we both said goodbye to our native land of Wisconsin and moved to new, and separate, states.

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Many aspects of long-distance relationships are difficult to be sure, but the financial component is one that can be most tricky to talk about with your partner. There are countless costs, from the air travel to the vacation days to the extravagant dates we feel we “deserve” after being apart for so long.

Some expenses are obvious, and some less so, but they all impact the ability to make other financial decisions.

This is a finance blog, and I hope it goes without saying that if you find yourself in this situation you should sign up for a frequent flyer program, get a credit card that offers miles or cash back for travel, and find a cell phone plan that will have your extra communication covered. But the most important part of managing long-distance relationship finances — like developing any type of financial plan — is to communicate honestly about your needs and develop a system that works for you.

In my line of work, I see a lot of long-distance relationships. For my married or long-term coupled colleagues with joint accounts, the expenses are easier to track and manage. But when you’re in a long-distance relationship without merged finances, it’s easy to breed resentment.

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When I first entered the long-distance world with B, that resentment was easy to fall into, simply because we hadn’t taken the time to honestly communicate our financial situations with each other. I make almost twice his salary, but I also had significant student loan debt he knew nothing about. His company pays his rent, but he moved to a much higher cost of living area than I was in.

It took time and patience, but ultimately we developed a system that works for us and that we both find fair. It’s somewhat complex, but we adhere to general rules of thumb (our favorite is “He/She who does not travel, pays”). To be sure, our system is different than others I’ve seen — some of my colleagues who are in long-distance relationships split everything exactly down the middle every time, while others rely on one half of the couple to pay for all air travel. But in every scenario, the happiest partners seem to be those who have a financial plan for their relationship, and stick to it.

I’d like to think that B and I have our long-distance relationship down, but it changes every time I have to move for work, our salaries change, or we encounter any number of personal financial obstacles. But no matter what happens in our financial lives, our relationship — and our bank accounts — are healthier the more open we are about our finances.

Sarah is a 20-something consultant, living wherever the job takes her. Originally from Wisconsin, Sarah is always on the hunt for a good craft beer and restaurants that serve fried cheese curds. Sarah is a member of the Dimespring 30, a group of bloggers sharing their thoughts, experiences and perspectives on personal finance.