On a chilly evening last year, Alysa Tarrant found herself decked out in a white, lacey, flapper-style dress, admiring central London’s twinkling Christmas lights during a date with her boyfriend, Jack Lee. They enjoyed a nice dinner, splurged on drinks and treated themselves to tickets for The Book of Mormon.
Just a year and a half later, on a dark, rainy day in Sheffield, England, Tarrant would be in leggings and a sweatshirt, huddled over the kitchen island with Lee, mapping out the logistics of how they would pay their rent. With everyday expenses like car maintenance and groceries, date nights like the one they had in London are now off the table.
The couple usually travels across the Atlantic Ocean to see one another (Tarrant just graduated from college in Ohio), so she never imagined she would be stuck in Sheffield, splitting rent with Lee at his sister’s place. But the coronavirus trapped her when the U.S. and England shut down when she was visiting for spring break. Instead of heading to Indonesia this month as planned (the 22-year-olds run a travel blog together), Tarrant and Lee are dealing with the financial stress of a sudden move-in.
“It feels like playing grownups,” Tarrant says of that white-lace night. “[Now, we’re] understanding the challenges of real adult life.”
When the coronavirus spread across the world and governments called for lockdowns, many couples like Jack and Alyssa had to choose between making that move, and putting themselves and others at risk by traveling back and forth. Money is a touchy subject under usual circumstances – nearly 40% of millennial couples admit to arguing with significant others about the topic once per week, according to a 2019 survey by TD Bank. A recent study by Money and Synchrony Bank revealed that 35% of couples surveyed fought in the last month about their finances. But those who moved in suddenly during the pandemic had to figure out finances on an accelerated timeline. All of a sudden, expensive cocktails on dates at the bar turned into coffee at home over conversations about paying the electric bill.
Quarantining makes people feel vulnerable, more dependent on one another, and financially unsafe, says Lisa Marie Bobby, PhD, founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Life Coaching. Money can be a symbol for deeply held values – like safety, security and love, Bobby says.
“They’re having to work and function in a manner that typically one would expect of a much more established couple,” Bobby says.
For Emily Egnor and Blake Studiner, who lived in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island respectively before the pandemic, different financial backgrounds came to the forefront when they began quarantining together on March 13. Egnor, 26 and a teacher at an early education center, grew up in a wealthy, suburban Long Island family. Studiner, also 26 and a high school math teacher, grew up in a working-class family in rural Montana.
Egnor’s upbringing allowed for smaller, everyday purchases of convenience and was encouraged to save up for bigger purchases, like a car. But for Studiner, many expensive purchases were out of the question growing up, so he values smaller purchases, like snacks and movie tickets. He’s paying off his student loans while Egnor’s are in deferment, often forcing him to choose between saving for the future or going out to eat.
After the couple suddenly moved into her place to quarantine, Egnor was surprised by her boyfriend’s eagerness to order delivery food throughout the week. She wasn’t the only one who didn’t know everything about her significant other’s money habits – Studiner hadn’t realized Egnor’s willingness to make bigger purchases – like nice furniture – that he had never considered for himself, he says.
Studiner is currently paying $1,000 a month in student loans and doesn’t have a safety net in his parents. Egnor says she knows that if she ever really needs money, her parents could bail her out.
Since moving in together, the couple pools a lot of their resources, like for an upcoming cross-country move to Florida.
For Ryan Cook, 25, and Kat Hawley Cook, 22 – who got married on March 13 and moved in together just as the U.S. was shutting down – being forced to stay at home nearly 24/7 has certainly not helped their financial conversations.
Fights over small purchases – like a $40 water boiler Kat wanted but Ryan felt he couldn’t justify – were harder for the Salt Lake City couple as there was no period of de-escalation that usually comes with going out into the world for a job, Ryan says.
Usually, there’s this big period of being apart and missing one another during the day, he adds. In quarantine, you can’t get space much farther than from the living room to the bedroom.
“There’s no escape,” says Ryan, a digital marketing specialist. “You’re just in the apartment all day.”
Even a year of knowing one another and a wedding couldn’t stop the Cooks from money-related surprises.
“One thing that was a little surprising when we got married and started living together was to see how much my wife spends on food,” Ryan says.
When money is tight, Ryan is usually of a mind to say, “let's just eat cheap stuff and not put any effort into good food,” he says. But when his wife told him good, healthy cooking makes her feel much healthier and happier, he couldn’t argue. They’ve found other ways to cut expenses without skimping on food.
Being able to spend more time together to focus on shared aspects of life – versus an ultra-busy lifestyle that requires significant conversations to occur in brief windows – is helpful, Bobby says. Quarantine could be that time.
“Since moving in together we have a more clear picture of the other's finances and budgets,” Studiner says.
"We’re not debating about whether or not to spend money at a bar tonight,” Egnor adds.