How to manage shared family expenses

mother kisses her grown daughter

Although you ceased living with your parents and siblings years ago, there are probably some ways in which you still haven’t quite left home. Maybe your visits home just happen to coincide with laundry day (after all, she does have that washer-dryer in the basement), or perhaps your various boxes of clothes and tchotchkes haven’t quite left your family home.

Even if you have made a clean physical break, your digital and financial lives are probably still intertwined. Many adults’ financial lives are entangled with their families and even friends, in forms ranging from mobile phone bills and streaming services to mortgages and health care. Around 35% of millennials share passwords for streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and many of us also split things like Amazon Prime accounts. These services are often shared between family members, and while the savings are useful, problems can arise if you’re not careful about how you manage things (and not just problems like “Why is my Amazon cart suddenly full of someone else’s underwear?”).

Money is a tough topic for many families, but communication and clarity might help you avoid a financial fallout. Deliberate and purposeful management of shared expenses is just one part of a smart financial plan. Time for some adulting. Here are some strategies to try.

Make it clear

Perhaps your parents help with your mortgage. Maybe you’re on their health plan and pay some of the costs (or none of them). Or it could be you just share a streaming account and a cell phone plan.

Whatever the nature of your financial entanglement, the important thing is that the details are clear to everyone involved, and have been explicitly agreed upon by all parties.

If you joined your parents’ cell phone account five years ago “for six months”, and are still on it, they may not care (they may not even know), or they could be quietly seething with long-festering frustration. Even if the dollar amounts involved are trivial, all financial arrangements should be explicit and written down (email, not Post-It) so people can refer to the agreement when they forget what’s what.

Speaking of forgetting: regardless of who is paying what to whom, set up automatic payments. No one like chasing people for money, and it only gets more awkward when one of you used to change the other one’s diapers.

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Make it fair

Fairness, like good refereeing in tennis or football, is subjective and difficult, but still a worthwhile goal. You should do your best to ensure that whatever financial arrangement you have with your family is reasonable for all of you.

If your parents already had a Netflix plan and adding a device (yours) only raised the price by a few bucks, perhaps it’s fair for you to just pay that difference. But if you’re binge-watching shows each weekend and your folks barely use their TV, maybe it would be more appropriate to go halves, or even for you to pay a little more than them.

When it comes to online shopping accounts, services like Amazon household make it easier for multiple people to use one account with a degree of financial independence and separate carts, in the same way you have separate user queues for Netflix, but the price of the service still has to be paid by one user, so be sure that person is happy with the amount others are contributing.

One of the biggest causes of cross-generational money mingling for American families is healthcare (we spend around twice as much on it as other wealthy nations). If you’re still on your parents’ plan, be sure to discuss who covers the cost of co-pays, drugs, and emergencies, and take a good look at your finances to see how much of the premium you can afford to cover. If you’re earning more now than you were when you joined the plan, it might be fair to take on a larger share than you used to have.

Speaking of which…

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Don’t make it forever

Like every other part of your relationship with your family, the financial side of things should change over time, which means you should keep an eye on it.

When you’re a child, one of your parents’ main jobs is to stop you from accidentally maiming/poisoning yourself. As your folks reach a certain age, you may find that you’re the one keeping an eye on their health.

Money matters often go the same way. As your career progresses, if you reach a point where you can take on more of the shared financial burdens within your family, even if it’s just your mom’s part of the cell phone plan, then make the switch. Like most other kinds of sharing, it’s not free, but it is straightforwardly rewarding for both of you, with no strings attached.

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Michael Davis is a freelance writer and editor. He has covered everything from fashion and music to parenting, work, and finance. In a previous life, he was a chef and restaurateur.

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Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC 042017 [OK1] and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas, 100139527.

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