Unmarried romantic partners often live together these days. Cohabitation is a common path to marriage for millennials, in particular, with two-thirds of couples living with a significant other at least once before marriage.
Although couples may view living together as a way to pool their income, reduce expenses and establish economies of scale, such living arrangements may not enhance the couple’s overall financial wealth, according to a report from Iowa State University and Kansas State University published in the Journal of Financial Planning.
By delaying or opting out of marriage in early years, couples may be allocating resources in a way that hinders long-term asset accumulation, leading to lower retirement preparedness, suggests Cassandra Dorius, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University and co-author of the study.
The study’s report, entitled The Financial Implications of Cohabitation Among Young Adults, explored the financial implications of cohabitation among individuals born between 1980 and 1984. Subjects were interviewed periodically between 1997 and 2014. The report was published in 2017.
The research found that cohabitors had lower net worth and had accumulated fewer financial assets than married couples who had never cohabited, with the gap in wealth increasing with the number of times a person has been in cohabitation.
When compared with married individuals who never cohabited, first-time cohabitors had $26,927 less in wealth, according to the report. Serial cohabitors had $33,809 less wealth than those who were married and hadn’t cohabited. Married people who had cohabited two or more times before marriage had $18,265 less in wealth. The results for non-financial assets were mixed, though, with those who had cohabited two or more times looking most like currently married individuals.
The data don’t explain why the gap exists, but the report suggests relationship instability and lack of legal protections are likely factors. Cohabiting relationships tend to be of shorter terms compared with marriage and, if the cohabitation relationship ends, assets aren’t necessarily split equally.
Your clients who have cohabited many times also may be less interested in long-term planning and more interested in current consumption, the report suggests, while clients who are not cohabiting or are cohabiting for the first time with a long-term partner might be more future-oriented regarding financial planning.
Realizing that many young clients are cohabiting with a significant other, and understanding how those decisions influence their accumulation of assets, is important for financial advisors.
“Regardless of belief systems,” the report notes, “cohabitation is becoming the norm and something that must be factored into the financial planning process.”
For example, client intake questionnaires that don’t ask about relationship status beyond the typical single, married, divorced or widowed categories could be missing a key opportunity for discussing the financial planning implications associated with cohabitation.