So, you’re in an inflationship…
Across the country, couples are packing up, shacking up and rushing a significant life milestone to reduce bills. But needs must when you’re skint, right? Call it the cost of loving crisis.
Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
Ava had been with Dan for six months when they moved in together. Granted, the pair, both 23, had been friends for two years by then. “But the relationship was still at that awkward stage, which meant that communication between us wasn’t great at the time,” she says.
Still, they were in that head-over-heels honeymoon period and had been happily spending all their time at each other’s London flats. Romance, though, had been tempered by reality. Ava was working a temp admin job at a library, while Dan was finishing his degree and picking up shifts at a supermarket. Each were shelling out £700 a month – not including bills – for rooms in their respective house-shares, making ends meet using credit cards and Monzo Flex (the “disruptor” bank’s interest-free, pay-for-stuff-in-three-instalments service). Something had to give.
With rent prices in London rising a staggering 17 per cent in 2022 amid the UK’s exploding cost-of-living crisis, last April they settled on a quick-fix, cash-saving solution: why not move in together and share a room? Quick as a flash, the couple’s situation had morphed into something entirely different. Prioritising financial preservation over feeling genuinely ready to enter a new chapter, they were cohabiting by necessity. Ava and Dan had found themselves in an “inflationship”.
“Splitting the price of groceries, and even stuff you wouldn’t necessarily consider like toilet roll and laundry tablets, definitely helped [us] reduce spending,” Ava says. “Do you know how much Nescafé Azera instant coffee costs? It’s definitely a two-man purchase!”
The couple’s situation is by no means unique. Rather, it’s reflective of a wider trend among young people who find themselves more financially squeezed than ever, as the cost of, well, everything rises and salaries remain the same – effectively shrinking. Who can blame them for rushing? According to research by financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown, once you’ve factored in internet, Netflix, council tax, Spotify and, of course, rent, living alone will cost you around £860 a month more than your coupled-up pals.
“You can put a price on freedom – being young, free and single costs,” says Sarah Coles, the senior personal finance analyst who compiled the figures. “Single people have less in savings and less cash left over at the end of the month. They pay the price over the long-term, too, because they’re less likely to be building equity in a property or saving enough to be on track for a moderate retirement income.”
If the mere thought of “building equity in a property” makes you sleepy or even nauseous, you’re not alone. In a political climate largely defined by insecurity, the cost of day-to-day amenities can feel like something that’s forced on us, rather than something over which we have any agency. In that context, moving into a shared flat or room with a partner, even misguidedly, is a more tangible way to exert control over your finances than waiting around for the next general election. Not to mention that splitting those ever-rising bills should leave you with more cash to double up on a vodka coke at the pub or treat yourself to that pair of shoes you’ve had bookmarked for three months. In theory, anyway.
For Ava and Dan, things didn’t quite work out that way. They moved into a house in East London with 10 (!) other people, which meant they hardly ever got to see each other alone. Before, the intentionality of finding time to meet up around their schedules was a massive part of what made the relationship exciting. Sure, their rent was halved, but other burdens got doubled – or, even, increased by a factor of 10 when it came to sharing one bathroom. Plus, intimacy brings awareness.
“Dan was a reckless spender, which wasn’t as clear to me before moving in,” Ava says. “When we did have time together, I’d end up spending the money I’d earned on both of us, which created a whole new issue.”
Resentment built up and Ava felt her sense of independence being curtailed. “Although that probably wasn’t helped by living in a space with so many people, none of whom worked a nine-to-five like me,” she admits. “But, at the time, I saw that as a sacrifice worth making to pay cheap rent in London.” In the end, though, those sacrifices became too much.
Five months after moving in together, Ava and Dan broke up. “Sometimes I only felt valued for [the] money [I was making], which definitely contributed to the relationship ending,” she says. “Luckily, there was only a month left on our lease so we’d have had to move out anyway. But since then, I’ve had to rely on family and friends to make up deposits.” In the end, Ava was worse off, both financially and emotionally, because she’d rushed such an important milestone – moving in with her partner – when they didn’t know each other well enough. For the sake of frugality, they’d fast-tracked their relationship, but had paid too heavy a price. Call it the cost-of-loving crisis.
House-sharing website SpareRoom has studied the rise of inflationships. In the second half of 2022, they surveyed almost 5,000 renters across the UK. “A massive 24 per cent said they’d consider moving in with their partner earlier than planned because of the cost-of-living crisis,” says Miriam Tierney, one of the company’s senior communications managers. “It makes sense – two people sharing a room means half the rent. But those decisions shouldn’t be driven by the housing market.”
This is a trend that’s spilled over into the dating world, too. “Cash-candid” dating, a term coined by Bumble, means being open about finances in a relationship’s earliest stages. “I’ve spoken about it on Instagram a few times and people have messaged me saying, ‘I’m genuinely considering starting dating again after years because it’s cheaper to be in a couple’,” says Ellie Austin-Williams, a finance writer and host of the Money Unfiltered podcast.
“Even when it’s said lightheartedly, there’s a reality to it. The cost-of-living crisis is really making people think about their life choices and make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise. Wanting a partner to make life more affordable just shouldn’t be happening. There’s also this idea that people should invest money in dating because it’ll improve their housing options.”
Imagine: you’ve gone back to someone’s flat after a few first or second-date drinks. Instead of enjoying the moment, though, you’re trying to estimate the place’s square footage. Forget sizing up your date – you’re too busy sizing up whether you could fit your Ikea Kallax shelving unit in the corner. How much of a sad, sexless indictment of our times is that? Considering pursuing a relationship because someone has a hot property on their hands is no way to start getting intimate. But as anyone who doesn’t want to be, you know, homeless understands, it’s a jungle out there.
“Getting a rental property is a proper fight at the moment and it’s been like that for almost a year,” Austin-Williams points out. Sure enough, there have been several news reports of people turning up to view a house only to find dozens of people queuing outside for the same purpose. “There simply aren’t enough rental properties on the market, and moving in fast with somebody who already has a contract is an easy way to cut costs. But I’d encourage anyone who’s thinking about it not to rush towards those milestones.”
A few months ago, Ashley, a 27-year-old sales executive from London, was faced with exactly that dilemma. After dating Noah, a 25-year-old artist, for three years, the constant travelling between North and South London (where each was based) started to get tedious. Her friends even joked the pair were in a long-distance relationship.
“I could see that he was struggling in his career and that money was an issue, so he moved into my flat, which I shared with one other person,” she says.
In hindsight, Ashley wishes she and Noah had had the luxury of choosing somewhere together to progress the relationship. “We didn’t choose what we really wanted for ourselves. We did what was best to survive.”
Survival, though, isn’t sexy. Their dynamic was so badly affected that fun things like going out for dinner, going on holiday together and even having sex didn’t even seem that appealing anymore. Home, a place that’s supposed to be all about comfort, safety and personal space, suddenly became fertile ground for conflict. Soon enough, grown-up stuff such as bill-splitting and meal-prepping started to replace hot dates. “Moving into a place together for financial reasons? That’s the opposite of love,” Ashley says. “It’s the opposite of being ready, of making a decision together that also feels right independently. I really regretted it.”
Jo Nicholl, a psychotherapist and host of the Love Maps podcast, suggests that these types of pressures are often likely to manifest in the bedroom. “There’s something about needing to move in that can affect a couple’s confidence and evoke vulnerability [in that area],” she says. “It’s a very sensitive subject that needs to be carefully talked about.”
Another gripe: material possessions. “There’s that thing about stuff,” Ashley continues. “When you make a financial decision to move somewhere, you don’t start fresh. You’re not creating something together. You’re just piling stuff on top of more stuff in a small flat.” Noah never felt at home in Ashley’s space because he couldn’t make it his own. He was haphazardly laying down bricks on the foundation she’d already built. “And again, financially, we weren’t in a position to buy loads of furniture and redo the flat.”
The writing was on the shared wall. When they broke up a year later, Noah partly blamed the relationship breakdown on Ashley forcing him out of South London and away from his friends. “I was just thinking about cost purposes. I knew him moving in with me was the only way we could afford to live together.”
While Ashley is describing relationship issues that aren’t necessarily unique to the cost-of-living crisis – moving into a shared space with a partner has always been more cost-effective – they’ve certainly been exacerbated by it. Sophia, a 26-year-old social media manager who recently relocated from Leeds to London, has seen too many of her friends get into similar situations after rushing to move in with their boyfriends. She’s in no hurry to do the same with hers.
“If my friends were still living up north, I have a feeling they wouldn’t have moved in quite so quickly,” she says, highlighting the lower cost of renting outside the south-east. “Lots of them love it and that’s great, but I’d prefer it if my partner and I were able to live comfortably on our own first, which will then make it that much more enjoyable to one day live together. It’s just one less pressure to worry about once you do get to that stage. I also wouldn’t want to then get stuck in a relationship because of a rental agreement or not being able to afford to leave.”
What, then, are the solutions, other than moving back to mum and dad’s or joining a religious order? Austin-Williams recommends keeping an emergency fund – or a “fuck-off fund”, as she calls it. “Even if you’re in a relationship where things are going well, especially if you’ve moved in relatively quickly, you should have a back-up plan. You never know if you don’t have someone to fall back on or to bail you out, you need to be able to afford rent if things go downhill. That’s the best thing you can do.”
It certainly doesn’t help that millennials and Gen Zers are experiencing more “milestone anxiety” than any other generation before them, according to research conducted by Relate, a charity that provides relationship support in England and Wales. That is, the pressure to tick the boxes on what would be considered “traditional” life milestones – having kids, getting married, buying a house – is being felt more acutely than ever.
Throw an economic crisis into the mix, where nearly half of those who fall into the millennial-slash-Gen Zer bracket spend their entire monthly income on, well, living costs, and you’ve got yourself a pile-up of rushed milestones across the board. “Honouring your emotional wellbeing and that part of your life is so important,” advises Nicholl. “Respecting yourself, in the long run, means you’ll be in much better shape to meet the right partner. You have to give yourself what you really need.”
Which is all well and good. But what if you live in a society that tends to value the veneer of stability over genuine happiness? One that forces young people to prioritise staying in a relationship because it’s the financially sound thing to do, even though it’s making them miserable? Or one where they find themselves in a hurry to move in with someone because it’ll help weather an unprecedented financial storm? It’s a deeply broken system, one that demands we keep rallying against a greedy private rental market and a government that doesn’t care if people are suffering.
In the meantime: Brits don’t like talking about money (unless, of course, they’ve got loads of it), but maybe it’s time to get over that hardwired embarrassment. Speaking plainly about straitened purse-strings could help preserve our heart-strings in the long run, eh?
Indeed, Jo Nicholl reckons the best way to prevent an inflationship in the most immediate sense – drumroll, please – is to communicate better. “You’ve got to ask yourself, is it really the right time for the relationship to take on these changes?” she says. “That’s going to make a couple grow up fast and will test the maturity of the relationship, as well as exaggerate its weaknesses much quicker.”
And that needn’t be a fast-track back to singledom. The seasoned podcaster and psychotherapist is quick to mention that, ultimately, conversations around money and the prospect of moving in together are ones that need to happen anyway. “Speaking about things that are challenging: I’m quite positive about that. Grow up and meet that challenge, because it’ll help to evolve your relationship in the long term.”
Inflationships, then: it’s not about avoiding moving in together, but making sure you’re not speeding through the Hinge-to-SpareRoom pipeline too quickly. It’s one thing to hand over the keys to your heart after a few dates, but to your flat? Try surviving a week or two in Mallorca first.
Names have been changed. Except for the experts. As far as we know, they are their real names.