We've all heard the nursery rhyme: First comes love, then comes marriage. Odds are, that catchy little chant was developed before divorce was commonplace and rent prices were astronomical.
Today, millions make a pit stop on the way to "I do" and move in together without a legal commitment. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of unmarried couples living together increased 72 percent from 1990 to 2000.
"Cohabitation has gone from something that was scandalous in my grandmother's generation to something that nowadays is normal," says Marshall Miller, co-author of "Unmarried to Each Other: The Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple." "Most of these people will go on to get married."
If you're considering moving in together, consider this: Money woes and chores have a funny way of destroying most romantic notions.
"Cohabitation is about working out those nitty-gritty details in life," Miller says. "And they're about the most unromantic, unsexy details."
Still interested? Before you book that U-Haul, make sure you address several pressing topics.
You've been shacking up at his place, and he's taken over a whole armoire at yours. Unfortunately, the rent doesn't come with a "but I'm only there half of the time" discount. Enter The Discussion.
"Chris was spending pretty much every night at my place," says Hilary Ashford-Ng, an office manager for a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. "In my head, it was the logical thing to do."
The 23-year-old says it took a little persuasion on her part to convince her boyfriend of a less than a year that moving in together was a good idea.
"Looking back on it, 10 or 11 months together sounds like a short amount of time for such a big step," she admits. The couple first discussed the move last April and signed a lease in mid-May. Ashford-Ng says the month-and-a-half-long discussion was crucial because "it was definitely not some whirlwind decision."
Miller says couples considering cohabitation should share space slowly - a toothbrush here, some clothes there. "The slower, the better," he advises.
And if you're thinking of moving in together, waiting a month - or six - won't hurt. In fact, more time will allow for important conversations like how finances will be handled and whether marriage is an option in the future.
"Before you move in, you need to make sure you're on the same page," Miller says. "If one of you sees this as a step toward marriage and the other doesn't, you could really be headed for trouble."
Once the dust settles from the move, the joint bills will start coming. Pooling financial assets can get messy, so prepare yourself.
Stacy Whitman, co-author of "Shacking Up: The Smart Girl's Guide to Living in Sin Without Getting Burned," suggests that couples have a communal checking account with just enough money for rent and groceries. Personal purchases should come from your own pot of cash.
"One of the big sources of conflict in relationships is how you're spending your money," Whitman says. "With a separate account, you don't have to worry about that. Plus, if you were to pool all your money and then break up, you could be in a real bind."
Miller suggests that couples with a communal checking account write an agreement on how the funds will be spent (and how the money would be split if you were to break up). "It doesn't have to be anything more than a paragraph," he says.
Aah, housework. No one wants to be stuck with it.
Chores and the general maintenance of a shared living space are a huge argument-starter for couples, according to Miller. He recommends eyeballing your significant other's apartment before you move in together, taking stock of what you can and can't live with.
"One of you could believe that dirty dishes in the sink would ruin your whole day, and the other might think it's just part of the washing process," he says. "It's important that you come to an agreement on how you're going to do your life around the dishes."
Nancy Lo and David Banks, of Minneapolis, had a housekeeper for about two years, which Lo says helped with some aspects of maintaining their house.
"We didn't argue very much, but when we did, it was about chores mostly," she says. The couple, who married after five years, ended up splitting the remaining duties by location: He maintained the outdoor areas, while she did the indoor tasks. They shared dog duties.
Miller says chores don't always have to be split 50-50, but it's important to have this issue settled early on: "You could be setting the stage for the rest of your life."
It can be difficult for parents to grasp the concept of their child living with a significant other before marriage - an idea that conflicts with some religious and cultural beliefs.
"You definitely don't want to pretend that it isn't happening," Whitman says. "The bottom line is that you're not having a mature relationship with your parents if you can't be honest with them about your living situation."
Whitman advises telling your parents ahead of time but stresses that it's important not to ask for their approval: "Tell them firmly in advance, and don't leave it as a question mark."
Don't be surprised if time that used to be reserved for dates is now spent in front of the TV or just hanging around the house. Just make sure not to take each other for granted.
Miller says it's important to remind yourself of the reasons why you moved in together in the first place. Relationships take work - even if you are sharing a living space. He recommends reserving one night a week as "date night." Venture out to a bar, take in a concert or make a romantic candlelight dinner at home. Leave notes for each other in the morning, or surprise your honey with a small gift. It's the little things that count.
You may encounter a few bumps en route, but that's life. Embrace it - along with each other.