Couples and experts give their best advice on talking about money when you’re dating, in a committed relationship and married.
“The Rules” is a new Moneyish series where we define the rules around sticky money topics like giving an allowance, who pays on a date, combining finances with your partner, and more.
Go ahead, talk the talk.
Americans couples aren’t talking to each other smartly about money. Fewer than one in 10 (9%) couples say they have predetermined, regular meetings about their finances. Meanwhile, 70% say they discuss money only sporadically and during casual conversation, and 11% do it over text or email, according to data released Wednesday by John Hancock’s Twine, a new savings and investing app.
But financial experts say that regular, predetermined meetings to discuss your finances are essential to helping couples stay on track financially. And what’s more, they advise that you start talking about money even when you’re just starting to date the person. Here’s what you need to talk about and how to do it — at each stage of a relationship.
Relationship status: Dating
When 36-year-old Kelly, who asked that we withhold her first name, was first dating her ex back in 2011, she asked all the “right” relationship questions early on — whether he wanted to get married, have kids, whether he was religious or not. Her one big regret: “I went into it all googly-eyed about the relationship stuff,” she says. But “I wish I had asked him about his feelings on his career and making money in the future, his entrepreneurial aspirations.”
Indeed, even when they married in 2013, Kelly, a successful brand advisor, assumed her husband would want to climb the career ladder and at least try to earn more money — after all, “he had a business degree,” she says. But while she had “goals of making millions, he didn’t have those aspirations,” she added. In 2014 they divorced: The way they saw their futures was just too different, she says.
Shared thoughts of what your future might look like — including career aspirations and the type of lifestyle you want to live — can help assess whether this relationship can get more serious or not, so ask them at the point you think you might want to take the relationship further. After all, it’ll be hard to make a relationship work where one partner wants to be a freelance travel writer trotting the globe and the other wants to stay in one spot while she climbs the career ladder.
Another big area you need to address early on is spending and saving preferences, “so you can look for any red flags and decide if you are compatible,” says Kimberly Palmer, author of “Smart Mom, Rich Mom.” This may include what they like to spend their money on, how important saving money is to them, and how frugal they like to be. Differences are not necessarily deal breakers, but you want to get a sense of how flexible they might be on their spending and savings preferences.
On the first few dates, of course, it’s likely better to observe things like what a person’s life goals might be and how he or she spends or saves rather than bursting out with money questions, says Altair Gobo, the author of “Getting to the Green” and partner in US Financial Services in Fairfield, NJ.
But once you think the relationship might be heading somewhere, etiquette expert April Masini, who runs a relationship advice forum, says that you can broach money kinds of topics with a friendly question. Ask something like, “I’m thinking of trying to save $X this month so I can do $X. Thoughts?”. She adds that if you don’t glean any information from friendly questions, you can be more direct, by starting with a phrase like: “I really like you — I feel like we should talk about some serious stuff” and then asking questions about their career goals or thoughts on spending and saving. Start asking things like this when and if you think the relationship could have future potential.
Relationship status: In a (serious) relationship
“When you move to a serious relationship, that’s when you need to talk about more long-term money topics,” says Palmer. These include how much debt and savings you have and how you’re paying it back, financial obligations (present and future) like whether you are or might help family members financially, income and credit scores, experts says. You should also learn about one another’s financial expectations for the present and future, says Anthony D. Criscuolo, a certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale. This might include attitudes towards paying for college should you want kids or buying a home and when you want to retire.
And just because someone has experienced a financial hiccup doesn’t mean you have to dump them — but you should learn more. When Twin Cities-based media coach Carrie Paetow, 37, got serious with her now husband a few years back, she learned from their financial conversations that he had student loan debt, while she had none. So “I asked more — ‘How did you grow up and how did you learn about money? How did it [the debt] happen?’,”she says. “I wanted to learn his decision-making process for the future,” she explains.
Paetow’s strategy is smart, as “financial habits and histories that affect long-term goal planning” are things you must learn about in a serious relationship, says Palmer — as they show you how a partner might behave in future financial situations. Understand how that person got into the debt or tanked their credit score, as well as what they’re doing to fix it. In Paetow’s case, she learned that her partner hadn’t been taught much about money or finances, and that he didn’t fully “understand what it actually meant to take out a loan, how the repayment process worked.” But the couple talked through all of that and came to an agreement on how to deal with the issue: “Why I felt comfortable moving forward [with the relationship] is because he changed his mindset and viewpoints on money,” she explains — noting the he no longer just pays the minimums on debts and has begun saving.
For those who are living together, you’ll have even more to discuss, like how the bills will be paid (split equally, based on income, etc.), says Sheri Conklin, a certified financial planner at Conklin Financial Planning in Rosedale, Calif. — adding that “there is no right or wrong way to splitting bills.”
You will also need to decide whether to have a joint account or not. Gobo says that it may be smart to keep your two separate accounts, and then have another account from which you pay for joint expenses like the rent and bills. “This allows you to maintain your independence,” he says — while also getting the practical benefits of a shared account for joint expenses.
All of these topics can be sensitive to discuss and bring up, but Gobo says that at this point in a relationship, you have to confront them head on. “Don’t beat around the bush,” he says. “Say, ‘tonight we are going to have a conversation about this.” Should issues come up that you don’t agree on, look for common ground if there is any, and listen as much as you talk, he adds; this is the time to resolve financial issues so they don’t follow you into a marriage.
Relationship status: Married
“When you are married, all of the money topics are important to discuss openly,” says Palmer. What’s more, it’s essential to have a set of written financial goals — each partner can have goals of his or her own, and there are shared goals — like saving for a vacation or paying off a credit card bill, says Gobo. It’s also important to have regular money meetings — weekly for those who haven’t been regular communicators about money, monthly for those who already are regular communicators — says Conklin. In these meetings, go over all your spending and saving, any new financial expectations or hiccups, and the progress you’re making on your goals.
Creating concrete goals and having regular money check-ins are how 41-year-old Cherie Lowe and her husband got out of $127,000 in debt and began saving. They were married in 1999 and for a decade didn’t really discuss money much other than to figure out who paid what bill. “We were really just flying by the seat of our pants,” Lowe, who authors the QueenofFree.net blog, says. But in 2008, after the birth of their second child, Lowe’s husband (after reading a few personal finance books) announced how much total debt they had (she was shocked), and then said to her, “What if we weren’t paying for all this crap? Imagine what that would do for our lives, how our lives would look different.”
The message resonated with Cherie, and the couple created a plan to get out of debt, meeting weekly to figure out two things: where to cut expenses so they could put more towards the debt, and how they could earn extra money. In four years, they’d paid off all the debt. “For us, it’s had more than a financial upside,” Lowe, author of “Slaying the Debt Dragon,” says. “It creates more intimacy in a marriage.”
Of course, even with shared goals and regular money meetings, issues may come up — and often they revolve around the emotional side of money. “It is important for couples to acknowledge that a money decision may not make sense logically, but it is important emotionally for a spouse,” says Conklin. For example, a partner may have inherited a small number of shares of a lackluster stock from a beloved family member, and though they realize that that stock isn’t so great, they want to hold onto it because it came from family. “There’s nothing wrong with this strategy, because the person is acknowledging the emotional attachment as to why he/she wants to keep the stock and not sell and reinvest the proceeds. The other spouse needs to acknowledge this and not make partner feel bad for their decision.”
Plus, understand that you don’t have to merge everything financially even though you’re married. You can and should create money goals that apply just to you, as well as joint ones, experts say. Even your bank accounts don’t need to necessarily be joint accounts. Ramy Serageldin, a 38-year-old entrepreneur in Charlotte, and his wife didn’t have joint bank accounts until four years into their marriage. And they only got joint accounts when they decided to buy a home. “One of the things we were told was that it was helpful to show a merging of finances [to get a mortgage],” Serageldin, the founder of HoneyFi, tells Moneyish. He says otherwise they would have likely kept them separate as that’s how they’d been dealing with their finances for years and it worked well. It’s fine to keep separate accounts, says Palmer, as that decision “really depends on the couple” though, she adds, “generally sharing bills and accounts can be useful.”
Bottom line: Whatever the issue, look at it as a team effort: “You both have to agree that ‘this is the end game or us’ and this is what we’re trying to do [financially]with our lives,” Gobo says.
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