Most people don’t like to talk about their personal finances. The topic is often loaded with uncomfortable emotions, such as shame or resentment, and it can be challenging to have money conversations without opening a Pandora’s Box of bad feelings.
The solution is not to avoid talking about money with your future spouse, however. Before you get married, make sure that you’ve established a solid foundation of financial intimacy. What is financial intimacy? I’m so glad you asked!
Financial Intimacy 101
Being financially intimate with your partner means having open, honest communication about money. That includes everyday things like how to split the bills along with big-picture issues such as your savings goals and plans for retirement.
Financial therapist Amanda Clayman tells NPR that couples should strive to make money a natural part of the conversation rather than the subject of a big, serious talk. “I think the more we just invite these more mundane conversations about money into our lives, the more we just find that communication flows,” Clayman says.
She also advises couples to focus on five factors when creating a financial plan for their shared future:
Conversations about money can be emotional minefields, so if you’re struggling to communicate with your partner, you might want to enlist the help of a counselor or therapist. Having an impartial mediator—especially one who has helped other couples navigate the same tricky topics—could make all the difference.
Know Your Own Financial Philosophy
Before you can have an honest conversation with your partner about money, you need to have one with yourself.
- Are you clear about your financial goals for the next year, five years, and ten years?
- Do you want to buy a house or are you content to rent?
- How important is an emergency savings account to you?
- Do you save as much as possible for retirement, or would you rather have more money in your paycheck now?
- Are you happy with your job or do you strive to make more money?
- What does the word “comfortable” mean to you in terms of financial security?
- How willing are you to carry consumer debt?
Those are just a few questions that you might ask yourself as you build a picture of your overall financial philosophy. Encourage your partner to ask themselves the same questions. Many of these financial philosophies are things we learned from our own families—either by imitating what our parents did or doing the exact opposite.
Once you and your partner have jotted down some answers, compare notes. Where do your financial philosophies align—and more importantly, where do they differ? That should give you a good idea of where to go next as you discuss money in your relationship.
Splitting the Bills
Deciding how to divvy up the bills is much more complicated than just splitting everything 50/50. You need to take into account several different factors in order to be fair and equitable.
Cynthia Ramnarace for Her Money advises partners to consider maintaining both individual and shared accounts. “In two-income couples, the easiest setup is to have individual accounts where both partners maintain their own assets but then have a joint account that both fund to pay shared expenses,” she says.
In the joint account, partners may not be able to contribute an equal dollar amount, but it should ideally be an equal percentage of their income. Setting up a direct deposit from your paycheck will ensure that no one forgets to pay on time, and automatic bill pay means that you’ll never have to fight about late fees.
The two of you should review the statement for your shared account every month as part of a regular financial check-in. If you need to adjust anything—cutting back on your entertainment budget, dropping a service to save up for a short-term goal, and so on—then you can do so together.
This system has more transparency and accountability than a set-up where each partner covers certain bills on their own. Some couples prefer to split things that way–with one person paying the mortgage and the other paying for utilities, for example—but that may not be as fair.
Many couples have major salary gaps, and that can lead to friction if the higher earner expects a more expensive standard of living that the other person can’t afford. The same is true if one partner comes into the relationship with significantly more debt than the other. You’ll have to negotiate how to handle those situations in a way that leaves both of you feeling good.
Read More: Best Budgeting Apps for Couples
‘Til Debt Do You Part
Speaking of debt, it’s vital that you don’t hide your credit card, student loan, or other debts from your future spouse. Not only will your debt—and your credit score—be a determining factor in your financial future, but it can also throw a monkey wrench in the proceedings should you decide to divorce.
Someone coming into a relationship with significant debt can hold the other person back from their financial goals. That’s not necessarily a dealbreaker for everyone, but it’s an important conversation to have before you get married.
Carrying a lot of consumer debt could indicate that your future spouse will continue to spend beyond their means in the future. That can impact your finances now and in the event that you separate. Depending on whether you live in a community property state or an equitable property state, you could be on the hook for half of the debt your spouse incurred during your marriage.
Debts that predated your marriage are almost always considered separate obligations by the court, but you could still find yourself paying more for your shared living expenses or even helping your spouse pay off their balances. That’s not a decision to make lightly, and it might be a good idea to get financial counseling before you head to the altar.
What’s Mine Is Mine
Let’s talk about the opposite of debt: assets. When you bring assets to the relationship, it’s understandable to want to protect them. The law on how assets are divided depends on where you live, but generally speaking, anything you acquire during your marriage would be split equally. Also, if you “transmute” individual property into shared property—depositing funds into a joint bank account, for example—then it would no longer be exempt.
Kristina Royce, writing for Worth, says that prenups aren’t nearly as taboo as they once were in modern relationships. “The term “prenuptial agreement” (prenup) is no longer a dirty word with a one-sided connotation,” she explains. “A prenup is a partnership agreement that functions just as it would in a business relationship. When both partners bring a lot to the table, which is the case for many modern couples, a smartly prepared prenup can be to everyone’s benefit.”
This is one of the most contentious topics you can broach with your partner, so don’t try to go it solo. Get a financial advisor involved, as well as a couples’ therapist, if you need one.
Where do you see yourself in five years? That’s a cliched question in a job interview, but it’s worthwhile to ask your partner about their vision for your shared future. Do you both expect to keep working after you start a family, should you choose to do so, or would one of you stay home? Are you passionate about starting a business or going back to school, or are you comfortable in your current job? Would you move if one of you got a great job offer in a different city?
It’s also a good idea for you to talk about what would happen if one or both of you lost your job. Do you have a financial safety net? If not, what steps can you take now to ensure that you are protected? Life can change dramatically overnight, and while it’s not healthy to worry about “what ifs” all the time, having a plan to save money can give you both peace of mind.
One of the most important money talks to have with your future spouse is about retirement. What does your ideal retirement look like? Is it the same as your partner’s vision? If you find out that your partner hasn’t been saving for retirement or raided their 401(k) after a financial setback, talk about how that might affect your future. Try to have these conversations without judgment. If you can’t get through it without fighting, then including a neutral third party such as a therapist might be your best move.
Keep the Conversation Going
None of these topics are a one-and-done chat. Opening the door to financial intimacy is only the first step; now you’ll have to continue talking about money for the rest of your relationship. Your circumstances and attitudes may change over time, so it’s important to keep the line of communication open between you and your spouse.