Three Money Talk Tips for Couples
Whether you are in a new relationship or have been married for decades, talking about money with your partner is necessary for a successful relationship. Is it romantic? Hardly. I doubt many couples ask each other about credit scores over dinner, but maybe they should. There is a prevalent idea in society that disagreements over money are the number one cause of divorce. While there is conflicting data surrounding whether this is true, it’s clear that lack of communication is a leading cause of relationship stress. And as you may imagine, often lack of communication is most pronounced around finances.
Talking about money can leave many of us clueless as to where — or when — to even start the conversation. Money affects our relationships right from the start (e.g., will you split the check on the first date, or will one person pay?). It will continue to do so whether it’s talked about or not. Here are some tips to get started.
Getting Comfortable with Talking About Money
A recent episode of National Public Radio’s Life Kit show focused on how to open a conversation about money with a new romantic interest. The guest, financial therapist Amanda Clayman, suggested simply asking how comfortable your partner is talking about money. I thought that was brilliant; start talking about money by…talking about talking about money! This is a safe way to begin because you’re not asking for bank statements, credit reports or credit scores. You’re simply asking about another person’s comfort level with the topic. If they are uncomfortable talking about it, you can explore that further by asking (nonjudgmentally) what about it makes them uncomfortable. Intimacy in relationships is built one small conversation at a time, creating opportunities to build trust. Talking about money starts to sound a bit more romantic when tied with building intimacy, doesn’t it?
Set Money Dates
As your relationship progresses and you and your partner build intimacy and trust, consider scheduling regular dates to discuss money. This is especially important if you are thinking of moving in together or officially tying the knot. Set the dates for a time of day and day of the week when you are relaxed, and set a time limit for the discussion as well. The agenda can vary — from discussing each other’s debt levels to incomes to credit scores to dreaming about your future goals together.
If you’re struggling with topics to discuss, Cayman suggests these questions:
- How much do you each make?
- Do you have student loan debt?
- Are you comfortable carrying credit debt?
- How should you both, as a couple, handle money?
That last question can be a tricky one. As a financial counselor, I was asked by many different couples about the best way to manage money. My answer (frequently disappointing to them) was, “Whatever way works best for you.” That’s a frustrating answer for many people, but it does take some trial and error to figure out how to manage money together. The possibilities are numerous.
Here’s how to get started:
- Choose where you will keep your money. One joint account? Two separate accounts? Or three accounts: yours, theirs and ours?
- Decide who will pay the bills. Will one person be in charge all the time? Will you split up the duties for paying bills? Will you take turns month-to-month or year-to-year?
- Agree on spending guidelines. How will you track your spending to avoid debt? Will you set limits on how much can be spent without checking in with your partner? What will those limits be?
- Discuss savings goals and timelines. How much do you want to save and how quickly? What is your priority savings goal (e.g., emergency savings, three to six months of living expenses, a trip or something else)? Will you contribute to a mutual savings account, or will keep your accounts separate? Under what conditions can savings be used?
These meetings are a time for you to figure out what is working and what isn’t. Be flexible and transparent: If something’s not working for you both, you might want to make some adjustments. This process will take time.
A Word About Equality and Fairness
Have you ever heard the saying, “What’s equal isn’t always fair?” This is especially true when it comes to financial choices between couples.
My partner and I moved in together before we were married, and we decided at that time to keep our finances separate. We wanted to make sure that one person didn’t have a higher financial burden than the other. I was a single mom and didn’t think it was fair for him to pay for my daughter’s expenses. He was in a band, and he didn’t want to burden me with those costs. Also, we had very different levels of income, so splitting expenses 50/50 wouldn’t have been fair to either one of us. We decided on a system that worked for us. We totaled our incomes together and divided expenses by a percentage equal to that person’s percentage of total income. For example, if his income equaled 40% of our total income, we would split the bills 60/40. We each kept our own checking accounts and opened a joint account, into which we both deposited our agreed upon percentages. We kept things that way until we got married and chose to mingle our finances together to simplify things and to reach our financial goals more quickly.
Equality in the results of your financial decisions together might not be possible. However, equality in the decision-making process is imperative. Each person needs to feel that they can share their concerns with the other, their concerns are heard and they can live with the money decisions that are made. This keeps communication flowing, prevents resentments from building and allows couples to strive to reach their financial goals together.
I hope these tips will help you start money conversations with your partner. LSS Financial Counseling can also be a source of support. Our trusted, nonjudgmental financial counselors provide information, tools and advice on budgeting, debt management, student loan debt and the homebuying process so you the two of you can create a plan to reach your financial goals. Call 888.577.2227 to set up a free, confidential appointment, or get your support online.
Author Shannon Doyle is Program Manager of Partnerships and Education for LSS Financial Counseling.