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Where's the romance? Why (and how) to talk money when you're set on marriage

May 6, 2022 - 14 min read

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Discussing money before marriage

7 common money issues in marriage

3 tips to talk money and marriage

The less-than-romantically inclined among us will be quick to point out that marriage is a contract — one with legal and financial implications. However, most people shy away from having conversations about money with their partners. 

It’s no surprise, then, that when money doesn’t come up in marriage, it’s often the first thing to come up in divorce. Financial stress is the second leading cause of divorce, blamed by (in more than a few estimates) almost 40% of divorcing couples. 

The good news? The problem is clear. And although it might not seem like fun, talking through finances with your partner is the best way to solve it. Talking about finances is actually an opening to talk about personal values. While that's probably why we avoid it in the throes of love, understanding differences might be a difference-maker.

In order to talk about money in your marriage, you’ll need to understand what makes it so uncomfortable. Keep reading to learn how to talk about it and what to do.

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Discussing money before marriage

It may come as a surprise to learn that when it comes to money and marriage, most of the groundwork needs to be laid upfront. Many of the conversations you’ll want to have should happen (ideally) before one of you even pops the question.

Why is that? Well, many of the money issues that arise in a partnership (romantic or otherwise) come from unclear expectations. Most of us grow up with models of what it looks like to discuss — or not to discuss — money. We also might have emotional concerns or assumptions that we think are obvious. That is, of course, until we realize our partner isn’t on the same page.

Money, it turns out, is emotional.

Even if you’ve already tied the knot, it’s not too late to discuss money matters. In fact, no matter what stage in your relationship you’re in, you should be having the “money talk” all the time. 

It might help to start this conversation by looking at your own individual money mindsets and spending habits. A fun way to start thinking about this is to take a money personality quiz, like this one on money beliefs.

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7 common money issues in marriage

Most people immediately think of budgeting when they think about talking money, but there are some higher-level conversations to have first. Here are 7 of the most common money problems you should talk about (in advance):

1. Debt

Debt should be the first and most frequent conversation that married couples have about money. That includes talking about credit cards, student loan debt, and even taking out a mortgage. Couples should be on the same page about when and how they take on debt. 

Questions to ask:

  • Do you keep a credit card “just for emergencies,” or put all your purchases on plastic so you can rack up points? 
  • Do you carry a balance or pay it in full every month? 
  • Should depreciating assets, like cars, be financed, leased, or paid for in cash?

2. Wage differences

Odds are good that you and your partner won’t ever be earning the exact same amount of money. But that caveat “for richer or poorer” is in your vows for a reason. No matter how much (or little) one partner makes, you should both feel like you have equal involvement and control over your finances. 

Questions to ask:

  • Will one partner need to take time away from the workforce, whether to care for a parent, child, or go back to school?
  • What did you see modeled growing up? Did the primary earner have control over the finances? How did you feel about it?
  • How can you reinforce the value that each partner brings to the relationship, regardless of earning power?

3. Saving versus spending

Because the early earning years can be challenging, many young couples (and a few older ones) feel like they can’t start saving yet. But putting money aside, even if it’s a small amount, is always a smart idea.

Generally speaking, one person in a relationship is the “saver” and one is the “spender.” Talking through your attitudes on money can help avoid any unpleasant conversations — or surprises.

Questions to ask:

  • How much of our income should we save?
  • How much of an emergency fund do we need to establish?
  • How do we allocate unexpected windfalls, like prizes, inheritances, or bonuses?

4. Financial goals

One of the reasons people have a hard time making sound financial decisions is that they fail to think through their future needs. As a couple, marriage means that you can help support each other in reaching those goals. However, if you’re not aligned on what those priorities are, you might also be dragging each other down.

Questions to ask:

  • What’s important to us? Do we want to travel, buy a home, launch a business, or start a family? What will that take?
  • What will retirement look like for us?
  • If money was unlimited, what would we do?

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5. Credit

Credit scores are tracked individually, but that doesn’t mean they don’t affect both of you. When it comes to getting joint assets, like access to credit, a house, or a car, one partner’s credit score can raise your interest rate — or ruin your odds of getting approved altogether.  

Questions to ask:

  • Are there any outstanding or high-interest line items on your credit report?
  • Are there any debts that have been signed with someone outside of your relationship, like a parent or child?
  • Are there any upcoming financial goals that will require access to credit?

6. Household budget

No one likes to hear the b-word, especially from their partner. But there’s no getting around the importance of a household budget. As dry as it can seem, it’s critical to getting a complete understanding of your financial situation.

Even if one of you makes more money, decisions about how your funds are allocated should be made jointly. That means neither of you should be “telling” the other what to do. Financial manipulation undermines trust, is highly damaging, and is absolutely a red flag in a relationship. If you notice this behavior from either of you, don’t pass “GO” — head directly to relationship counseling.

A note on mental health and money: you budget should actually feel empowering and — dare I say it — liberating. It should feel like both of you have the clearest possible financial picture. There’s no right or wrong way to put it together, as long as you both agree. 

For example, my husband and I have a fairly generous travel budget, because we love to travel — both as a couple and as a family. We tend not to budget as much for clothes, because both of us are happy to wear things until they fall apart. I know a few couples, though, that never vacation, but are decked out in name-brand everything. It’s really a matter of what works best for you.

And you know what? You (both, jointly, as a mutual decision) can change it whenever you need to. During the coronavirus pandemic, we allocated much more money to takeout. While my husband enjoys cooking, it was too stressful to plan meals, homeschool, and work from home all at once.

If ordering a pizza saves your marriage, eat pizza every night and take it out of the “counseling” budget.

Questions to ask:  

  • Which bills need to be paid every month, and how will we pay them?
  • Will we designate a joint bank account or individual accounts for certain bills?
  • What type of purchases need to be discussed in advance?

7. Retirement

When it comes to saving for retirement, the biggest asset you have on your side is time. It always pays to start saving early on, when your money has more time to benefit from compound interest. You and your spouse should discuss what plans you have, including current assets, future assets, and your ideal retirement age.

If one or both of you works independently, you’ll want to discuss retirement plans. Find out if there’s a way to take advantage of one spouse’s employer-sponsored retirement benefits (like a 401k match) to give you an extra boost. Talking to a financial advisor is a good way to plan for the short and long-term implications of retirement planning.

Questions to ask:

  • What kind of retirement plans do we have? A 401k? IRA? Pension or deferred compensation plan? How much should we contribute?
  • Do we have a financial planner that we feel comfortable with?
  • When do we want to retire, and how much money do we need to do it?

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3 tips to talk money and marriage

Even when you know what you want to talk about, figuring out how to broach the subject with your partner can be challenging. Here are some tips to start the money conversation with your significant other:

1. Be serious — but not too serious

There’s possibly no more anxiety-inducing statement than “Honey, we need to talk.” While talking about money should be taken seriously, it doesn’t have to be austere. Consider having a weekly or monthly “working date” where you and your partner can talk finances. Or plan something fun to celebrate financial milestones, like paying off credit card debt (as long as you don’t run it back up, that is). 

Just be sure to give the conversation — and your partner — the seriousness and respect you deserve. Money conversations shouldn’t be had in passing or when one of you is focused on something else.

2. Ask for help

Most couples don’t have someone who specializes in personal finance as part of the duo. But even if you do, it always helps to have an expert take a look at your situation. You might benefit from tax advice, business planning, insurance, or insight into your investments. And as a couple, it’s always nice to have a third-party validate your plan (and of course, to settle bets between the two of you).

3. Don’t keep secrets

There are mixed opinions about whether a married couple should keep separate accounts (personally, I feel very strongly about having my own “mad money”). That being said, having individual checking accounts doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be secretive about what’s in them.

There’s a difference between having transparency and completely co-mingling assets, and the two are not mutually exclusive. And there are certainly financial professionals who will advocate for the benefits of keeping things separate.

Whether you keep separate accounts or not, you should both be on the same page. Personally, I like having my spending money in my own account. It makes it easy for me to budget for work trips, personal care expenses, and keep his birthday presents a surprise. I don’t think of it as “my money” so much as “money budgeted for my stuff.” That doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for us.

Final thoughts

Our money habits may not seem like they have anything to do with our “personal lives,” but in fact, they affect everything around us. When we have financial stress, it impacts our effectiveness at work, our mental health, and how we interact with our spouse. Even the invisible labor of trying to make ends meet can exact a toll on us.

The more we talk about it, the more we ask for help, the more we can take steps to develop financial security. Even looking at our assets and liabilities in a broad way can help us feel more in control and less stressed.

Whether you’re a newlywed or been married for some time, learning to improve your communication skills is only ever a good thing. If you and your partner can tackle something as complex and emotional as financial planning together, you’re in a good position to handle whatever else life throws your way.

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Published May 6, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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