Of all the touchy subjects, money is one of the touchiest. Everything from how much you make, to what you buy feels very personal, and opening up about financial matters can be really difficult for a lot of people. Keeping this information close to the vest isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just one of those societal realities we deal with…
…Until you get married. You might manage to hide your debt and your car payments while courting your future spouse, but once it comes time to tie the knot, you better lay it all out on the table. Once you’ve said your vows and shared that first married smooch, money takes on a whole new role in your life, and you have to be prepared to talk about it.
And, really, what are you waiting for? Just like with all investing, the earlier you start, the more money you have. Part of your matrimony is working together toward a brighter tomorrow, and that’s not an investment you want to put off. As a newlywed, you now have a partner to help with your saving and financial planning. A second source of income just waltzed into your life, and you should both take advantage of these new combined powers.
The actual first step is to simply sit down and comb through all your finances. Every credit card, every loan, every depreciating asset that’s burning a hole in your overall worth. This goes beyond your checking and savings accounts; you need to divulge everything, even if you aren’t starting joint accounts. Your spouse deserves to know what you have, what you’ve spent in the past, and which monthly expenses might still be popping up.
One of the biggest hurdles young couples run into when it comes to money is trust. Do you trust this man or woman to make good financial decisions as you embark on a life-long journey? If you’re going to develop this trust and have faith in your partner to be smart with his or her money, it has to start with honesty. Anything less than being fully truthful leaves room for doubt and second-guessing, and nothing good comes from that.
The first step is easy in theory and very hard in practice. Force yourself to take the plunge and start the discussion, and then you’ll be ready to start making the most of your financial future.
Step 1: Talk About Everything
The first step is pretty easy: take the first step. You have to start the conversation and not dance around the issues. Just like that doctor appointment you need to schedule but keep putting off because you hate making phone calls, the money discussion will always feel like something that can wait until later. Breaking news: it can’t. Pushing off the conversation only makes it harder to have, and that ends with the discussion being much more weighted and people being much more sensitive about what gets said.
Step 2: Wear the Other Person’s Shoes
There are a lot of hobbies that aren’t for me. Megan and I, as like-minded and compatible as we are, don’t have all the same tastes. This matters because we will invariably run into expenses we don’t agree on; she’ll buy things I don’t see as necessities, and I’ll pay for amenities that make her shake her head. This is a part of marriage, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. (Going back to our Money Personalities, of course.)
If you find it hard to discuss money with the people close to you, you’re not alone. Meg and I teach a weekly course specifically for young married couples who are dealing with this issue, so I know how this topic affects different people in different ways. No matter what your circumstances, you can take certain steps that will ease the tension around money, and thereby make your marriage happier and healthier.
The following steps definitely generalize the actions you should take, but this is a good place to start. Half the battle is opening the discussion, so read on and get ready to have some marital money talks!
After you open up to each other about money, disagreements will arise. Decades into your marriage, these disagreements will probably remain on some level. When having these conversations, you must, above all else, respect where your spouse is coming from. Do you really want to live the rest of your life together trading jabs over how your money is spent? Sure, it’s charming when couples do it in sitcoms, but that kind of antagonizing has no place in the married household, especially when dealing with a sensitive issue like money.
Step two is something that almost everyone struggles with; you have to recognize someone else’s interests as having the same merit as your own. The moment you let your personal preferences enter your financial arguments, you become a value dictator. Are you really going to claim your clothing expenses are more valid than your wife’s music collection? It’s one thing to tell a guy he can find a better deal on a car; it’s a very different matter to say his passion for yoga is a foolish waste of money.
If you want to live together in harmony while still allowing for personal spending, you need to create a system. You can budget together for these individual indulgences, or you can have separate earnings goals that enable you to spend on non-essentials. However you choose to handle this, you need firm guidelines so you both follow the rules and don’t end up having the same fight over and over again.
Lots of couples keep separate bank accounts just to deal with this issue. I understand that type of thinking – if my wife doesn’t know how much money I have, who’s she to tell me I can’t afford a pool table? Meanwhile, I don’t have to wonder about the Amazon packages that keep coming in the mail!
If you’re both making money hand over fist, this shouldn’t be a problem. You can buy buy buy and still put money into your retirement and investment accounts. However, most newlyweds who keep separate accounts don’t do it because they have huge cash reserves, but because they want to hide their ill-advised spending.
There are definitely justifications for keeping separate accounts – business spending, tax filing, and many other valid reasons. You should not, however, take advantage of this situation so you can spend more and be judged less. If you can afford to buy yourself a $50 lunch every day, why are you hiding that behind your personal checking account? Is it because you know that money could be spent much, much more wisely? And maybe, just maybe, if your wife saw that you were eating filet mignon on your lunch break, she’d be wise in asking you to stop? Financial Infidelity can be just as harmful as romantic infidelity.
Talk openly about how you want to spend your money, be respectful of your spouse’s opinions, then come to an agreement. You’ve probably heard that marriage is about compromise, and that statement carries a lot of truth. You share a home, a family, and a future, so you better make sure you find as much middle ground and compromise as you can.
Step 3: Work as a Team
With everything laid bare and a commitment to respect each other’s interests, it’s time to get to work! Just like splitting the bill eases the financial burden of a dinner with friends, combining your forces makes it a whole lot easier to tackle debt, establish an emergency fund and save for retirement. If you have less debt than your spouse, lend a hand and drive those balances down. If your husband or wife already has an emergency fund, see how much you can add to it.
Not only should you combine your efforts to cover expenses, you should work in tandem to learn about wealth management and plan for the future. You’ll both bring different insights to the table, and you can help each other through some of the tougher financial decisions. Investing and saving can be hard when you have no one to talk things over with, so bringing this discussion into your living room isn’t a bad idea. Discuss what you’ve learned from your different retirement plans, and what other friends your age are investing in.
Two incomes also allow you to divide and conquer. This is especially important for couples dealing with any sort of income disparity. It’s not realistic to expect everyone to earn the same amount, with different career aspirations leading to different salaries. If you want to split costs down the middle but can’t really do so, you need to find a system that doesn’t overburden one person or the other. One of the best approaches I’ve found is to divvy up particular expenses. If you out earn your husband, you pay for health insurance and let him cover car payments. This helps assign responsibilities while still accounting for varied incomes.
With the expenses sorted out, you can start thinking about how to spread your wealth around. If one of you has a retirement account through work, the other can look into other, better investments. If one spouse can cover both of your IRA contributions, the other can focus more on savings, stocks, and clever ways to diversify assets. Young couples with two incomes have a lot of investment options, from buying real estate to investing in a small business together.
The most important part of this teamwork is identifying and addressing the most pressing issues. You could have one spouse pay down debt while the other saves for vacations, but it makes a lot more sense in the long run if you go to battle against that debt together. Even if one of you is exclusively to blame for a few ghastly credit card balances, you’ll be a stronger team if you both focus on getting those creditors off your back.
This combined effort makes everything easier, from paying down a mortgage to building up a retirement fund. If you focus on taking steps together, you’ll go a lot further and be a lot happier.
Step 4: Make the Process Fun
Being open and honest takes a lot of courage. Talking about money forces people into what is often an uncomfortable position. I’m not going to lie – these conversations can be overwhelming and exhausting. That’s why you need to do everything you can to put a happy spin on your money conversations.
Most of the time, a change of setting can make this process more pleasant. Instead of talking about money while you stare at a daunting pile of bills, think about heading somewhere a little less dreary:
- The park
- The lake
- A restaurant
- Hot air balloon
- Golf course
- Mt. Everest
Some of these options might be a bit outlandish, but you see what I’m getting at. Don’t force yourself to dread money discussions more than you have to; schedule a date night, go to the fair, rent a tandem bicycle, whatever you have to do to shake things up a little, and stay positive while you get into the nitty-gritty.
You should also look into ways to make the learning more fun. You can take classes, read books together, and have little savings competitions. I understand I’m not describing an outrageously good time, but remember what’s at stake: how you treat your money early in your marriage will largely determine how happy you are when it comes time to retire. You can’t avoid thinking about your finances, so you might as well try to make the process as interesting as possible.
If you put in the effort and try to have fun, I feel confident you’ll start actually enjoying the conversations. More importantly, you’ll start saving more, investing wisely, and it won’t be long before you see increased returns. When your debt goes down and your net worth goes up, it becomes much easier to enjoy these money talks.
Can you imagine? Actually looking forward to sitting down with your spouse and talking about money? There’s no reason that should seem like a farfetched dream. All it takes is a little honesty and openness, and those are attributes you should strive for in your marriage regardless.
When you recognize finances are a sensitive issue, but also understand the importance of addressing the matter, you immediately improve your marriage by a factor of 10. Be thoughtful and respectful, and you and your spouse will be well on your way to a happily ever after.
Taylor & Megan Kovar
The Money Couple