Connect Marriage

The Definitive 2021 Couples Guide to Money

Pam Krueger  |  February 11, 2021

Each person enters a relationship with their own history, credit score and financial hangups. Here's how to talk to your spouse about money.

The past year has been one giant stress-test for relationships. Even under the best of circumstances, the pandemic has forced couples to spend a lot more time together. With school routines disrupted, parents with young children have struggled to find any time to decompress, and couples working from home have had to figure out how to find space for privacy. All of this pressure has (not surprisingly) put a strain on many relationships. Kim Nelson, a financial advisor who specializes in divorce, says requests for divorce planning advice jumped 50% in the last half of 2020. “I am seeing that the quarantine has only heightened the issues these couples were having before, and women are really starting to take control in areas where they have not always felt comfortable– especially the finances.” That’s why it’s so important to talk to your spouse about money, no matter how daunting the conversation may seem.

Many couples are struggling financially with job loss or even just the anticipation of losing an income. Even high net worth couples are experiencing new levels of stress during the pandemic, and much of it is about money.

So, what can we learn from these experiences? No matter how new or how established your relationship may be, we’ve learned that it’s essential to have ‘the money talk’ to make sure you’re on the same page with your significant other on matters of saving, spending, managing and investing your money. Talking about these issues may feel a bit awkward but openly discussing your views on money early in the relationship will help you avoid expensive surprises later. And in a year like this, anything you can do to make your love life less stressful is welcome.

Yours, mine and ours — Should you combine your accounts or keep them separate?

Combining finances is a big step for a couple. Some automatically merge all their checking and savings accounts right when they get married; others feel more comfortable keeping a separate account that they can control on their own. Either way, it’s important for both spouses to know where each other stands. A best practice if you do want to combine your spending accounts is to still maintain your own separate checking account. But talk to your spouse about this money choice before getting started. Think of it as your accounts, my accounts, and then our accounts. Your IRAs and 401(k)s are always owned separately, but it helps to review your ‘family’s’ retirement accounts together at least once a year to assess your progress towards your long-term goals.

Who will manage the bills?

Some couples bicker over basic financial housekeeping issues. Will one spouse be responsible for paying the bills – writing checks or going online to make the payments – or do you both plan to sit down together every month and review the expenses together? It’s usually easier for one spouse to handle the administrative tasks, but to update and communicate about any bills that are different than usual. Even if you automate most regular financial tasks you still need to communicate with each other whenever one spouse takes charge, changes the passwords, or stops paying a monthly subscription. The key in managing money well is to not keep the other spouse in the dark about any changes in routine.

Coordinate your employee benefits.

If you and your spouse work, you may both have employee benefits that you can either use separately or share with your whole family. Decide how to get the most out of your options for 401(k) matching, health insurance, a dependent-care flexible-spending account, health savings account, life insurance or other benefits between the two of you by talking to your spouse about money.

You may not agree with your spouse’s investing strategies.

The wild volatility in the stock market last year was very stressful for many couples. It was scary to look at your 401(k) statements in some months. Then came the day trading stories surrounding the online investing platform Robinhood. People have very different ideas of what they consider to be high-risk investment strategies. If you’re the person who loves to gamble and your spouse is all about feeling secure, it’s best to know how to make decisions where both of you feel respected. If you don’t plan to retire for decades, you can afford to ride out the market’s ups and downs. But some people weren’t able to stomach the market drops and sold their investments at the bottom – then missed out on the rebound over the rest of the year and regretted that decision. You and your spouse may have very different investing philosophies, and living through a period of market volatility can be an incredibly stressful time if you are critical of each other’s approaches to the market. Rather than having to fight over what to do in the heat of the moment during a market downturn, talk with your spouse ahead of time about your investing plans and strategy for your retirement savings.

Have the ‘credit talk.’

Each person comes into a relationship with their own credit history and credit score. It’s a good idea for each of you to check your credit record at www.annualcreditreport.com and to let the other one know about any surprises. If you take out a loan together, one partner’s poor credit could result in a higher rate – and the other spouse will be on the hook if you don’t pay the bills. Talk to your spouse about how this could affect your money before one spouse’s poor credit history brings you both down.

Set your priorities together for paying off debt.

Regardless of your separate credit histories, after you become a couple, you should set a joint debt strategy. Do you usually pay your credit card off in full each month or do you have a growing balance? Do you prefer to pay cash for most expenses? Do you want to talk with each other before spending more than a certain amount? Do you want to make paying down high-interest debt you already have one of your top financial priorities as a couple? Having this discussion early on can help you avoid a lot of financial conflicts. It’s important to understand that in common law states, you’re usually liable for debt in your name or joint debt you take out with your spouse, but you aren’t liable for debt your spouse takes out only in his or her name. In community property states, both spouses are liable for debt either one took out after they were married.

Make financial contingency plans.

With so much financial uncertainty last year, even people who didn’t lose their jobs still had a lot of anxiety about what would happen if they were forced to live on less. Have an open discussion together about what you will do if one spouse loses their job, or if you lose other income or have an unexpected large expense. Talk about building up an emergency fund so you have a few months of living expenses set aside, and consider what expenses you might cut back on, ways you might bring in extra income, and your strategies for living on less for a while if need be. Approaching this difficult topic as a team means both spouses have skin in the game. Just having a plan ahead of time can help you worry less about what might happen.

Keep talking about your short-term and long-term financial goals.

This part can be fun:  Talk about your dreams together – whether it’s to buy a house in the next few years, go on an adventure vacation, take some time off after having a child, or prepare for a gratifying retirement. Then set your financial priorities and a plan to reach your goals together, such as setting aside a certain amount of money each month in savings.

Consider who to turn to for help if you need an expert.

Sitting down together with a qualified fiduciary financial advisor (fee-only) may help you and your partner become better communicators and make it easier to talk to your spouse about money, especially for major financial decisions. The right advisor can help you talk through your financial priorities and worries and offer specific advice for strategies that will make it easier to reach your financial goals as a family.

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