At the age of 19 or 20, I was in the throes of a financially dramatic (read: unhealthy) relationship. I would routinely overhear collection calls conveniently recounted as a “wrong number.” Bills regularly went unpaid, and upcoming due dates were always a cause for concern.
Luckily, our finances weren’t combined at the time. Legally, those issues weren’t mine. But years later, my mom reminded me of one conversation in which I told her any money trouble he was having was my responsibility to fix. Even if my name wasn’t on the bill, I needed to help him find a way to reach the other side.
Ah, the naivety of young love.
The problem with this intense dedication to rectifying his poor financial decisions was that he simply didn’t have the same level of commitment. Our habits, goals, and relationship to money were incompatible on every single level.
I’d like to say I spotted the blazing red flags and jumped ship. But the reality is, I stayed for another five years.
Then, years later, I met my financial equivalent. (Clearly not something to repeat in my wedding vows, but still the reality of the situation.)
We were talking retirement numbers and goals by date four and I knew his debt number by about date five. Money was discussed as a fact of life, not something to be shielded and wondered about. We were open and honest because our financial picture was an important component of our total compatibility picture.
Now, as we plan our walk down the aisle and everything that happens in “ever after,” we’re making sure our finances are just as ready for the next step as we are.
If you’re in a relationship - or just want to be ready when one comes along - here are a few things to think about.
Learn About Your Relationship with Money
If I were asked to sum up my primary money emotion it would be worry. I tend to worry I’m not saving enough, worry I’m not making enough, and worry I will be blindsided by some unforeseen financial hurdle. I know if I check my accounts when I’m not in the best headspace, it could send me into a tailspin for days.
I also know how insane this can seem to someone who tends to spend more freely, operating from the “there’s always more where that came from” mentality.
Self-awareness makes handling money differences in relationships infinitely easier. There isn’t a right or wrong, there are just different ways of thinking.
In order to better understand your partner and how you can work together, you have to understand yourself first.
- What are your primary money emotions?
- Do you tend to gravitate towards spending or saving?
- Are you a big money risk-taker or does risk make you nervous?
Understand Their Relationship with Money
Where I’m conservative and risk-avoidant, my partner is free with his spending and apt to take investment risks. He sees money as fluid and I tend to see it as fixed. Knowing these differences turns them from potential issues to an opportunity to achieve greater balance in money management as a couple.
Before saying “I do,” make sure you understand a few key things about your partner.
- How they think and feel about money.
- How they tend to act on these thoughts and emotions.
- The benefits and pitfalls of their overall money relationship.
Find Out How They Spend and How They Expect to Spend
On a recent trip to the store, my fiancé was perusing the movie section - his one true addiction - and preparing to make a purchase. Without thinking twice I said, “Don’t buy that. It’s a waste.” You should have seen the look of horror on his face. His response? “Well I think getting your nails done is a waste, but I don’t say anything about that.”
Touché, my friend. Touché.
While neither of us are extravagant in our spending, there are certain areas we choose to spend in and other areas we intentionally opt out of as a result. But understanding where these spending expectations are is vital for avoiding friction later.
- What are your partner’s spending habits?
- What are their non-negotiables?
- Do these habits crowd out other, necessary spending (or saving)?
Know Their Numbers
Ah, the “numbers” talk. It might not be the most romantic of conversations, but it’s absolutely necessary. Why? Because those numbers can easily change some of your numbers as soon as you sign the marriage license.
Some of these might seem like no-brainers, but you’d be surprised at the number of relationships in which this information isn’t common knowledge.
Income and Expenses
- How much are they earning?
- How much are they spending?
- Is there a positive or negative balance at the end of the month?
- How much debt does your partner have?
- What type of debt is it (credit cards, student loans, etc.)?
- Do they have a debt payoff plan? Or are they just working to pay the minimums?
- What’s on their credit report? More importantly, are they aware of what’s on their credit report?
- What is their credit score and how could that impact your financial moves as a couple?
Discuss Financial Goals: Big, Small, and In Between
Aside from the lying and overall poor financial habits, the biggest indicator in my previous relationship of financial incompatibility all boiled down to goals. There were three things I wanted to save for: peace of mind, travel, and job freedom. None of these spoke to him - not even a little bit. And, to be honest, we didn’t talk about goals, so we certainly weren’t forging a path forward together.
Even if there are minor differences in what you want to save for, building a life together means determining what that life will look like and how you will acquire the resources to start construction. Without those talks and action steps, you’re just floundering in the “in between.” And things don’t reach full potential in the “in between.”
- Do you know what you want your life to look like? Do you know the financial goals you will need to set to get there?
- Do you know what your partner wants your life together to look like?
- More importantly, do you have productive conversations about it together?
Goals do something powerful when you’re in a relationship: They create a solid reason to make individual shifts for a greater cause. You’re both making a sacrifice for something to celebrate together. And that’s pretty awesome.
Know Your Plan for Your Money After Marriage
Things like changing names and combining accounts might seem like nothing more than items on a checklist, but they can unexpectedly turn into big issues.
In high school, I had a friend whose mom primarily took care of the home, but also did a few side jobs to bring in extra money. She had her own bank account to deposit this money she earned and they shared other accounts together. Over dinner one night, her dad nonchalantly mentioned he had closed the account because he didn’t think it was necessary to have. In her eyes, this extra account was her independence. She didn’t speak to him for days.
Regardless of right or wrong in this situation, it comes down to this: their expectations, views, and emotional connection to money were different, so they had different beliefs about how it should be handled. Without speaking about the logistics behind money management, it’s easy to fall into heated arguments when they just aren’t necessary.
- Will you combine accounts and incomes? Or will you keep your finances separate?
- Will you pay bills together? Or will you divvy up the responsibilities?
- Will you create a budget together?
- Will you require a “check-in” for purchases over a certain amount?
Knowing the “how” will make the financial transition into married life much easier - and much less emotional.
The Bottom Line
After a few years together, I know that I am the conservative saver with an eye on short to mid-term goals and a knack for staying on top of the day-to-day of our finances. He is a slightly riskier investor with an eye on long-term goals and what it will take to get there. We’re not the same in any sense, but these two pieces do work well together.
Reaching this understanding took a series of conversations at different stages of our relationship. There were - and still are - uncomfortable moments. And, of course, a few fights thrown in. But the truth is, these things will come up whether you choose to talk about them or not. What happens after they come up depends on the level of understanding that exists beforehand.
Let’s face it. Marriage is tough enough without throwing finances into the mix. Before you agree to take this next step, make sure you’re ready to join financial forces at the end of the aisle.