Couples: How to Bring Your Money Together, or Not
What’s better than being in love? As a former cynic (and current lovebug), I think the answer is nothing. Love is the best. I mean, when you find the person who makes you want to give up starfishing in bed alone, you know it’s special.
I think the best thing about love is also the trickiest - it seeps into every area of your life. You share the same plate of food, the same silly sense of humor...the same money?
The Beatles got it wrong - love is not all you need. You also need to pay rent, and buy food, and save for a rainy day. When you’re dating someone, when is the right time to combine finances? How do you know that you’re on the same financial page? How do you feel comfortable letting someone into your bank accounts?
Questions to Ask Before You Combine Accounts
Before you combine any financial accounts, you’ve got to take stock of your relationship. Money is not something you should take lightly, and neither is your relationship. You want to be in a stable, healthy relationship before you take on the money challenge.
If you’re beginning to think about bringing your money together, ask yourself these questions:
Are we serious about a future together?
Do we live together?
Do we have the same financial goals?
These aren’t necessarily easy questions, but they can be a great guide to having the money conversation. This isn’t a one size fits all checklist because love is a personal subject. Each relationship is different. I know that I have friends who handle their relationships totally differently from the way I handle mine. No one is right or wrong - we’re just different.
I’ll offer my own relationship up as a test case. I’ve been with my boyfriend for two and a half years. Let’s see how we do with these questions:
- Are we serious about a future together? Tough question! We are committed to being with each other, though we haven’t had the marriage talk yet.
- Do we live together? Yes. I’m sitting on *our* bed as I write this.
- Do we have the same financial goals? Another tough one! Yes and no. We are both interested in homeownership, travel, and frugal living for our long term futures. Our major financial differences are that I’m debt free and dedicated to staying that way. He has student loan debt, and is in no rush to pay it off. I’m focused on becoming financially independent of a job in the next 13 years. He doesn’t mind working until traditional retirement age.
Based off my answers here, I would not recommend that my boyfriend and I start sharing financial accounts. Why?
Even though I think we have the best relationship in the world (deal with it, Obamas), we’re not on the same financial page. We have different goals for our money. My short term money goal right now is to beef up my savings: retirement, emergency fund, and a down payment for a house.
My boyfriend is less lasered in on his goals. He’s working on paying down his debt and has built up an emergency fund. He’s saving for retirement, but not at the rate I am. His short term money goal right now is to save up to buy a keyboard.
While these may seem like small details, they point to a larger difference between us. Let’s zoom out for a second to see why. I’m concerned about becoming financially stable, and saving enough to not have to rely on a paycheck. I’m interested in the concept of early retirement. I’m a saver who thinks long term when it comes to money.
My boyfriend envisions working for longer than I do, so he plans to save in smaller increments over a longer period of time. He takes care of his financial responsibilities and is building a nest egg for his future self. He’s happy to spend some of his money right now on things that make him happy, rather than tuck it away for future security. He hasn't put himself on a timeline the way I have.
Until we can both articulate the same financial goals, we won’t combine finances. Once we’re ready to work together towards the same goals (like saving for a house together), then we’ll take the financial plunge. For now, we’re each working towards what we want and splitting joint expenses down the middle.
If you're thinking of taking the plunge, try going through these questions with your boo. If the two of you answered “no” to most of them, it’s a good bet that you aren’t ready to combine finances. No shame there - it’s just not time. Keep your money separate until the answer to most of these questions is “yes.” Revisit these questions a little ways down the line and see what your answers look like then.
When It’s a Good Decision to Combine Finances
Say you’re in the other camp and you answered yes to most of these questions. Combining finances might be a good decision for you. Remember, the questions are just a general guide to seeing if combining is the right choice for you. You still need to hash out more details before you open up your bank account.
Time to bare it all. Set up a date and have a deeply honest money conversation with your partner. Get some beer and snacks if you need to. Talk about your past and present dealings with money, and the goals you have for the future. Talk about your career ambitions. Talk about anything related to money: children, property, weddings, travel, health issues. Be as specific as you can. Bonus points if you can articulate a timeline for hitting milestones and achievements. Share any debt you have, and how long you’ll carry it. Don’t leave anything uncovered. Now is the time to be as honest as you can.
If you find that you’re comfortable with your partner's financial picture and that you have the same goals for the future, congrats! You’re ideal candidates to combine your finances.
When It’s a Bad Decision to Combine Finances
Love is kind of like the charming scoundrel in the movies. They’ve got an adorable smile and make your heart flutter, but that doesn’t mean they should have your pin number.
If you know that your partner is bad with money outright, don’t combine money. You wouldn’t jump into shark infested waters would you? I didn’t think so.
Other red flags you should look for:
Large amounts of debt and no plan to pay it off.
Hiding or lying about spending.
Attempts to control your spending habits.
Frequent bouts of unemployment (and therefore zero income).
Some of these may seem self-explanatory, but let's dig in with some examples. A lot of these red flags can be really sneaky. In fact, you may not even realize you've noticed them until you give it some extra thought. (The same can even be true of your own finances.)
- Excessive spending. Your partner spends money they don’t have or can’t control their shopping.
- Large amounts of debt and no plan to pay it off. Your partner ignores their debt, misses payments on it, or doesn’t have a general plan to pay it back. They don’t understand the impact of missed payments on their credit score or how much they lose in interest.
- Hiding or lying about spending. Your partner lies about their spending or hides purchases from you.
- Attempts to control your spending habits. Your partner tries to control your spending or to manipulate you with money. Financial abuse is a real thing in relationships.
- Frequent bouts of unemployment (and therefore zero income). Your partner is without income half or more of the time and asks to borrow money from you or friends.
Many of these red flags speak to a difference in life and money values. The great thing about finding a partner is that they’re your partner - they support you and care about you. They should want you to succeed and want to succeed with you. If you’re miles apart on ways to earn, manage, and save money, you shouldn’t combine finances.
Don't Forget to Consider What You Want
Finally, in the middle of all this talking, don't forget to ask yourself what you want as an individual. Are you ready to combine finances? Do you want to move forward with this person in love and money? None of this stuff matters if you’re not in the right headspace to take action.
Love and money aren’t easy things to figure out. Take your time with both. As one half of the best relationship in the world, I can say I’m in no rush to change up how we do things. There is no deadline to combine your money.
I took a very informal poll of my friends in long term relationships. Most of the reported that the money conversation came up naturally as they grew closer to their partners. Chances are, you too will find out what’s right for you as you go along.