It’s no secret that disagreements over how to manage joint finances are the leading predictor of divorce. When it comes to arguments over money issues, marriage and debt often don’t mix.
Figuring out how to merge your money is no easy task, especially if you both have completely different attitudes towards spending and saving. If you’re frugal by nature but your spouse is a bit of spendthrift, you’re bound to run into conflict at some point. When one partner is bringing financial baggage into the marriage in the form of debt, the pressure is on for both of you to figure out how to unload it for good.
For many couples, just talking about money is the biggest obstacle to overcome but there are some proactive steps you can take to get the ball rolling.
Laying things on the line
Whether it’s credit cards, student loans or car loans, debt can easily become the elephant in the room if you let it. Ideally, you should both be aware of what one another’s debts are before you walk down the aisle but if you haven’t had that talk yet, you can’t afford to put it off any longer. Add up exactly how much you, individually and as a couple, can put things in perspective if you’ve had blinders on up to this point.
Seeing the total number on paper may be unsettling at first but it could be just what the two of you need to get motivated about paying it off. For some couples, that means throwing them all in a pile together and attacking them in a specific order.
Other couples may prefer to pay down one partner’s debts first before trying to knock out the rest. How you go about paying off the debt isn’t as important as coming up with a plan together and doing your part to make it work.
Find balance in your budget
A budget is the most basic financial tool couples should be using to manage their money. Making one is fairly easy; you add up what you expect your expenses to be for the month and compare it to your income. If you end up in the black, then congratulations, you’re already ahead of the game. If you find yourself coming up short, you’ll have to go back to the drawing board and look for ways to cut your expenses.
Sounds simple enough but making a budget that works for both of you is where it gets a little more challenging. The first thing you have to decide is how much of the weight each of you is going to bear. If you’re both working and making roughly the same amount then a 50/50 split may be best. When one of you earns more, you might feel more comfortable dividing your expenses up proportionately.
You also have to figure out who’s going to be responsible for handling things on a day-to-basis. If one of you is going to be in charge of making sure bills are paid on time and keeping up with what your expenses are, you still have to make the effort to keep the other person up to speed with what’s going on. That includes keeping track of your debt payoff progress.
Don’t skip over the details
Debt and spending are usually the two biggest issues that couples tend to focus on but there are some smaller things that also need your attention. For example, there’s the question of how to handle your bank accounts. Using a joint account for paying bills and keeping separate accounts for individual spending is one option. Piling all the money together is another. Again, it goes back to how your attitudes toward money match up.
If you opened up retirement accounts or took out a life insurance policy before you were married, you may have to change your beneficiary designation to make sure your spouse gets the money if something happens to you. Finally, you’ll have to look at your tax situation to decide whether it makes sense to file jointly or separately. The majority of couples file together but if there’s a major gap in your incomes or one of you has a substantial amount of deductions, doing separate returns may make more sense.
Be clear about your goals
When couples have very different ideas about what they want to achieve financially, there’s potential for butting heads. For example, you may want to be laser-focused on paying off debt but your spouse prefers a more relaxed approach. Sharing your goals with one another gives you some insight into how the other thinks and it provides a framework for figuring out how you’ll accomplish them.
Let’s say you have a common goal of buying a home. Before you start cruising the real estate listings, you should talk about how much you’re willing to spend, what features you want in the property and what neighborhood you want to live in. From there, you can work out how much you’ll need to save for a down payment and come up with a schedule for saving.
Of course, there may be some sticking points that the two of you won’t ever be able to completely agree on. Being able to work out a solution that doesn’t force one of you to sacrifice more than the other can go a long way towards keeping your finances and your marriage on track.