April* and her husband, Robert, thought that they knew everything about each before getting married. But when they sat down to talk about their finances, they unearthed a whole new layer of surprises.
Robert, a rabbi, was 49, and April, who was working for a car company at the time, was 35. “We were so open with each other; I thought I knew what our future together looked like,” April says.
But when they discussed having kids, April was shocked when Robert told her that he would be gone a lot due to the nature of his job—which meant that she would likely need to be the one staying home to raise their children. “I knew I couldn’t handle the stress of taking care of kids and juggling a high-stakes job,” she says, “so I would need to leave the car company and rely on Robert’s income when the time came.”
The couple met with Robert’s financial planner and decided to put their future kids’ college funding into Robert’s retirement account—the lump sum would accrue interest and, by the time the kids were old enough for college, Robert could withdraw the money without penalties as he would be over the 59-and-one-half age mark.
How Talking It Out Can Help
Today, the couple is still happily married and has two preschool-age children. “I can’t stress how much being clear about our expectations early on has helped,” April says.
Being open and vulnerable, like Robert and April, is essential to having productive conversations about finances with your future spouse or life partner, says Amber Miller, a certified financial planner (CFP) based in Minneapolis. “It’s important to remember that marriage is an economic relationship,” she says.
Even still, many couples hesitate to talk about their financial lives with their partners. According to the “2022 Love & Money” report by Personal Capital, which surveyed 2,210 adults living in the United States, nearly 4 in 10 people (39%) avoid talking about money with a romantic partner. Despite that fact, 29% of respondents would consider ending a relationship over a partner’s debt and 30% said they would end it if their partner was a big spender.
But how can you blame your loved one for their debt if you never bothered to ask about it? Here, three CFPs weigh in on how to have productive conversations about finances with your bae before tying the knot.
1. Be Truthful and Understanding
All three financial planners emphasize the importance of being open and honest with your partner about what you make, owe and own. “Once you’re married, you’ll share one another’s debts—or riches,” says Lacey Cobb, a CFP, certified financial advisor and director of advice solutions at Personal Capital. So enter that financial contract with your eyes open.
For example, having this type of conversation could reveal some painful truths about student loan debt or a credit card that needs to be paid off. “Prioritize honesty,” says Kevin Mahoney, a CFP and founder of Illumint, a financial planning firm that specializes in helping millennial parents.
2. Identify Areas of Difference
Money values, notes Mahoney, can be informed by how you were raised. You may prioritize saving to buy a car while your partner may be more comfortable leasing one and using the bulk of their savings for a down payment on a house.
To get familiar with your partner’s money values, Cobb recommends starting with questions like: What is most important to you about money? What does financial freedom mean to you? What are you most and least confident about when it comes to your finances?
If you find that you have differences that are not easily ironed out, it’s worth the investment to talk to a financial planner. “A professional can help you have conversations about priorities and strategies, as well as recommend cash flow and budgeting tools,” Miller notes. They can also help you figure out how you will split expenses. “Having an outside perspective changes the conversation from ‘your way’ or ‘my way’ to, ‘here are the options, let’s discuss what will work,’” notes Miller.
3. Make a Household Budget
Traditionally, experts have recommended using the 50/30/20 rule—which means spending 50% of post-tax income on needs, 30% on wants and 20% on savings—and that couples have a joint bank account they can use for all shared expenses.
However, this one-size-fits-all approach no longer works for many couples, Mahoney notes. “You should manage money in ways that reflect who you are as individuals.”
For example, perhaps you are more comfortable keeping separate bank accounts and determining who will pay which household expenses. Or perhaps you decide to stay home with your children for their first few years of life, and your partner agrees to put a certain amount of their earnings into your personal checking account so that you feel like you have some spending autonomy.
4. Assign Tasks
Even if you’ve been on your own financially for many years, maybe you’ve always hated paying the electricity bill or secretly love the intricacies of tallying your annual expenses or doing your own taxes. Divulge this to your partner and then divvy up tasks. “If you have the aptitude or time to stay on top of a financial responsibility, offer to take care of that responsibility,” says Miller. “And, if not, ask your partner if they will do it.” Split up responsibilities or let one partner take on the brunt of the work if that’s what you both decide is best.
5. Set Shared Savings Goals
A great way to get on the same page financially is to set shared savings goals. Consider saving for that vacation you want to take after you get married or toward buying that home you want to settle into before having kids. Heck, the shared saving goal can even be a piece of furniture you both covet for your home. “A mutual savings goal helps you establish a shared vision for the future,” says Miller.
6. Make the Conversation Fun
Sure, talking about finances might make you feel sick to your stomach or like you want to throw the TV remote at your partner’s head. But instead of making the conversation super serious and boring, turn the occasion into an opportunity to spend time together, suggests Cobb. “Pour some wine, put on your favorite tunes and do this together,” she says. There’s a reason you want to spend the rest of your life with them already, so just remember that when you sit down to crunch the numbers.
Millie content is licensed from Dotdash Meredith, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle, Investopedia, The Balance and more.
Brienne Walsh is a writer based in Savannah, Georgia. She contributes to Forbes, Rangefinder and MarketWatch, among other publications.