What You Need to Know About Marriage and Money

updated Sep 16, 2020
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Money is one of the main things that married couples fight about—even happily married ones. Want to keep fiscal fights in your marriage to a minimum? The tips below can improve your finances and help maintain wedded bliss.

Ask the hard questions

Don’t want to bring up touchy subjects like money before the wedding? Actually, the honeymoon phase of the relationship is the time to do it (definitely don’t wait until the actual honeymoon!). All the pheromones flying around will keep you both in a good mood.

So, what should you ask? If you don’t already know, consider the following:

  • Do you budget or spend until you run out of money?
  • Do you have savings or a retirement account?
  • Do you have any debt? If so, what kind?
  • Do you buy generic or only brand names?
  • Do you love your current job, or do you hop from job to job?
  • Do you dream about/plan on being self-employed?

Besides learning things you should know about each other, you can also compare how you both approach finances. If each of you is frugal, great. If you both are a little loose with cash, you’ll know you need to rein each other in. If you find you have some differences, you’ll be aware of what to expect going in. You both can figure out how to work around your contrasts.

Worried about how to initially broach the topic? Bola Sokunbi, founder and CEO of Clever Girl Finance, suggests casually sharing something about yourself, like, “I’m working on paying off my student loans—what about you?” or, “I want to buy a house in two years—what about you?” “You start to ease into the conversation over time and and start to gather information about each other, and eventually you get to a point where it becomes easy and comfortable for you to talk about money,” she says. “It’s not just one conversation; it’s an ongoing conversation.”

And while you’re having these chats, it’s important to remember that everyone has different experiences with and perspectives on money. “Having those open conversations and not judging each other is really important, because if you start attacking each other or if it gets really hostile, then it will be really hard to make any type of progress,” says Sandy Yong, author of “The Money Master”.

Start planning together before you’re married

Go into your marriage with a financial plan. Discuss individual goals and ones you share. Then determine how long it will take to achieve them. Enter grad school? Have kids? Buy a house? Move to Paraguay? If you both are invested in the plan, it will make it much easier to put into action.

The next step is to hash out a budget you both can live with. You can use free online calculators to make it easy. There are calculators to help create your monthly budget, pay off your credit cards, determine how much you need to retire, and many more things. As life happens and you need to make changes, these tools make updates simple.

Both Sokunbi and Yong recommend having regularly recurring money meetings. For example, you might consider a monthly budget and bills meeting and another every quarter or six months to chat about your long-term financial plans and goals.

Talking about money stuff on the regular also means you’ll both feel more comfortable discussing it when things get hard, like if you need to readjust your budget and goals due to the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Determine who will be in charge of…?

Each of you go into the relationship with your own strengths and weaknesses. Take advantage of each other’s strengths when dealing with your finances.

One of you is great at keeping to a schedule or maintaining a calendar? Put them in charge of paying the bills. One of you follows trends and watches stock market shows? Have them be the one who chooses your investments. Your partner has a knack for crunching numbers? Let them determine just how much your house-hunting budget should really be. Your partner is good at sniffing out a deal? Have them shop for big purchases like your car or your dishwasher.

Ideally, you both should still be involved in the decision making, but there are some areas, like investing, that one spouse may have absolutely no interest in. Still, the spouse in charge should let their partner know what’s going on. Transparency makes for a stronger relationship—and the person in charge won’t feel like they’re going it alone. The goal with divvying up responsibilities is efficiency, not secrecy.

(Image credit: Jill Ruzicka)

Joint accounts? Filing jointly?

If you count every penny that goes into and out of your bank accounts and your partner is addicted to overdraft, you may want to keep separate bank accounts. However, there are benefits to having joint accounts. One is that many banks give breaks on fees based on the size of the account, and your account size can also lead to good rates on loans.

One method a lot of couples use is to have a joint household account, a joint savings account, and separate personal accounts. Joint checking is used for all household purchases and bills. Joint savings can be for anything from saving for a mortgage down payment to a rainy day fund. The separate accounts are yours to do with whatever you want. The best way to determine how much each of you puts into the joint accounts is to first review your budget to verify how much you need. Then determine what percentage of your take-home each of you need to contribute to meet your targets. Using the same percentage as opposed to contributing the same amount is a fairer way to fill your account—particularly if one spouse makes a lot more money than the other.

Filing joint income tax returns is something else to consider. If your spouse has a garnishment due to student loan debt, back child support, or unpaid taxes, you definitely don’t want to file jointly until the debt has been paid. Most couples, however, receive many more tax breaks if they file jointly. If you have any questions, you should check with your accountant.

And remember that you two should do you. “I always like to tell couples that there’s a lot of financial advice about relationships and how you should manage money, but the best way to manage money is the way that works for both of you in the relationship,” Sokunbi says. “So just because one couple manages their money in one way, they have joint accounts, etc., doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to work for you. You and your partner have to find your own flow.”

Don’t be afraid to plan for the hard stuff

It’s a bit depressing to think about the time when we will no longer be with our families. But as the saying goes, none of us is getting out of here alive. Once you start a life—and debt—together, you’ll need to be prepared for whatever is thrown your way. Even if you’re not yet married but are co-owners of your home, you’ll want to get this step taken care of before the nuptials.

Make an estate plan or a will. Determine how much life insurance you need and set up the policies. No matter what, you’ll want to start this process ahead of time because there are many elements to consider in your estate planning, especially if you have a unique family situation.

You don’t want to start a life together with a rocky financial situation. It only leads to frustration. Follow the suggestions above to help build your marriage on solid financial ground.