You agreed to spend your lives together and to be each other's top teammate. But did you vow to accept their financial status—in hard times and in wealth? Even for long-established couples, money talks are tricky. Megan Ford, M.S., LMFT, a couples and financial therapist at the University of Georgia, finds chats about cash "can feel like a loaded topic for a lot of couples. Money discussions bring the surface our emotions, past experiences, beliefs, and more."
Still, if you're going to commingle funds you must get through it. Ford's advice: Be as open-minded as possible. "Let go of the notion that your way is the right way or that there is a right way," she suggests. "Beyond that, listen before you assume or judge a financial decision or behavior." Then, launch in with these five topics.
1. What's your debt situation?
Among the need-to-know areas you should cover in your initial talks: credit scores, any and all debt, and exactly how much you've each stowed away in savings. "Opening your financial life—mistakes and all—to another person can be scary," acknowledges Ford, "but transparency can also curb any unwanted money surprises later on." (Imagine, for instance, you don't learn your partner is swimming in thousands of student loan and credit card debt until after you've picked out your dream house.) "It helps you to better understand the landscape ahead," says Ford, who recommends couples have a series of conversations "where they bring it all to the table and financially disrobe."
2. How do you like to spend your money?
In addition to knowing how much your significant other saves each month, you should also inquire how they spend their money: How much do they shell out each month? How do they budget their discretionary funds? And what's one item—be it a luxury car or a really epic vacation—that they're willing to splurge on? "These are all good questions that will be key for couples who plan to combine their finances," says Ford. Since one of the most common pitfalls she sees are duos disagreeing on monthly spending and saving, she adds, "It's important to know where your money is going, not only for the sake of your financial future, but also for the health of your relationship."
3. How did your parents handle finances?
Many of our money habits stem "from what we witnessed and experienced growing up, for better or for worse," says Ford. And while you each may choose to deviate from how your parents did things, "Knowing more about your partner's early money experiences can help you gain better perspective on why they make particular decisions or hold certain financial values."
4. Do we want to combine all our cash?
Joining finances isn't an in for a penny, in for a pound situation. "It's becoming more common for couples to decide that a combination of separate and together works best for them," notes Ford. For some duos, that means having a central joint account that you draw funds for the mortgage or rent, utilities, groceries, and other bills and then having separate accounts that Ford labels "slush funds." That arrangement, she says, "can potentially help couples eliminate some of the arguments and judgment that attaches itself to individualistic spending preferences." (Translation: you drink your coffeehouse blends guilt-free, he enjoys his Netflix subscription.) Any combination can work, she says, so before deciding on what's best for you "it's key to talk with your partner about their preferences and weigh the pros and cons."
5. What are we saving toward and what's the best way to get there?
As important as setting a long-term savings goal (whether that be a dream vacation, down payment for a home, or just a cushy retirement account) is determining how to achieve it. Even when pairs agree on their financial hopes and dreams, says Ford, "They can struggle to come together and build that financial foundation." Budgeting, she notes, "looks a little different for everyone." Apps such as Honeydue, Better Haves, and Any.do are aimed at couples merging their money or you use a little trial and error to figure out your own system. "There are so many options for tracking your income and expenses that span all different preferences," says Ford. "So, if what you initially try isn't working, readjust and find something that works better."