Whether you've been married for decades or engaged for a few weeks, money—how to save it, how to spend it—is one of the most common argument triggers for couples. But by working as a team to understand and wisely use your finances from the beginning of your marriage, you can avoid some of those challenges (and the fights that often follow). The first step, says Matt Bell, author of Money and Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples, is to join your finances, so you can move forward with goals based on your shared net worth. "Combining accounts fosters teamwork and transparency," says Bell. "It encourages couples to manage money together and it enables both spouses to always know where their household stands financially."
Here, Bell shares three important tips to follow if you want to make sure your newlywed years set you on a course toward richer—not poorer.
Build a budget—and try to stick to it.
Setting and maintaining a budget together means each partner knows where the money is going and how it's affecting their long-term goals. "Both should be involved in setting financial priorities and deciding how much to spend on what," says Bell. "Then it's okay to divvy up some of the responsibilities. One spouse might be mostly responsible for data entry, but both should be responsible for seeing how their household is doing throughout the month and doing their part to manage to the numbers in each category." If you aren't on the same page about your spending, you won't be working together toward your other goals, too—whether that's a big vacation, a new home, or debt payoff. "People who don't use a budget usually think it'll be restrictive. I think it's the exact opposite," he says. "It's very freeing to decide together how much we're going to spend on this or that. When we spend money on clothing or vacations or other things, we spend freely because we know how much we can spend without messing up other parts of our financial life."
Live on one income.
There's no match for the flexibility you'll get from committing to expenses that total just one of your incomes. "It's easy to imagine all that you'll be able to afford with two incomes and to start taking on commitments that lock you into your need for both incomes," says Bell. "If you buy a house that requires both incomes, that takes away a lot of financial flexibility." Living on one income means you'll have an entire second salary to put toward home improvements, travel, or retirement, and if your job situation changes in the future—either because you have kids and one partner wants to stop working for a few years, or because one partner loses their job—it won't be nearly as stressful.
Share your past spending.
While you're being honest about your relationship history, your not-very-politically-correct uncle, and your habit of forgetting to take the trash out, own up to your financial picture, too—especially if it includes a big chunk of consumer debt. "Here's what I think is the healthiest attitude to take into your marriage," Bell says: "If one spouse had debt before getting married, after getting married they both have debt. If one was especially wealthy before getting married, after getting married they're both wealthy." Paying off debt should be a task for the couple to focus on together—in many cases, before making any other major financial moves. "Debt is a huge hindrance to a happy marriage," says Bell. "With debt there tends to be more tension, more stress, and it limits what you can do—whether you can buy a house, how much house you can afford, the types of vacations you can take." This means not going into debt to pay for your wedding, either. "For some couples, that can be tough—it's an important day, filled with expectations," Bell says. "To be sure, there will be lots of tradeoffs to make, but that's great training for life after your wedding day, because there will be lots of tradeoffs to make then as well."