What conversations should I have about money before getting married?
It’s no secret money arguments are one of the top predictors of divorce. A 2012 study published in the journal Family Relations found it’s a stronger predictor of divorce than other disagreements. Yet according to a 2019 SunTrust survey, only 51% of couples discuss finances before marriage. Even more surprising, only 41% of couples disclose their annual salaries, and only 36% bring up debt.
If you’re in one of these couples, you may be avoiding the discussion out of fear financial difficulties could derail your wedding plans. But merging lives also means merging finances, and if you can’t bring up money with your partner now, it won’t get easier later.
If you’ve been avoiding having the money talk with your partner, it’s time to open a bottle of wine, light a candle, and sit down for a double date with yourselves and your bank accounts so you can begin your life together on the right track.
Money Conversations to Have With Your Partner
The sooner you start having hard conversations with your partner, the better off you’ll be. You don’t need to swap credit scores on the first date. But as David Bach, author of “Smart Couples Finish Rich,” tells CNBC, “You want to know that your life aspirations and your partner’s are going in the same direction.”
Although you will and should hang onto some of your own goals and interests, once you’re married, you’ll be creating a life together. You’ll work toward most of your big dreams and long-term goals — kids, houses, retirement — together, and all involve money.
But there’s no need to start worrying if you discover you think about and handle money in different ways. Bach tells CNBC that your relationship can still work out, but you have to make it a goal to get on the same page financially. And it’s far better to work toward that before tying the knot than to find out after marriage you’re working toward opposing goals or don’t share the same values.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about money. It’s not exactly sexy, and if you’re newly engaged, it’s far more exciting to talk about wedding and honeymoon plans. So if you’re not sure where to start, it’s helpful to begin with a set of prompts.
1. How Do You Deal With Money?
It’s likely you’ve already figured out a few things about how your partner handles money. For example, do you like to indulge in fancy restaurant meals or keep your dates cheap and simple? Who generally picks up the check? How do you splurge (or not) on each other? Simple observations of each other’s spending habits are good indicators of how each of you thinks about money and how things will continue after you’re married.
But it is still a worthwhile discussion that can help you uncover more deeply held beliefs about money. For example, what are your shared values about how you both enjoy spending money, and how are they different?
If you’re in the early stages of a relationship with someone you want to build a future with, now’s the time to have small, bite-size financial conversations you can build on later when things get serious. That way, when the conversation turns from date night to decisions about your wedding, transportation, or housing, you’ve already laid the groundwork.
2. How Did Your Families Handle Money?
Financial therapist Amanda Clayman tells Chime, everyone has deep-rooted feelings and attitudes toward money as a result of how their families related to it. For example, a 2019 research study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that parents’ attitudes toward debt influence how kids approach borrowing as adults.
That’s part of what makes money so hard. It’s not that we can’t figure out the ins and outs of how to manage it. We just have so many emotional attachments to our beliefs about it.
Figuring out your respective attachments begins with your “money stories.” How did each of your families handle money? How did they talk about money? Did your parents argue about it? Was money plentiful or scarce? What did you learn from your parents about money that was or wasn’t useful? Discussing these things can help you uncover why you feel the way you do about money.
3. What Are Your Money Fears?
Once you have each other’s money stories, you can start to understand one another’s money fears and values. For example, if your partner grew up poor or went through a period of financial insecurity, such as a parent’s job loss, they might have a lot of fears about money resulting in a need to hang onto as much as possible to feel a sense of security.
4. What Are Your Money Values?
It’s vital you understand each other’s money values before you discuss goals and budgets. That goes beyond whether one of you is a spender and one a saver, but rather what you think money’s purpose is. For example, does your partner think money is for security and that’s why they try to stash away every nickel and dime? Or do they think money is for happiness, causing them to spend it more freely on the here and now?
It’s also crucial to understand that how we spend money may not always line up with our values. For example, I made a lot of financial mistakes early on because I valued the freedom money could provide. Unfortunately, I used nonexistent money to fuel a lot of my choices, and as a result, I created the opposite of freedom by racking up credit card debt. I didn’t see that until later when the debt became too burdensome, and it was too late to do much about it.
When you start talking with your partner about creating a life of security, happiness, and freedom with your money, don’t discuss only the specifics of budgeting, saving, and investing. Also examine whether you’re actually using your money in alignment with your values.
5. What Kinds of Debts and Resources Are You Bringing Into the Marriage?
If you and your partner don’t know each other’s money situation, it’s challenging to plan for your future. It’s critical you talk about where you each stand financially.
Go over all your basic details, including:
- How Much Does Each of You Make? Your answers should include your current salaries and any passive income, such as from investments or rental properties.
- Where Does Each of You See Yourselves Going in the Future? What income level are you each trying to achieve? Will reaching it require more education (and thus more student loans)? Will it mean working 80 hours per week for decades? Understanding both your current and future income aspirations helps you plan a life that works for you both.
- Can Either of You Take on a Side Gig or Second Job? If you’re saving toward a goal like buying a home or starting a family or looking to pay down debt or pay off your student loans faster, one or both of you may need to take on a night job or side gig if it realistically fits into your schedule. It’s also good to know what’s possible and practical in case a financial emergency comes up.
- What Do You Each Owe? Bringing debt like credit cards, student loans, and car loans into a marriage is common. According to the 2017 Money, Marriage, and Communication study by Ramsey Solutions, 86% percent of couples who got married in the previous five years started with debt, and 48% of couples who fight about money argue about debt.
- What Are Your Current Financial Obligations? You each have bills, and if this is a second marriage, one of you may have (or be receiving or about to stop receiving) child support or alimony payments. Is either of you partially or fully responsible for the care of a child or elderly parents? What expenses are involved in their care?
- How Much Does Each of You Have in Savings and Investments? In addition to your salaries, these are the financial resources you bring into the marriage, such as a 401(k) and investment portfolio.
- How Often and How Much Do You Regularly Contribute to Savings, Retirement Accounts, and Investments? To plan for your golden years, you each need to know how much you already have and how much you plan to continue contributing. That way, you can develop a joint game plan to create the kind of retirement you want. You also need to regularly revisit your retirement contributions to ensure you’re on track with your retirement planning at every age.
What you’re talking about are each other’s assets and liabilities. You can’t make a budget or plan for future goals, such as buying a house, without knowing these basics.
If you’re serious about making a life together, you need to figure out how to work as a team to meet your mutual goals while also loving and supporting one another. So leave judgment at the door.
Each of you may come from a very different background and have had different obstacles or opportunities. And that may have affected what you’ve been able to achieve on your own. Fortunately, now that you’re a team, you can play to each other’s strengths.
For example, my husband, who comes from a working-class background, was never able to finish his bachelor’s degree for financial reasons. It’s limited his earning potential. On the other hand, as the daughter of upper-middle-class parents, I’ve had greater opportunities and have completed a Ph.D. As a result, I’ve almost always earned more money.
But because I’ve also followed a nontraditional career path, I’ve never had health insurance. My husband has always been the one to provide this benefit for our family. Thus, it’s by coming together as a team that we make it work.
6. What Are Your Credit Scores?
Your credit score may be one of the most important numbers you share when planning for your future. Where you each stand can affect your ability to buy a car, lease an apartment, buy a house, or any number of other situations involving a credit check. If either of you is unaware of your credit score, you can easily check it through Credit Karma.
If one of you has a low credit score and you plan to buy a house someday, work together to increase that credit score. It may take some time, but when you tackle these situations as a team, you’ll reach your goals more effectively and create a stronger bond as a couple.
Whatever you do, don’t wait until you need a good score to find out your partner doesn’t have one. Credit scores will come to light eventually, so it’s better to tackle the issue before it really matters and potentially cripples your plans. Research by the Federal Reserve Board in 2015 found that the higher your credit score is when your relationship begins, the less likely you are to break up after the first few years.
If you’re not already in the habit, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your credit reports at least annually to ensure there are no discrepancies. Your FICO credit score is a compilation of factors that come from what gets reported to the three major credit bureaus — Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. You’re entitled to one free report from each bureau per year, which you can get from AnnualCreditReport.com.
Pro Tip: You can sign up for a free Experian Boost account and start improving your credit score almost immediately.
7. How Will You Merge Your Money?
No matter how financially independent you were before marriage, merging your lives includes merging your money.
It’s essential you come to think of your money as a shared resource rather than “mine” versus “yours.” Otherwise, you’ll have a difficult time working together to reach mutual goals. Moreover, without some method of sharing money for things like food, bills, child care, and entertainment, one or both of you are likely to feel resentful about spending “their” money on a shared expense.
That doesn’t mean every couple needs to have a joint checking account and savings account. While 76% percent of couples have a shared bank account, according to a 2016 TD Bank survey, The Atlantic reports that more and more young couples are opting out of joint accounts.
There isn’t one right option for everyone. The important thing is finding a solution that works best for you. Communication is key. And no matter which option you choose, your resources are for the good of the marriage. Otherwise, you might as well be living separate lives.
If you have physical property or investment and retirement assets, also discuss if and how you will merge these. For example, whose sofa will you keep? If you both own houses, which will you keep? Will you leave property or accounts in individual names, or will they be held jointly? Deciding these things now helps prevent misunderstandings and conflict down the road.
8. How Can You Each Maintain Some Money Independence?
Even if you decide to merge all your money into one account, it’s crucial to feel like you have some freedom and flexibility over small purchases. It can feel too constraining to have to account to your spouse for every dollar you spend.
Discuss how you will deal with personal spending. Many couples set a dollar limit on purchases that need to be discussed jointly, such as anything over $100. Other couples opt for a joint account to pay shared expenses and individual accounts for personal spending money. That way, anything you spend out of your personal accounts doesn’t need to be discussed — or become grounds for argument.
For example, my husband and I have a joint account for all household expenses and separate accounts for personal spending. We decide on a set limit to give each other for our personal accounts, and we allocate the rest of our money for bills and savings.
Additionally, there may be some assets you decide never to merge, and for those, you may want to have a lawyer draft a prenuptial agreement before the big day.
For example, if one or both of you came to the marriage with their own business, especially if you co-own it with a partner who isn’t your spouse, a prenuptial agreement is a must for protecting that asset in case of divorce. A prenup can also protect a significant inheritance or property one of you owned before entering the marriage.
Prenups aren’t always about setting aside money, though. Sometimes they can protect a spouse from the other’s debts. If one of you is deep in debt, a prenuptial agreement can protect the other spouse from having marital property seized by creditors.
You can even use a prenup to outline financial responsibilities. For example, if one of you takes time off their career to raise your children, it could state that they’re owed compensation for that time in the event of your divorce.
No one wants to think about it, but no marriage is guaranteed to last forever. And it’s far better for your wallet to have two partners who are level-headed and thinking clearly draft an agreement today versus two bitter ex-partners who are willing to spend any amount of money on expensive divorce lawyers just to get revenge duking it out in court later.
9. How Will You Divide Financial Responsibilities?
As a single person, you’ve been doing everything on your own. But once you merge finances, you have to decide who’ll do what. After all, you can’t both write a check for the same rent due every month. So decide if you’ll split duties or if one person will handle most things with input from the other.
For example, in my marriage, I’m the one who loves drafting up budgets, comparison-shopping for the best deals, running savings calculators, and geeking out over compound interest rates. My husband prefers to be told what he can spend and when. So I’m the one who manages all our finances.
If you go this route, ensure you talk with your partner about what you’re doing. It’s easy to fall into the trap of unilaterally making all the decisions yourself since you’re the one who’s physically doing it all. But that’s a quick exit from the team, even if the other spouse isn’t all that interested in money.
Plus, it’s essential you both know where all your money is, how to pay all the crucial bills, and what all the relevant passwords are in case the worst should happen.
I keep my husband in the loop by sitting down with him once or twice per month and going over our budget, savings, and investments. We talk about our big savings goals and whether to adjust the budget. And then he leaves the details of handling the daily bill-paying to me.
That type of system may work for you too, or both of you may want a hand in money-managing. In that case, come up with a plan for deciding who pays what bills. For example, perhaps you pay the mortgage, and your spouse pays the electric bill. That’s what my parents did their entire marriage.
You can also divide the bill paying in line with income. My dad paid the mortgage because he earned more, and that was a bigger bill. My mom paid the utilities because her smaller income was more proportionate with those bills.
If you decide to go this route, you must determine whether you’ll divide the bills equally and whether to pay them from your own separate accounts or one joint account.
10. What Are Your Life Goals?
What kind of life do you want to build together? Do you want to buy a house? Have kids? Travel, either now or in the future?
Rather than diving headfirst into the discussion, spend some time individually writing down all your goals for one year from now, five years from now, and so on. Then, come together and compare. Talk in depth about your mutual hopes and dreams and find out if you have the same vision for your lives.
If your goals aren’t all mutual, don’t despair. You simply have to work together on your shared goals and figure out how to support each other in achieving the personal goals important to each of you, such as going back to school.
Perhaps more than any other discussion, it’s vital you have this one before marriage. Marriage is about merging two lives. You’re getting married because you love each other, but if you have very different plans for your lives — for example, one of you really wants kids, but the other is dead set against it — you need to think long and hard about whether merging your lives is the best idea.
That doesn’t mean all your goals have to align, but at some point, you have to figure out if you’re compatible on the big ones and how to come together on the smaller ones.
For example, if one of you wants to travel full time but the other is a homebody who’s afraid of airplanes, that could be a deal-breaker for your marriage. Or perhaps you’re willing to compromise. For example, the traveler can go on occasional adventures with a friend.
But not everything has a compromisable solution. Maybe one of you has always wanted kids, and the other doesn’t want them. Sometimes, people indeed change. I’ve witnessed it myself. But you can’t count on that because often, they don’t.
You can’t plan for the future with wishful thinking. Whether a partner is dead-set against kids or just ambivalent, they’ll be less willing to financially prepare for a family they’re not sure they want, especially if something they really want comes along instead.
11. How Will You Work Together to Meet Your Goals?
Many of our life goals, such as buying a house, having kids, and taking annual vacations, require money. So, how will you get that money? How much will you save for retirement? For a house? How will you manage the cost of having kids? How much is each of you willing to sacrifice in the short term to make your long-term dreams come true?
For example, say you’ve always dreamed of owning a home, and you plan to buy one in the next five years. You may be fine making sacrifices, such as taking fewer vacations or purchasing a used car to save up for a down payment, but is your partner? If your partner is the one with the big goals, such as starting their own business, are you OK making sacrifices to help them achieve these goals?
Whatever your goals are, you need to work together to make a plan to achieve them. Without a plan, these goals will remain out of reach.
12. How Will You Budget Your Money?
After you’ve worked out an overall plan for reaching your goals, it’s time to sit down and work out a monthly budget, which you can start using right now or after you’re married. Consider your current income, how often you receive paychecks, whether it’s consistent or irregular pay, and what you can reasonably count on making each month. Then, work out your expenses.
Some expense categories, such as your rent and car payment, are fixed, while others, such as your utilities and groceries, may fluctuate from one month to the next. Also, you may have some months with additional expenses, such as car maintenance and repairs or holiday gift giving.
Talk about what you both want your monthly budget to look like, how much you should be spending in each category, and how much you’ll have left to put toward your financial goals. That should include an emergency fund of at least $1,000 if you don’t already have one. Although you may not be married yet, it’s never too soon to start saving.
Working together, you can create a budget that fits your income and allows you to enjoy spending some of your money while also working toward your goals.
Pro Tip: If you and your significant other need help setting your budget, there are several great programs you can use. One of our favorites is Tiller.
13. Whose Insurance Should You Be On?
Once you’re married, you’ll have the opportunity to enroll in health care coverage outside the annual enrollment period. This “qualifying life event” allows you and your partner the option to join one or the other’s health insurance plan or sign up on the health insurance marketplace.
If neither of you currently has insurance, you can shop for insurance on the federal or your state marketplace at HealthCare.gov. See our guide to buying health insurance on the marketplace to learn how.
Be aware that if one of you already has a marketplace plan and the other has job-based health insurance that’s deemed affordable and covers spouses and dependents, you can keep your marketplace insurance, but it may get more expensive.
According to HealthCare.gov, for the purpose of Affordable Care Act-compliant insurance, “deemed affordable” means a plan covering only the employee must be 9.83% or less of the employee’s household income.
If that spouse’s insurance is available to spouses and dependents, the other spouse may not qualify for subsidized health insurance at the marketplace if the coverage they’re offering you is deemed affordable.
To find out if employer-sponsored coverage is deemed affordable and meets the minimum value standards under the law, you can ask the employer to use the Employer Coverage Tool.
If both of you have job-based insurance, compare each of your plans. Which of you has the medical plan with the best coverage for the least possible expense? Does it make more sense to continue carrying two individual policies or have one spousal policy?
Some insurance carriers differentiate between individual, spousal, and family plans. Others only give you the option of individual or family plans. If you have to opt for a family plan, your premium will be higher than a spousal plan, but it may still be less than carrying two separate plans.
Also consider your future goals. If you plan to have kids, does either plan cover fertility treatments like IVF if necessary? Does the coverage vary depending on whether it’s for the employee, spouse, or child?
And if you end up with a high-deductible plan that qualifies for a health savings account (HSA), weigh the pros and cons of signing up and fully funding it. HSAs are excellent tax-sheltered investment vehicles that let you pay for medical expenses now (perfect if you’re planning to have a family) and continue to roll over yearly. And once you hit your golden years, you can draw on your HSA for nonmedical retirement expenses.
Pro Tip: If your employer doesn’t offer an HSA, sign up with Lively. There are no hidden fees, and you can set up recurring contributions.
For more help, see our guide on choosing the best health insurance plan for your family.
14. How Much Will You Spend on the Wedding?
According to The Knot’s annual Real Weddings Study, the average cost of a wedding in 2019 was $28,000. That number dipped to $19,000 in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Knot predicts it will rise back to pre-pandemic levels in 2021.
And while the 2018 Brides American Wedding Study found that couples’ parents completely paid for 42% of the weddings, 58% of couples contributed at least in part to the total cost of their nuptials.
Many couples simply can’t afford this kind of wedding without going into debt. Yet the Money, Marriage, and Communication study reported that 41% of couples felt pressured to pay for more wedding than they could afford, and more than half (54%) of those married within the last five years paid for at least some of their wedding expenses with a credit card.
Perhaps more important, 73% of those couples say they regret that decision. Since 86% of couples enter into marriage with debt, planning for your future together means thinking hard about whether it makes sense to take on any more.
If you feel the pressure to go into debt to impress your guests with a lavish wedding, it’s worth considering whether you’ll still be happy with that choice 10 years down the road when you’re still paying the credit card bill.
Also, if you use credit to finance your wedding, you could end up paying as much as three times the original cost if you can’t immediately pay off the balance.
Ask each other if you’re comfortable taking on debt for a pricey dream wedding. And know that research has found that cheaper weddings often lead to happier marriages.
Even if you don’t need to take on debt, paying for an expensive wedding still creates an opportunity cost. Is there something more valuable you could spend it on? Putting a down payment on a house? Contributing to an earlier retirement?
Getting married is an exciting time for all couples, but there are plenty of ways to have the wedding of your dreams without breaking the bank. Although it’s been nearly a decade since my husband and I were married, we were able to pull off my dream wedding in a botanical garden for $5,000 by opting for budget options on flowers and my dress and DIYing our wedding invitations, programs, and decorations.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how much your special day is worth, but it’s possible to have a beautiful wedding without crippling your financial future. For more information, see our guide to getting married on a budget.
15. Do You Want Kids?
Whether or not you want kids is a major life decision for every couple — and a financial one. According to calculations by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it will cost parents an average of $233,610 to raise a child born in 2015 from birth through the age of 17. That’s an average of $1,145 per month per child added to the family budget.
The costs of child-rearing vary by age, location, and socioeconomic status. For example, the USDA calculates that higher-income families can expect to spend an average of $372,210 on each child. No matter how big the number, note that the USDA projection doesn’t include the cost of additional expenses such as college tuition.
As of 2021, the average cost of a four-year degree at a private university is $35,087, according to U.S. News. Average public, in-state tuition is $9,687. Both figures exclude room and board and are likely to be exponentially larger in 18 years.
For babies born in 2017, the total cost of attendance (including tuition and room and board) could be as high as $120,000 per year at a private four-year university and $54,000 per year at a public university, investment management company Vanguard tells CNBC.
If you plan to send your kids to college, you can start saving even before they’re born by investing in a 529 through a company like Backer. You can even use 529 savings before then if you decide to send them to a private instead of public school for their elementary or high school education.
Many couples are undeterred by the costs. But according to The Atlantic, a growing number are choosing to have fewer children, delay starting families, or go child-free because of the costs involved in raising a family. So if you do want children, consider whether waiting a few years could realistically put you in a better place financially.
If you’re young and choose to delay children, investigate the costs involved in freezing your eggs or sperm now to avoid fertility issues down the road. But it’s feasible that could be more expensive than simply having kids now, depending on how long you plan to wait. And note that freezing eggs is costlier than freezing sperm.
16. How Will You Spend Your Golden Years?
Though it may seem far away, it’s not too soon to plan for your retirement. The power of compound interest means the sooner you start investing, the less you need to put away each month to reach your goals. Conversely, the longer you wait, the more you have to pull out of your budget to secure your financial future.
Don’t wait until you reach your retirement years to talk about how you want to spend them.
A 2018 Fidelity survey found that many couples nearing retirement age aren’t on the same page about their plans. A third of the respondents didn’t know or couldn’t agree on where they wanted to retire, a third didn’t know how comfortable they wanted their retirement years to be, and up to two-thirds didn’t know at what age they wanted to retire.
You need to talk dollars and cents, as it impacts how much you must put into your retirement accounts. But you should also talk about the kind of lifestyle you want to live in your golden years. Think about what you want your ideal retirement to look like.
For example, maybe you want to travel around the world, buy a second home near your children and grandchildren, or downsize and move somewhere warm and sunny. Though your plans will likely change as the years march on, talking about them now will help you financially plan for your future together as well as help ensure you’re both on the same page.
17. How Will You Plan for the Worst?
And now for perhaps the least sexy financial planning topic: How will you prepare for death? If the worst happens, you want to make sure the surviving spouse is financially protected as much as possible.
Once you merge lives and finances, the future you build together will become mutually dependent. If you’re relatively young — in your 20s or 30s — and have no minor children, you may not need life insurance to cover the deceased spouse’s missing income. But if you’re in any way dependent on your spouse’s income or have minor children to provide for, life insurance is worth considering.
If you’re getting married at an older age and have accumulated significant assets, consider how you’ll pass those assets on to either your surviving spouse or any children.
Regardless of your age, ensure you have advance directives in place. These include a living will, a durable power of attorney for finances, and a durable power of attorney for health care. Should you become incapacitated, these documents will either speak on your behalf or authorize the person of your choosing, most likely your spouse, to act on your behalf.
As you age, your end-of-life planning needs will change, so revisit this conversation regularly. In the meantime, you need to have at least an initial discussion about what should happen if the unthinkable occurs.
Pro Tip: Don’t procrastinate when it comes to life planning. Companies like Trust & Will make the process simple. You can create a customized estate plan in just 10 minutes.
Keep the Conversation Going
Talking about money can be difficult. But it’s vital to the lifelong health of your relationship to speak regularly about your finances. You can’t simply have the money talk once and be done with it if for no other reason than that your lives together will continually shift, taking your finances along with them.
One way to keep the money conversation going is to schedule monthly or quarterly “money dates” where you openly talk about the current state of your finances, goals, and budget.
It’s best to set aside a time when you’re both ready and prepared to talk about money and nothing else because talking about money can lead to intense emotions. Having a regular money date makes it unnecessary to bring up a conversation about the credit card bill after someone’s had a long day.
The more proactive you can be, the better. Too many couples talk about money only when there are money issues, such as not having enough money to pay for an unexpected expense. That only serves to reinforce money conversations as difficult and stressful.
So talk about your budget and goals and make financial decisions before something becomes a sore point. And always remember that you’re a team. Refrain from judging or accusing and work together to find mutually acceptable solutions.
To keep the temperature in the room down, reframe the money conversation entirely. Instead of thinking about money in terms of problems you need to solve, think instead about planning all the wonderful things you have to look forward to, such as having kids, or the things you plan to do together, such as take a trip to Hawaii. That way, money feels less like a scarce resource than a tool you use to create your ideal lives.
Answering so many money questions before getting married can seem daunting. But you don’t need to have all the conversations at once.
And if any of these conversations become too difficult to have on your own, you can always head to a financial advisor. A financial planner, which you can find through SmartAsset, can help you create a plan and act as an objective third party.
And fighting about money doesn’t mean you weren’t meant to be. Building a united financial front starts with one simple thing: a conversation.