By Kristin O’Keeffe Merrick
Originally published on CNBC on 1/20/20
Love! Marriage! Horse and carriage, blah blah blah. One of the most wonderful things in life is finding someone you love and wanting to combine your life with that person. One of the most difficult challenges in life can be merging your life with that person. Coupling your money with someone is a huge step and an extremely important one. It is crucial to make sure that you are making thoughtful decisions that will impact your financial picture for years to come. Here are some of my thoughts:
Talk About It!
One of the most important tips when forming a strong financial bond between partners is open communication about money and each other’s finances. It sounds simple but not all simple things are easy! It is important to be an open book with your partner—especially if you plan on marrying. Marriage is a legal merger between two people and one must know everything about the other’s money—good and bad. So open the vault and start sharing the good, bad, and the ugly about your money. Another thing is to talk about your individual money goals and money concerns before marriage. If you are already married and haven’t done this, don’t stress but do it now. Here are some topics you can use to outline the conversation:
a) understand where you stand financially as a couple (i.e. how much debt do you carry, how much do you have in savings, do you have retirement plans in place, etc)
b) how you each think/feel/act with money—do you overspend? Are you frugal? Do you stress too much about money? What about your partner? Are you aligned about money or at odds? Understanding each other’s money feelings is incredibly helpful during this stage
c) If having the “money sit down” is too stressful or you can’t seem to commit to doing it, consider a third party—a financial advisor, a therapist, or a priest/rabbi. Sometimes that third party can make the whole experience a bit easier.
Hands Off My Cash!
I am a firm believer in financial independence therefore I encourage my clients who choose to keep money separate from their spouse or partner to ensure that both parties know about the accounts. I have always had my own checking account and credit card. It’s a personal choice. This doesn’t mean that my husband and I have any money secrets. I do not believe in hiding accounts or credit cards from each other. This is slippery slope and generally leads to bad things down the road. Also, people are getting married later these days and may come into a marriage with a significant amount of “money history”—assets or debt. Each party should be fully aware of each other’s entire story (savings, debt, assets, liabilities) before a legal ceremony. If there is a situation where one is uncomfortable about something, you should seek financial guidance and perhaps even explore a prenuptial agreement.
There is also a way to keep some of your money separate and merge other monies. Every couple does this differently and there is no right or wrong. Again, communication is key here.
Money Is Messy Sometimes
One of the common problems I see with merging clients is that one of the partners accuses the other of being financially irresponsible. In some cases the accusations are accurate and all parties willingly acknowledge it. If your partner is accusing you of being financially irresponsible and you don’t agree, first try to understand where this is coming from. It could be that you have both come into the relationship with very different views and experiences with money and what you consider “normal” could be outlandish to someone else. Try to get a better understanding of how your partner was raised, what values around money they hold, and how their money experiences have molded them as a person. If your partner is accusing you of being financially irresponsible, it is also important for you to do the same exercise and explore your money journey. Do you spend too much? Do you not save enough? There are always things we can do to improve our money status. Perhaps this is a good time to go into deep discovery mode. Remember that money is something that you will always have to deal with in your relationship. It is crucial to get off on the right foot. Communicate, devise a plan and stick to it. Rinse and repeat.
It is no surprise that many relationships end because of money. One of the best things you can do as a couple is address money issues head on. Not to be repetitive, but money communication is incredibly important in a long-term relationship. I have seen several cases of “financial irresponsibility” that have ruined relationships. If you think your partner is financially irresponsible and you are having a hard time communicating about it, I suggest engaging a third party. If it is over-spending, being reckless with money or just plain ignoring money, this usually stems from something deeper. It may make sense to see a therapist together. If it is a lack of understanding of how money works, perhaps a financial advisor or money coach could help. Please be very careful about legally marrying if you have serious concerns about the other’s financial situation—remember that your spouse’s debt will most likely become your debt at some point.