How to Deal With Finances in a Relationship

Jan 24, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. ET
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I’ve been married for nearly 10 years now. In that time, my husband and I have lived with my mother, barely scraped by on one paycheck, lived below our means with two decent incomes and flipped back to being one-income earners. All of which is to say we've had a lot of practice talking about money.

To be clear, we’ve also had our share of arguments and hurt feelings over money too. When we first got married, I was the textbook saver and he leaned toward being a spender. I wish we’d had better resources to know not just how to budget, but how to talk to each other about our budgets so we’d have been better able to understand where the other was coming from.

We certainly weren’t alone in our struggles. A 2017 study by LearnVest found that 68 percent of couples had more serious issues with money than their sex lives. The same study found that less than half of Americans felt comfortable sharing issues they were having with their personal finances with their partner.

Why is it so hard to talk about money? Ashley Feinstein, life coach and owner of The Fiscal Femme, has an answer. “I think one of the big reasons is that we equate our self-worth with our net worth.” When we believe our debt or our ability to budget makes us good or bad people, we’re less likely to share where we’re struggling or what we value. And that’s really what money is in many ways: an allocation of values.

When & how to start talking about money

“I think it’s so important to communicate with each other,” Maggie Germano, a financial education instructor and financial coach, tells me. “Money is a huge part of life and it really touches on everything.” Where you want to go on vacation. That’s a money conversation. Where you want to live. How you want to decorate your home. Where and how often you want to go out to eat. All at least in part money conversations."

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The good news is these can be excellent low-stakes places to start conversations about cash flow. “It doesn’t have to be like, ‘Let’s lay out our assets and look at all the numbers,’” Feinstein says. “I think it’s fun to start the conversation by dreaming a little bit.” Talking about your goals and plans for the future, even the ones that don’t necessarily seem to be tied to your investment plans, can be an easy entry point.

Germano, for example, found herself having to have a conversation with her partner early on because he was more of a spender than she was, and she found herself coming close to missing her own personal goals trying to keep up with his spending. “Get on the same page about how often you want to go out to eat or travel so that one person doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the spending or intimidated or even resentful,” she says.

When to start merging your finances & budgeting together

When to start merging accounts is again dependent on the couple, though your finances are most likely to start getting tied together when you share a living space or get married. Or you might have a joint goal you’re working toward, like saving for a vacation.

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Once you’ve decided you want to start merging your money together, if you haven’t already, start to share your own financial background and ask about theirs. Any debts the two of you have, Germano says, should be out on the table, as well as how much each of you makes every month. You should also share the details of the money going out every month, like gym memberships or subscription services.

There’s no right way to split accounts or set up a budget. You may decide to share one account, have totally separate accounts or some mixture of the two. The most important thing, according to Feinstein, is accountability: Someone needs to be checking in on the accounts to be sure you’re both staying on track. “I think a huge part of the battle is just knowing where [your money] is going,” she says. “Then you might notice, ‘Oh, I’m not even getting any joy from that,’ and then it’s easy to let go of it.” She does think a separate savings account is key, though, “whether it’s joint or separate, so that your money is out of sight, out of mind.”

Beyond that, you probably already know how to make a spreadsheet and figure out what your fixed expenses are. Once you’ve tracked expenses and set goals for future spending, Feinstein recommends having recurring “money dates,” preferably every two weeks, to review spending and see if the budget is working for both of you. If it’s not, ask questions. Was it a one-off issue, like increased transportation costs because of bad weather? Was it too restrictive? Did it bring up negative feelings?

“The number part of money is actually really simple, which is funny because that’s what we focus on,” Feinstein says. “The really hard part is that emotional-behavioral part.”

The money dates, Feinstein says, should be fun, so try to keep them light. Be especially aware if you find yourself falling into one person acting as a kind of disciplinarian over the budget. The point is to stay open and honest, not to judge. “The whole point of having that conversation is to avoid any drama, to avoid any judgment and to get your cards all out on the table,” Germano says.

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Should you have your own separate cash?

Both Germano and Feinstein say they also saw a lot of value in having separate pools of money, whether they were in separate accounts or otherwise, that could be spent at each person in the couple’s discretion.

“I definitely am a proponent, especially for women, to keep their own stash of money in their own spending account, and that’s really because if you’re earning money, you should be able to spend it,” Germano says. Of course, she says it has to be within reason.

Feinstein has an easy way to set expectations for what “within reason” means. “Have a threshold for spending that you choose,” she says. “So it could be $100, $25, $500. [It’s] a number at which you would confer with your partner before spending.”

Ultimately, working out how you want to spend your money as a couple should be a positive thing. “I call budgets happiness allocations because I feel like it’s a much better description of what they are,” Feinstein says. “[It’s] thinking about what works for each couple based on what’s happened in their money life, their experience, what’s going to motivate them the most.”

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