Love and Money: Navigating Your Finances Together

February 14, 2024 Patrick Means
From budgeting basics to big financial decisions, managing your money as a couple can be a challenge. Explore ideas to help transform money talks into opportunities for growth.

Before I got married last December, we both knew we had to have the "money talk." Through my work in the financial industry, I've seen how communication is the key to helping couples navigate their finances successfully together. Or, on the flip side, the failure around that—well, it can cause friction to say the least.

Survey after survey shows this. For example, seven in ten married or cohabitating Americans had a disagreement with their partner about finances in the past year, and nearly half of American couples dealing with money tension say it's had a negative impact on intimacy with their partner, according to an AICPA survey.

The good news? In my view, when you prioritize communication around money and finances on an ongoing basis, it can help improve your relationship, reduce tension, and build trust with each other.

Going into a new life with my fiancée, now wife, we decided to sit down on a Saturday, uninterrupted, and have the money talk. I had been married before and have a son. She had lived successfully on her own for quite a while. The intention: to share areas of our financial life and ask questions with no judgement. I told her my goal was to seek to understand. And I didn't dominate the conversation or act as if I knew everything. That was very meaningful to my wife since she knew I was in the industry. Through it all, I learned more about how she thinks about money, and that helped me be even more confident that we were going to be great partners.

Here are seven money issues we talked through before we got married. These ideas could be useful no matter the stage of your relationship.

1. Share where you both are.

We shared information about what we both had in our 401(k) accounts, investment accounts, and bank accounts, plus the mortgages on our properties and our liabilities. It was like a big reveal. It's a good exercise for everyone to do this on an annual basis to level set where you are financially as a couple.

2. Create a spending plan.

We needed to figure out who pays which bills. What works best for us is a "yours, mine, and ours" approach, where we each contribute an equal amount to a joint account that we use to pay for certain expenses like the mortgage, electric bill, and gas bill. Then we use separate personal accounts to cover our own personal items like haircuts and car expenses. This way, we both know what's expected, and we still have some freedom.

3. Choose a purchase limit.

I want to buy a pair of Air Jordans. She wants to buy a dress. We don't need to run these purchases by each other. But for bigger ticket items, we did come up with a number that would require a discussion. So if a purchase is above that agreed-upon amount, we need to talk about it before pulling the trigger.

For example, what if I show up one day with a new car in the driveway and I say, "Two years ago, we said the car would be my expense"? That is an assumption. While technically I'd be right, where I'd be wrong is that a car payment significantly impacts our shared financial picture. Agree on a purchase number that you'll talk about before it happens.

4. Discuss your dreams: What do you want to achieve with your money?

Talk about your future goals. What do you want to save for: a major purchase, a vacation, preparing for retirement? This helps you to learn more about your partner and what is important to them. I shared that at 62 I want to hang it up with full-time work, so I'll need to have enough capital saved. I will still be young, my son will be out of college, and I'll want to spend time with my wife! In my mind, I thought I had shared that with her already, but it turns out I hadn't. That conversation was so cool because we learned more about each other and our goals for the future.

5. Keep an open mind about different attitudes about money.

Everyone has a unique perspective of money, and how we were raised often impacts our thoughts on money. Some folks are super-savers and frugal because that's what they saw their parents do. Another person may be a spender who could be living too much in the moment and not thinking long-term. Opposites sometimes do attract. If this is your situation, try to understand why your partner is that way. The more you can understand their behaviors and where they come from, the easier it will be for you to find a compromise to help reduce frustration.

You may be able to help each other be better! Opposites can ultimately complement each other. For example, the spender can show the saver how to enjoy the present a bit more, through travel or other experiences that can enrich your life today. After all, life is short, and you can't take it with you. And on the flip side, the saver can show the spender how thinking long-term can bring security and peace of mind, and ultimately help them retire with adequate savings if they plan ahead.

Seek to understand your partner's money mindset, and work together to come up with ideas on how you can meet in the middle and go forward together.

6. Talk about the "what-ifs."

Prepare for the what-ifs that can happen in our lives. What if our parents fall ill and need financial help or want to move in with us? What if one of us loses a job or becomes unable to work? People will argue about these kinds of things. We talked through our plans, and we are making it a priority to get it down on paper. The important thing is to communicate about these issues.

7. Be a team: Plan a regular money date.

For some couples, it can be useful to sit down once a month and review how well you're sticking to your spending plan and budget to ensure you are staying on track with your goals. For us, we landed on doing a once-a-year holistic financial planning/annual review session and everything else will be maintenance.

Last month we did a one-day retreat for ourselves with no cell phones and no interruptions. We talked about our financial goals and set the stage for the coming year. I like to make it fun. I promised her there wouldn't be any PowerPoint presentations, and I followed it with a nice date night together doing something special.

Open the door to better money communication.

Give your partner the gift of starting to talk about money. These conversations were important to both of us. We want to be a team, and we want to get it right. And, through these talks, we are building trust. As we take these steps together, when the time comes to make bigger decisions, we have been building up the confidence in our partnership—and that is a gift that you can't put a price on.

Next Steps:

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision. All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed. Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.