At some point, as a relationship grows and becomes more serious between two people, questions begin to arise about long-term plans, particularly as it begins to become clear that at least a significant portion of two lives are going to overlap and become one.
For my wife and I, these discussions started about a year before our wedding. We just talked casually about things, such as merging checking accounts and saving a lot in our supplemental retirement plans. We mused about kids a bit, with a general consensus of waiting for a least a year after our wedding.
For most of the first few years of our marriage, our financial planning and organization was chaotic at best. We were often doing things in completely contradictory ways, like making separate grocery lists and both shopping on our way home from work, or refusing to budget or merge checking accounts because we both wanted control. We made the mistake of not talking these issues out and figuring out a way to make things work for us and, as a result, we created our own fallow earth where only seeds of financial disaster could take root.
Here’s what I wish I had done.
Figuring Out the Right Time to Talk
There is no simple rule to determine the exact moment to have that first financial heart to heart. The real key is figuring out when the time is right for you. Here are some indicators that you should schedule that talk sooner rather than later.
You’re personally holding off financial plans because of the other person. For example, are you thinking about buying a new car, but are waiting to see if the relationship progresses before making that choice? Are you thinking of moving to a new apartment? Maybe you’re even postponing an important decision about your career. This is a sign that on some level you’re thinking very seriously about the long term with this person, and that means it’s time to start talking about that long term.
You’re left feeling uncomfortable on a regular basis by the other person’s financial habits. Does your partner spend more than you like? Is he or she too much of a tightwad? Does that person not take the appropriate time and effort to manage the details, like making sure that overdrafts don’t happen? If these issues are cropping up and bothering you, it’s time for a talk.
Your spending and your partner’s spending are less coordinated than they should be. This is something that was a clear warning sign for my wife and I as we got closer. We’d both stop on our way home from work and buy milk, winding up with two gallons in the fridge (and one usually going bad before it was finished). We’d both buy stamps. We used to have to pay rent at an office and, more than once, we both went to that office and paid rent or the month. This is a sure sign that something’s out of whack and it’s time for both of you to get on the same financial page.
You’re about to be faced with a major financial issue or milestone. If your relationship is serious and you’re about to be met with a major crisis, like an impending pink slip, a huge financial settlement, or a job offer in a faraway place, now is the time to have a serious talk with your partner about your shared future.
You’re about to make a lifelong commitment to each other. If nothing else has triggered a money talk, an engagement ring should. If you’ve committed to marriage, one of the first things you should work out about your future lives together is how the money should work.
Do Some Prep Work
Don’t just sit down at a meal with your partner and say, “Let’s talk about money.” That’s not fair to either one of you, and you’re likely to come out of such a discussion at least as unclear as you were before. Here are some tips for making it work.
Do some reading first. If you’ve never read a David Bach book, Smart Couples Finish Rich is definitely a worthwhile read. Head down to your local library and check it out, then encourage your partner to give it a read, too.
Compile your own “financial balance sheet” and have your partner do the same. Get the balances on every account that you hold - both debts and savings - and make a list of all of them. Subtract your debts from the money you have to get an estimate of your net worth. This is a great way for you to get in touch with your real situation, and having the opportunity to show this to your partner - and have your partner do the same - will be a really valuable eye opener for both of you.
Schedule time. Plan for a couple hours (at least) for you to talk about things. Don’t do it impromptu - give yourself and your partner some time to get the needed information together and to spend some solitary time thinking about goals and desires.
Make a list of the stuff you want to cover. Both of you should do this, making separate lists. Think of every money question you have that concerns you and write it down, then use that list as an effective agenda. Your partner should do the same - just list out everything, then use it as part of the agenda for the talk.
Tips on the Talk Itself
Most of the general tips for a talk with one’s spouse also apply here:
1. Start off talking about goals.
2. Admit your own mistakes.
3. Look your spouse right in the eye, and hold their hand.
4. Be goal-oriented.
5. Look at numbers - but don’t judge.
6. Be fair. If/when your spouse admits to overspending, don’t blow up at them.
7. Create goals that you both agree on.
8. Create plans to reach those goals.
9. Agree to talk about it regularly.
10. Do something romantic afterwards.
Since this is really the first time you’re talking about money in a serious way, a few additional tips are in order.
Figure out who the “money leader” should be. In most relationships, one person is usually responsible for making sure the bills get paid on time and other such basic financial tasks. Figuring out which one of you will do that early on will save a lot of pain later.
Lay your complete financial situation on the table. Yes, even that credit card debt you haven’t mentioned to your partner yet. Everything. Soon, you’ll be in a situation where a windfall can lift you both and a debt can sink you both - be open about all of it.
If you don’t understand, ask. The key to a good relationship is good communication, and if you can’t ask questions about things you don’t understand, you’re revealing another potential problem. Don’t hesitate to ask a question if you’re seeing something that doesn’t add up.
Talk about the major financial obstacles that you see in the future. Where do you want to live? In what kind of domicile? Do you want children? Do you want to retire early? Do you want to work independently? What things do you envision for your future that will affect the life choices both you and your partner will have to make? Lay it all out there and just flesh it out - the conversation will lead itself.
Go through all of the questions you prepared in advance. Those questions will lead your discussion in healthy directions - follow where they lead you.
Don’t walk away with hurt feelings. There are a lot of ties between money and emotions, and you’re probably going to get your hackles raised more than a time or two during this talk. Afterwards, do something together that’s very separate from the topic as a way to heal. Just spend some good, quality time together and don’t let any hard feelings that came up during this talk fester into something worse. Work through them, and remember that you do love and care for this person even if you’re not on the same page yet when it comes to money.
The Simple Dollar chronicles a man's road to recovery from "total financial meltdown." As author Trent Hamm puts it, "The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two." We'll post a couple of entries a week, but you can check out his writing daily at www.thesimpledollar.com