The MANual: Money
7 Financial Questions to Answer Before You Propose
One of the top three reasons married couples seek therapy: money. One of the top reasons couples get divorced: ditto.
Aside from sex, few things have more taboos, hang-ups, emotions, and secrets surrounding them than money. The more information about your financial lives that you and your partner share before you tie the knot, the smoother things will go.
We’re not saying you have to perfectly align your financial values, goals, and behavior. A man who sees a car as mere transportation can get along just fine with a woman who sees it as a lifestyle statement. And the girl who saved her babysitting money to backpack through Europe may happily marry the guy whose parents financed a similar trip. These experiences and attitudes will impact not only your day-to-day spending and saving, but long-term issues like what each of you expects to provide — or not — for your own children (you have talked about having kids, right?).
Here are seven questions financial pros suggest you think about and start discussing with your future mate.
1. Are You Ready For A Money Date?
Aaron Clarke, a certified financial planner with Halpern Financial in Rockville, MD, is a millennial who spends much of his time helping his peers gain a sound financial footing. “A ‘money date’ sounds nerdy, but it can actually be helpful for couples” to set aside a specific time to talk about these issues, he says.
Ideally, you and your partner would put the date on the calendar so it’s official, not have kids around, and conduct the talk over dinner at a restaurant (so you don’t get hangry or explode in rage). Clarke says this first talk should cover your values and expectations around money and include setting some broad financial goals, like a target date for buying a home.
After the initial big discussion, Clarke recommends having regular financial check-ins, leading up to and after the big day. “Financial check-ins might sound tedious. But when you look at it as putting in the work to achieve your life goals together, suddenly it feels exciting rather than like math homework.” Ok, maybe not exciting, but productive.
If necessary, create a reward that you can share when you complete another check-in—like a great bottle of wine or a dessert you’d never otherwise allow yourselves to eat.
2. What Are Your Financial Goals And Values?
“Start by discussing: What is each person’s relationship with money?” Clarke says. How much money did your families have when you were growing up, how was it dealt with, and what have each of you carried from that into adulthood?
From there, move on to day-to-day money issues. Be frank about how much each of you earns and how you’ll handle a large difference if one exists. Do you have similar spending patterns or does one of you have a shopping habit that makes the other nervous? Do either of you have familial financial obligations or large debts? History of gambling? Ebay binges? Us too.
Then there are your goals for the future. Do you hope to be homeowners? Do you have retirement accounts yet? Are you saving on a regular basis? Who paid for your college and what are your aspirations for your kids? How many do you want? And when do you hope to have them?
Once you understand where you each stand and what you want, you can start making plans and suggesting compromises around saving and spending. For example, you might agree to a percentage of every paycheck that will go into general savings or retirement accounts. You might agree to a certain dollar amount each person can spend every month with no questions asked. You’ll also want to discuss how much you want in an “emergency fund.”
At the end of the day, you want to solidify next steps toward your long-term goals. And you want to minimize guilt and anxiety around your joint financial life.
3. Do Either Of You Have Debt?
The answer, most likely, is yes. Less than a quarter of millennials are completely debt-free, according to a 2018 survey by NBC News and GenForward. While 36% have student loans, about a third have car payments and 46% carry credit-card debt. [LINK TO CREDIT CARD STORY]
Some couples are wary of taking on one another’s debt. But as Josh Hastings, who writes about marriage and money on the MoneyLifeWax blog says, “When you get married your debt is their debt, and their debt is your debt.” So regardless of the type of debt you have and whose it is, talk about a realistic time frame and strategy for paying it off.
If the debt is from credit cards you might discuss why this accumulated and if spending is an issue. You don’t want it to grow while you’re trying to pay it down.
4. Is There A Large Expense On The Horizon?
Besides the wedding, of course. If you haven’t discussed it already, the money date is the perfect time to talk about expectations and realistic budget for your wedding and honeymoon. Start by identifying how many people you hope will attend (50? 150?).
More topics to broach: Are either of you heading to graduate school? Is the car that’s essential to your job falling apart in a different way every week? Is your brother having a destination wedding in Thailand next year? Have you budgeted for the rings? And are you also saving for a house? As Hastings says, marriage means any major financial undertaking will fall on both of you, so get used to committee decisions.
Let’s be honest: If you answered yes to most of these questions, then the answer to the article’s headline question is: No we are not financially ready for marriage yet and, holy crap, we need to slow down. Or maybe: Hmm, maybe now really is the time to unpack any secrets.
5. What Are Your Credit Scores?
This is the least sexy version of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” ever. But Jacob Lunduski, a financial industry analyst for the Credit Card Insider, points out that if you’re planning to open joint credit cards, sign a new lease, take out a car loan together or pursue a mortgage, both of your credit scores will be a factor.
It’s best to know if either of you have had any fraud or if your credit scores are less than optimal (350-500 is not very good, 700-800 is terrific) so you can work together to fix those things now.
6. How much will you merge your financial lives?
Some couples combine everything immediately. Others take some time to completely merge their bank accounts, assess who has the better credit card, consolidate their debt and so on. And some retain separate checking accounts throughout their lives.
Several financial advisors say the way you do it doesn’t matter nearly as much as being in accord about it. And of course, agreeing that there will be no secrets. A hidden bank account is as helpful to your marriage as a secret girlfriend, and just as likely to be discovered eventually.
Taxes for married couples is a whole other topic, which is why we tackle it in a separate story.
7. Can You Talk About These Things Without Arguing?
After your first, big money date and a few check-ins, consider how it’s going. Are there issues you’re avoiding because tempers flare whenever you talk about them? Try talking about why emotions run so high around that particular issue. Understanding the source of strong feelings might help you find a compromise.
And, the experts say, it’s not a bad idea to talk to a neutral party, be it a financial planner or premarital counselor. A little sound money advice now could be the secret to long-lasting happiness after your (financially prudent) wedding day.
Thing That Most Couples Get Wrong:
That there is some perfect ratio of income to debt that will indicate if you’re ready for marriage. The formula doesn’t exist. It’s complicated.
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