While you might be able to get away with just wingin’ it budget-wise as a single person, once you enter serious coupledom territory, chances are that will no longer fly. Finances are so closely intertwined with the success of a relationship, it’s important to be upfront and REAL about where you stand financially. These tips and tricks can help you get off on the right financial foot when it comes to broaching the financial elephant in the room.
Talk it out
With every relationship you maintain in life, there really is no substitution to opening the lines of communication. So why wouldn’t the same stand for the most intimate of relationships, where you’ve literally chosen to spend the rest of your life with that other person?
Believe it or not, according to an Ameritrade survey, 38% of couples said they were only somewhat, slightly, or not at all aware of their significant other’s debts. And according to a study by Fidelity Investments®, although 72% of couples say they communicate exceptionally or very well when it comes to financial matters, 43% couldn't correctly identify how much their partner makes.
If the two of you aren’t exactly free-flowing finances into regular conversation, then the first step is to agree to have a formal and forthright discussion. And that means that you come prepared to bare it all — your salary, your debt, your assets, and your goals. As uncomfortable as this may sound, it’s way better than being blindsided by something down the road, harboring resentment due to a lack of understanding, or fostering an environment of mistrust vs using it as an opportunity to actually build trust as a unit.
Get to know each other’s money style
You fell for that something special thing about your partner, right? Well, just like we all have our own personality traits, the same can be said for our financial personalities and approaches to spending. Dave Ramsey refers to this as the idea of a “nerd and a free spirit” in a relationship. Whereas budgeting gives nerds the sense of caring for their loved ones, free spirits tend to “forget” about a budget and might feel controlled or appear irresponsible to the nerd.
Rather than become irritated by these differences, why not seize the opportunity to utilize each person’s strength to your overall advantage? Going back to the communication thing, understanding where someone is coming from can really frame your perspective when interpreting situations that arise. Maybe one of you was raised to be frugal and budget-conscious, while the other wasn’t. Whatever the circumstance, when you understand the “why” behind the “what,” you can empathize with the other person rather than take it personally.
Time.com refers to this important aspect as “sharing your family history.” If it helps, you can maybe even think of it as a first date do-over. Ok, that might be far-fetched. But, when you make an effort to learn the foundation behind the other person’s financial frame of mind, you might learn a few new things about your significant other that could surprise you. And after being in a long-term relationship, what’s more exciting than that?
Break your budget down into digestible categories
As the (sadly visual) saying goes, you don’t eat an elephant in one bite. The same can be said for finances. In fact, building a joint budget should be something you revisit often. The best approach is to break it down into manageable chunks. According to How To Budget as a Couple by The Balance, here’s a good way to work through your priorities:
Determine your needs
These are the “keeping the lights on” basics. This includes things like rent, utilities, transportation, and also the all-important topic of debt — student loans, credit cards, and other fun payments you’d love to be able to ignore but can’t. Is there any place the two of you can cut back to contribute toward something else, like that whole debt thing?
Another good idea, according to this Money Crasher’s article, is to determine a threshold for spending before warranting a discussion. That is to say that individually, you can each spend $X before you should pick up the phone and agree on it together. This can serve as yet another safeguard in avoiding a potentially much more awkward conversation down the road.
Determine your (shared) goals
Does your future include children (and when)? Do you want to buy a house? Go on a dream vacation? What does your retirement look like? These are all things you’re probably going to want to be on the same page about, and the more you plan, the more realistic (and less frustrating a lack of these things) will become. According to The Balance article, “Some good beginning goals are to get out of debt and to begin to save for a down payment for your home. You should also make saving for retirement an important part of your financial plan.”
Determine your individual wants
Once you’ve discussed shared household needs, you can work through individual needs and wants. This can be anything from gym memberships and hair appointments to game subscriptions or other hobbies. These are typically the areas where couples can become frustrated with their significant other’s spending, especially when your shared goals are so outlined and on the table.
It’s important to realize that your needs and wants are both different and valuable. It’s also a great opportunity to work on compromise — another of the major cornerstones of any successful relationship. If each of you sets aside a mutually allowed amount for these activities and each partner stays within that amount, the tendency to argue or feel resentful shouldn’t be a problem.
With 70% of married couples arguing about money — making it the main contributing factor to friction between spouses* — getting on the same page financially is not just a good idea, it’s necessary for the long-term health of your relationship. While budgeting as a couple isn’t easy, you can always refer back to communication as a foundation for alignment and ongoing progress. And it might even serve as a way to further strengthen your relationship in other areas.
*Dunham, Troy. “Poll: How Husbands and Wives Really Feel About Their Finances.” Money Magazine, 1 June 2014. http://time.com/money/2800576/love-money-by-the-numbers/. Accessed 9 April 2018.