A few years ago, my husband and I beat the millennial odds and purchased a home together.
Becoming a homeowner is complicated enough on its own, but for me, it was an emotionally tough process as well. When I contacted lenders, they only wanted to talk to my husband. When I sent the down payment I had been saving for years, the escrow service asked him for details. And when we finally closed on our home and I sent a thank-you email to our lender, they replied, “You’re welcome. Congratulations, Brian!”
As someone who prided herself on being independent, I felt like I was witnessing my biggest fear about merging my financial life with another person’s: losing my sense of autonomy. Suddenly, I worried I was giving up too much of myself to be in a marriage, a fear that triggered all sorts of other problems we had to work through — about intimacy, identity, and independence.
Merging your money with another person isn’t just a financial move, it’s also an emotional one. It can be a trigger for potential issues with trust, communication, and validation — in short, all the ingredients you need for a healthy relationship. But there are a few steps you can take to protect your relationship in the process.
As someone who prided herself on being independent, I felt like I was witnessing my biggest fear: losing my sense of autonomy.
First, decide whether it’s time to merge (or if you even want to at all).
Combining finances isn’t always necessary or even recommended. If money is a hot topic for you and your spouse, wait until you get on the same page before you start sharing it (we’ll talk about how to do that, too). Similarly, if your significant other has issues with money — like they can’t stop spending — you may want to wait until those issues are manageable before you decide to share a bank account with this person. Maybe one of you wants to pay off debt first. Or you may decide, for any number of reasons, that you’re both more comfortable keeping things separate long-term; you might have vastly different money management styles and neither of you wants to change, or you want might want to maintain some autonomy and privacy over your spending. If it’s what you both want and it works for your relationship, that’s how you know it’s the right move.
But if merging seems like it’s on the horizon, you may already be part of the way there: If you’re living with your partner, then in a sense, your financial lives are already combined through ongoing, shared household expenses — which means it’s time to start at least considering whether you want to take things any further.
Because money is such an awkward, emotionally charged topic, you want to be strategic about how you approach the conversation.
Before my husband and I got married, we opened a joint bank account when we moved in together. This made it easier to budget household expenses like rent, utilities, and groceries. We split these shared expenses down the middle, setting up an automatic bank transfer from each of our separate accounts every month and using that money to pay our joint bills.
You don’t have to be married to open a shared account, but keep in mind that your partner has access and can withdraw anything in it at any time. If you’re not ready for that step, there’s always good old-fashioned Venmo.
Initiate the money talk.
Once you decide to join financial forces, it’s time to sketch out your respective financial situations.
This sounds like painfully obvious advice, I know. But many couples don’t talk about money at all. Only 43 percent of the general population talks about money before they get married, according to a survey from American Express (although that percentage rises for more affluent couples). And another survey from Fidelity found that four in 10 married people don’t even know how much money their spouse makes. Considering that money issues are a top predictor of divorce, you can see how this lack of communication might be a problem.
But because money is such an awkward, emotionally charged topic and because so many people feel defensive and vulnerable while discussing it, you want to be strategic about how you approach the conversation. Get the ball rolling with something casual, like, “Hey, I’d like to learn a little more about your money situation and share a bit about mine” — or, really, any opener that sets up a dialogue rather than an interrogation.
Discuss the entire timeline.
Once you get the conversation started, it’s helpful to structure it by thinking in terms of your financial past, present, and future.
First, disclose your history with money, including old credit cards you’ve opened, utility bills you never paid, and, yes, that massive, looming student loan. From there, move into the present. Discuss current financial goals, budgeting tactics, revolving debts, and income as well as your overall relationship with money.
That last one may require some introspection as well as some thinking about how the people in your life have shaped your financial outlook. “Talk about how your families dealt with money and what you liked and didn’t like about their style,” says psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, who has 30 years of experience counseling individuals and couples. “Share your observations about how various friends handle money, and share what you think.”
What can you do now — individually but also as a team — to work toward those dreams?
To help you better describe your own attitudes toward money, financial psychologist and certified financial planner Brad Klontz has identified four basic scripts that most of us tend to follow:
- Money vigilance: You’re frugal and extra careful with your money, and you track your spending meticulously.
- Money status: Money is symbolic of your value or status in life. You might believe that having a higher net worth or income makes you a more valuable person.
- Money avoidance: You prefer not to think about or deal with money at all. Maybe you have negative associations with it, like believing it’s greedy or superficial.
- Money worship: You place a high importance on money and believe that it will fix most of your problems.
These scripts are a good starting point to figure out how your relationship with money might differ from your partner’s. “Very often, we spend our time trying to convince the other person that their approach to money is incorrect and ours is correct,” Klontz said when I interviewed him for my book, Get Money. “It’s really important to know that your conflicts around money are really based on these money scripts that you’re both playing out.”
Finally, there’s the future. Maybe you want to buy a house, have kids, or move to Costa Rica someday. Whatever you envision, talk to your partner about how money can help you get there and how your goals diverge or overlap. “Make the discussion more personal by talking about how you feel about money, spending, saving, and your future dreams,” Tessina says. Then, get practical. What can you do now — individually but also as a team — to work toward those dreams? It might mean socking away cash in a high-yield savings account. Or picking up a part-time job. Or throwing a little extra at your student loan.
If your goal is to, say, pay off the rest of your $5,000 loan and then save $40,000 for a home down payment, break that down into a monthly milestone. Whatever the math, breaking big numbers into smaller increments makes it seem more doable. “Once you have the steps outlined, break the first couple of steps down into even smaller increments and choose steps for which each of you will take the responsibility in the coming week,” Tessina suggests.
Try the “yours, mine, and ours” money plan.
Even as you’re saving for shared goals, you’re likely going to have different habits of spending, which is often where problems arise. My addiction to Korean sheet masks baffles my husband, for example, and I don’t understand why he spends so much on fast food.
To remedy potential fights about spending priorities, many experts recommend a “yours, mine, and ours” approach. This involves: 1) A shared checking and/or savings account for joint expenses and shared goals, 2) an individual checking account for your own purchases, and 3) an individual checking account for your spouse and their purchases.
It’s up to you to decide how much of your paycheck to divvy up in each account. You may decide to split shared expenses down the middle and leave the rest in each of your individual accounts. If your incomes vary wildly, you might decide on a proportion-based spending plan for each account (for example, each of you contributes 30 percent of your take-home pay). There’s no one correct way to divide things; as long as you’re both on board with the budget, you should feel good about it, Tessina says.
Erin Lowry, author of Broke Millennial, described her process for combining finances with her new husband: “We’re still figuring it all out, but basically I built a grid that outlines exactly where portions of each of our paychecks goes,” Lowry says. “For example: bills, student loan payments, emergency fund, down payment fund, honeymoon savings, and travel fund.” From there, Lowry and her husband decide how much each person will contribute to the grid. They also have shared and separate accounts. “Each month, we each get ‘fun money’ put into those accounts, and we can spend that on whatever we want,” Lowry says. “The goal with that is to reduce us nitpicking or micromanaging each other’s spending habits.”
If your spouse wants to splurge on, say, a giant pizza-shaped pool float, they’re free to do that without your judgment — you might give them a little side-eye for some purchases, but ultimately, it’s their account. You’re already funding your shared priorities, after all.
Keep the conversation going.
Much like your relationship itself, your financial life requires maintenance. These money conversations should be a regular occurrence; Tessina suggests a weekly check-in to talk about your bills, goal progress, and any expenses on the horizon. You can use this time to take stock of your relationship, too. Talk about how you’re both feeling. Bring up areas you think might need improvement. This way, you can address a minor issue before it snowballs into a bigger problem.
My husband and I hold our money meetings every Friday at our favorite Mexican restaurant over burritos.
Some personal finance experts call these regular meetings “money dates.” If you’re anything like me, that phrase makes you cringe, but the point is, these meetings don’t have to be painful. My husband and I hold our money meetings every Friday at our favorite Mexican restaurant over burritos.
“If you do it with the right attitude, this weekly meeting will be something that you look forward to, not an ordeal that you dread,” Tessina says. “No matter how well or poorly your finances are going at any given time, keep your financial discussions going. The more frequently you discuss your finances, the less difficult the discussions will be, and the more likely that you’ll make good financial choices.”
Keep things civil.
When it comes to money, you might have to expend a little more effort than usual to prevent a conversation from turning into a fight. You shouldn’t censor yourself, but it’s wise to be careful and intentional about how you react to your partner: Acknowledge what they tell you and validate what they say. Focus more on trying to understand their point of view than on making a point.
Keep the finger-pointing out of it, too. “The best way to keep a conversation about money from turning into a fight is to use business behavior,” Tessina says. “If you wouldn’t say it or use that tone of voice or be aggressive in a business situation, then don’t do it when you’re discussing money at home.”
Let’s not pretend you’ll never fight again, though. Arguments are inevitable in any relationship, especially when you’re talking about money. If you notice the conversation devolving, take a timeout and a deep breath, and try to continue the discussion at a later date. Preferably over burritos.