Going to the dentist. Opening a 401(k). Talking to your partner about personal finance.
These are all critical steps in the “adulting” process that nobody especially looks forward to, but are always, always glad they did.
Talking to your partner about savings, credit scores, and whether you should open a joint bank account isn’t fun in the short term but it leads to a stronger relationship. Study after study indicates that the more you share about money with your SO, the happier you end up.
But money can be a sensitive subject. So how do you bring it up? What do you say? What should you share before marriage/common-law? And is it really time for a joint bank account?
Let’s investigate how to discuss finances with your significant other.
1. Before Approaching Your Partner, Do a Financial Self-Checkup
Depending on how much you and your partner have already discussed with each other, you might be coming to the table with a fair amount of questions.
Questions like, Hey, babe:
- Would you consider yourself more of a spender or a saver?
- How’s your credit score?
- Are you paying off any big debts?
And so on.
I mean, you probably won’t ask those back-to-back, word-for-word — and risk sounding like a tax attorney — but I think you get the point. There’s a lot to learn.
And that goes both ways. So, before approaching your partner to discuss finances before marriage, be prepared to answer every question you might have yourself.
Remember: discussing your respective financial health isn’t an interrogation. It’s a collaboration. You ask, they ask. One topic at a time.
So, would you consider yourself a spender or a saver? How’s your credit? Are you still paying off student loans, a car, or other debts? And how are your investments doing?
For a personal financial checkup, I’d recommend starting with your credit score:
- For a refresher on how credit works and why it’s important, check out How Credit Works: Understand the Credit History Reporting System.
- To view your own score and full credit report — for free — visit our friends at Credit Karma.
- Finally, to improve your credit score (or, at least, start the process before approaching your partner) check out How To Improve Your Credit Score, Step by Step.
Then, I’d recommend finding a good budgeting software that organizes all your accounts in one place. I personally use Mint. It’s free and just lays everything out on the table for you: your net worth, credit card balances, investment accounts, credit score, and more.
And depending on how much you’re comfortable sharing in one go, it can make your side of the financial picture much clearer for your partner.
Speaking of clarity…
2. Bring Honesty and Transparency to the Table
In a similar vein, if your goal is to get your partner to open up about their financial picture, it’s best to go ahead and set the precedent yourself.
My wife, Holly, and I first started sharing our financial health with each other when we began searching for a home. One of the lenders we applied to must have thought we were already sharing everything, because he hit “reply all” to an email with detailed, revealing questions about our respective accounts, balances, debts, and more.
We weren’t even upset. We kinda laughed it off and went, “Whelp… guess it’s time to chat money!”
Granted, we were lucky in that neither of us felt like we had much to hide. Some situations may be different, which is why giving advance notice can help to diffuse tension.
You can ask your partner, “Hey, could we start talking a bit more regularly about our finances? Starting, say, next Monday night?”
There may be some stress or discomfort going in, but in the end, you’ll be glad you did it. A survey by Ramsey Solutions found that couples claiming they have a “great” marriage were almost twice as likely to talk about money on a daily or weekly basis compared to couples who were “okay” or “in crisis.”
3. Learn If Your Partner Is a “Spender” or a “Saver”
The phrase “opposites attract” applies to money philosophies, too. To put it bluntly, there are “savers” and then there are “spenders” — and they often fall in love.
But let’s define each, first:
- Savers find joy in personal accounting. They love budgeting, discussing their investments, and hunting down sales. They’re the kind of person who subscribes to r/Frugal, negotiates wherever possible, and brags about how little they spent on something.
- Spenders love living in the moment. They’ll buy everyone a round at the bar, order half the appetizers at a restaurant, and never hesitate to buy concert tickets when their favorite acts come into town. They see saving only as a begrudging necessity, and don’t find as much joy in stashing money away for later.
It’s important to know where you and your partner both fall on the spectrum. Not because you’ll want to convert them, but because you’ll want to know what kinds of money moves bring them joy versus anxiety.
Savers get anxiety when they feel like their partner is spending too much. Spenders, by contrast, get frustrated when they feel like their partner is acting chintzy, lecturing, or just holding them back from enjoying the day.
I’m more of a saver and Holly’s more of a spender — and this led to constant friction early on. I remember how bothered she got when I passed seven BPs to get to Costco for cheaper gas. Conversely, I lost my marbles when she rushed to the AT&T store for an $800 phone, when refurbished models are available on eBay for $500 or less.
But now, we can appreciate what money habits bring us joy: me in pinching pennies, her in buying nice things in new condition.
That being said, sometimes ingrained money habits can lead to bigger issues. At that point, the conversation changes.
4. Understand and Improve Each Other’s Credit
The best time to learn your partner’s credit score is now.
After all, a survey by LendingTree found that nearly four in 10 Americans have no idea how their credit score is determined. And if one or both of you needs to repair your credit, there’s no time like the present to start collaborating on that process ASAP, since your credit scores will determine your ability to get an auto loan, a mortgage, and other big loans together.
Read more: What Percentage of Your Income Can You Afford for Mortgage Payments?
When two of our friends — let’s call them Zach and Jing — got engaged, Zach was reluctant at first to start talking about his personal finances. Turns out he had a below average credit score due to a few missed payments on a high APR credit card, and he was nervous that Jing would be upset since it might hold them back from getting a prime mortgage rate.
But Jing was glad Zach told her when he did. The pair had two years before they wanted to buy a house, which gave them time to rebuild Zach’s credit and get him a good balance transfer card. The latter move enabled him to finally pay off his debt at 0% APR instead of 29.99%.
Read more: Best Balance Transfer Credit Cards
The moral of the story is that bad credit is like car trouble. It’s nothing to be ashamed about, and your partner may even have the knowledge and experience to help you. But if you don’t divulge it, you both might get stuck by the side of the road.
For more on understanding and repairing credit, check out the bulleted links I listed in point no. 1, above.
5. Discuss the Merits of Merging Finances (or Keeping Them Separate)
When things get serious, some couples open joint bank accounts.
In fact, it’s more than just “some.” According to Bank of America, 72% of Millennial couples share at least one bank account. Jury’s out on Gen Z, but the trend is likely to continue.
So, should you follow the status quo?
It depends. For starters, you should never open a joint bank account with someone unless you absolutely trust them, because you’re essentially giving them total control of the money in there.
Case in point: we know of a couple who had a rather nasty breakup — and before he could ask his ex about splitting up the joint bank account, she’d emptied all $13,783 from it and vanished. And since she technically had just as much ownership over the money as he did, there was nothing he could do.
Now, the legal boundaries of marriage provide some protections for joint finances and prevent one party from doing this — but it happens all the time in unmarried arrangements.
If you do trust your partner with shared finances, here are some reasons you might want a shared account:
- To cover everyday, shared expenses like groceries and parenting supplies.
- For transparency.
- For shared budgeting.
- When there’s a large income discrepancy.
- To work towards savings milestones together.
- For joint filing benefits come tax season, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and more.
- To cultivate a sense of collaboration and teamwork.
Conversely, here are some reasons you might want to keep things separate:
- You don’t quite trust your partner yet.
- To insulate yourself from your partner’s spending (or vice versa).
- To prevent disagreements over personal spending.
- To avoid the “group project effect” where one person is doing all the budgeting and financial planning work.
Either way, don’t let the status quo influence your decision. Holly and I keep things 100% separate, Venmo each other 50/50 for bills and such, and it works great for us. But our friends David and Migdalia share everything. I couldn’t imagine, but hey, whatever works!
Read more: Are Joint Credit Card Accounts a Good Idea?
The Bottom Line
Just like going to the dentist, discussing finances with your SO may invite some initial discomfort, but you’ll be glad you did it.
Featured image: IVASHstudio/Shutterstock.com