With all of the devastation and upheaval caused by COVID-19, one constant is that managing our finances has never been more important—or complex. And when you’re one part of a couple, balancing the checkbook becomes, to put it mildly, tricky. Although 28 percent of millennials (as compared to 11 percent of Gen Xers) keep their accounts separate from their partners, according to a recent study by Bank of America Better Money Habits, the pandemic’s wake may have you reconsidering. Now, more than ever, could be the time to join forces and work towards a common goal—say, staying on top of monthly bills, paying off student loans, or saving for retirement. But it can get pretty messy pretty quickly if you don’t communicate a plan.
“The first thing is to accept that in every partnership, someone will be spending more than the other,” says Chris Manske, certified financial planner and author of the forthcoming book The Prepared Investor. “This is not a crime or a failure. Rather, it’s a natural part of working together to get where you want to go.” Just as there’s no right or wrong way to divvy up house chores, experts agree that there’s no right or wrong way to manage your finances as a couple. “Some couples opt to share responsibilities, while in other couples, one partner exclusively manages day-to-day finances,” says Anna Colton, an executive at Merrill Lynch. By way of example, she adds that while some choose to merge their bank accounts entirely, others find that a three-account option (“yours, mine, and ours”) works best for them.
While research from the University College of London found that couples who pool their funds report greater levels of happiness and are less likely to split, combining bank accounts is a pretty major step that might not make sense for everyone’s circumstances. And in some cases, doing so could even lead to out-of-character shopping. A recent study from the Journal of Family and Economic Issues found that your partners’ spending habits—good or bad—are very likely to rub off on you. So if your partner is a gem in most aspects of life, yet can’t seem to pay their bills on time, keeping your finances separate could serve to protect your credit score, for example, or help you preserve your existing smart spending and saving habits.
To help navigate these uncharted waters in the hopes of reaching your big-picture goals (whether it’s buying a home, shoring up your retirement funds, or becoming more financially stable), we asked experts to break it down into three doable steps.
1. Schedule an appointment
Planning for big life goals must require some professional help… right? Slow your roll. Before you even considering booking an appointment with a financial planner, you need to make a date with your partner. That way, you can chat about your money priorities, goals, and habits in a non-threatening and non-confrontational environment. (Trust: The last place you want to learn about your partner’s true spending habits for the first time or get vulnerable about your own is in the presence of a stranger.) Colton says that it’s important to discuss your future goals, any accrued debt, and spending habits since each factor can impact your ability to save for financial priorities, whether shared or separate.
To kickstart a productive conversation, Manske recommends starting with the following questions:
- When do we want to achieve a certain goal? How important is this date to us?
- If we agree on a date, are we on track? If not, how do we get there?
- What happens if we don’t get there? We still agree this goal is important to us, right?
If the conversation feels awkward, know you’re not alone. According to the Fall 2018 Merrill Edge Report, Americans prefer nearly all other major relationship milestones (including meeting the family, being intimate, traveling together, and talking politics) ahead of discussing their salary or personal finances. “Many find the topic uncomfortable, so as you start a money dialogue with your significant other, approach the conversation without judgment and remember that each financial journey is different,” Colton says.
2. Make a budget
Numbers don’t lie, so use them to gain a broader sense of your partner’s habits and devise a plan for how you want to spend going forward. “Start by making a budget to help you monitor monthly spending and saving habits, including any recurring debt payments like student loans, credit card debt, auto loan, mortgage,” says Colton. “This can help you identify differences in your financial personalities and priorities. As you start to set financial goals together, having a budget can inform how these goals will be financed.”
The next number worth revealing to your partner is your credit score. “Knowing your partner’s credit score and payment history will give you a good idea of his or her fiscal responsibility,” says Colton. “It may be that your partner is truly making the best of a bad situation arising from student loans or an untimely dip in the housing or financial markets, but if you believe it’s an indication of ongoing money management issues, now is the time to discuss it.” Then, factor in any credit score issues (like paying bills late or curbing overspending) into the budget you craft together.
3. Practice empathy
If the conversation doesn’t go as planned, don’t feel discouraged. Do your best to understand their point of view or, if things became heated, continue the chat at a later date when you’ve cooled off. “Starting this journey with the idea that you’ll never have a mistake or confusion is like starting to learn a new language and expecting to be fluent in a week,” says Manske.
If you fervently disagree with the way your partner handled a financial situation (used your rent money for football tickets, maybe?), approach them with compassion even when it feels counterintuitive. If they feel attacked, they’re more likely to shut down, practice poor spending habits out of spite, or hide them from you altogether. “Financial secrets are a lot more common than they should be,” says Manske. If you’re on the receiving end of criticism from your partner because of your financial choices, Manske similarly says to avoid the urge to exclude them from financial choices. He says hiding purchases from your partner sends the following harmful messages:
- I don’t think our bond is strong enough to handle the fact that I made this purchase.
- I don’t think you are important enough to be included in how I’ve used our shared resources.
- I don’t respect your part of our shared authority over our money.
If getting on the same page financially sounds like a lot of work, don’t stress. Manske says all you need to do is ask each other one guiding question: What are your financial goals and why? “Once the couple understands and agrees, it’s a lot easier to work through definitions and details,” he says.
Money shouldn’t be the thing that drives a wedge between you both, but instead brings you closer together, allows you to learn about one another on a deeper level, and offers you both a shared goal. Remember that when—or if—tensions rise. “One of the biggest benefits of merging finances with the person you love is how much more you get to interact now about meaningful things,” says Manske. “Two of the most common and limited resources that will define your life together are time and money. There will be ups and downs, but couples who merge finances can look back and know they did it together.”