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The Spender and the Saver: How do I discuss finances with my significant other?

Generally speaking, “spenders” marry “savers” and “savers” marry “spenders” (see “Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction”). Does this describe your relationship? If so, are you the saver or the spender?

Piggy Bank

Regardless of whether you have been married 30 or more years or are starting to get serious in a relationship, having an honest conversation about money with your significant other is vital. It is not only important during the initial stages of getting to know one another, but also throughout the relationship. Like most things in life, you cannot merely discuss it and then forget about it. People develop new financial goals and their attitudes about money change. It is wise to check in with your partner at least annually to track progress toward your goals and develop new ones.

Although money can be a difficult conversation topic to bring up initially, particularly for new couples, the benefits of the conversation will significantly outweigh the potential discomfort. First and foremost, make a date of the conversation. Set a time with your partner and do a little homework in order to make the most of the financial date. Before the meeting, you might want to make a list of the following items:

1. List of all debts with the balance owed, monthly payments and interest rate on:

  • Credit cards
  • Mortgages
  • Student loans
  • Car loans

2. List of all assets:

  • Brokerage accounts
  • Retirement accounts
  • Homes
  • Cars
  • Inheritances
  • Life insurance policies

3. Obtain your free credit report from annualcreditreport.com

4. Use financial tracking software like Mint.com or Quicken by Intuit (the makers of Turbo Tax) to understand where your money goes and how much you spend monthly.

Doing the work is good practice for anybody, but particularly for couples because the interdependence of two financial lives is more complicated than yours alone. By gathering all of your assets and debts, you will have a complete picture of your joint net worth, creating a good anchor point should you need to reference that figure in the future. If you decide, as a couple, to tackle debts jointly, you can both decide which debts to pay off sooner. For example, who is paying the highest interest rate on their debt? Can you take a deduction for interest payments on that type of debt? If not, it would be wise from a joint economic standpoint to tackle the “bad debt” first (i.e. credit cards). Having the assets outlined in one place will aid in determining if you are on track to achieve your goals – whether they are to buy a new car or to save for retirement.

Once you have the “big picture” of your financial lives organized with your net worth, dive into your savings and spending habits. This is best done by asking each other pertinent questions. Perhaps you are a saver and continually max out your 401(k) contributions. Do you know how much the other person is contributing to theirs? By having this conversation, you can start to develop reasonable savings goals together.

Questions to guide the conversation:

  • How was money handled during your childhood?
  • Do you consider yourself a spender or a saver? In what ways or for what items?
  • Do you want to have an individual or joint budget?
  • Do you have an emergency fund set aside in case something unexpected happens?
  • Do you have any current financial goals you want to attain? During what time frame? What are you prepared to do to meet it?
  • What goals do we have as a couple? What do we need to do to accomplish them?
  • How much do you save per year and to what accounts?
  • How much do we want to save annually as a couple?
  • How much do we want to contribute to paying down debt each year?
  • Do we want to pay down that debt jointly or individually?
  • Should we combine all of our finances?
  • Should we only have one joint checking account to pay joint bills?
  • Do we want to set a dollar amount where each person can spend up to this amount without consulting the other?
  • If you have an investing philosophy, what is it?
  • Should we look at our investments separately or jointly?
  • If jointly, what is our allocation across all investment accounts?
  • Are your beneficiary designations up to date? Are our names on all the accounts they need to be?
  • (If you aren’t married) Do you want a pre-nuptial agreement?
  • (If you are married) Do you want to draw up a postnuptial agreement?

If nothing else, the key items you should have completed by the end of the meeting include:

  • A list of financial goals (individually or jointly) and how you will reach them
  • A plan for sticking to a budget (joint or individual accounts or a combination of the two)
  • An idea of when, and how often, you both will re-visit the aforementioned

Throughout the conversation, make sure to actively listen to your significant other. It might help to note areas where you disagree and discuss (while you are calm and level-headed) how to handle the disagreement in the future. Think of it as a small, preventative disaster plan for financial disagreements. Knowing a person’s attitude toward money and their financial goals is critical if you plan on building a life together.

Whatever the financial arrangement you ultimately decide on implementing, it is important that the system is clear and regularly updated to meet any changing circumstances. Financial harmony can be challenging, but taking the time initially and then a few minutes throughout the year can significantly decrease your chances of any disagreements over money.

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About Elliott Appel

As a CFP® professional and Associate Financial Advisor, Elliott works directly with clients and advisors to deliver exemplary service. Elliott graduated Summa Cum Laude from Seattle University with a Bachelors of Arts in Business Administration with a Finance Major.

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