You know you want to be together forever, but if there’s one thing you fight about, it’s money. Maybe you’re a spender and your partner is a saver. Maybe you keep cash in savings accounts while they gravitate toward risky investments. Maybe they want to maintain detailed budgeting spreadsheets, but you’d rather not dedicate the time to that.
It’s possible to get along really well with someone even though the way you handle money is totally different. Many times, couples can come up with a system that honors their personal styles. Other times, your differences are an indication of red flags you shouldn’t ignore. Here are my tips for couples who are navigating this common issue.
Leave room for financial autonomy
It used to be more common for couples to completely combine finances when they got married, but people marry at older ages on average now. It’s typical to come into a marriage with your own assets, debts, and way of handling your money. It’s not always easy to give up the control you had when you were single, but it is important to develop a system that works for each of you.
When working with clients, I often recommend a “yours, mine, ours” approach to money management. The way that usually works is a couple will open a joint checking account and each person contributes a sum of money each month to cover shared bills, like rent or mortgage payments, utilities, groceries, and restaurants. Depending on each person’s income, they may contribute 50/50 or proportionally to their salaries.
Couples may also choose to open joint savings or investing accounts for longer term goals like saving for a down payment or a vacation. Otherwise, each half of the couple maintains separate banks accounts for their own expenses — travel with friends, personal care, hobbies, or even buying each other surprise gifts. This approach can give couples the space to spend with no questions asked, while still making shared financial concerns a priority.
Schedule money dates
Create distraction-free time on a regular basis to talk about money. This shouldn’t be a stressful “family meeting” kind of thing — make it fun! Put the kids to bed and open a bottle of wine, or go for a long walk or drive. Talk about short-, medium-, and long-term plans for your money. Imagine what you might do if you won the lottery or got a raise. Plot out your next vacation or home project.
These conversations don’t have to be about organizing receipts or calculating the returns on your investments (though they could be, and you can also dedicate time to those tasks as well). They’re more about discussing your ideas and values together. You’ll grow closer, and those nuts-and-bolts conversations about how much to spend on a new sofa will be more productive if you’ve bonded over regular money dates.
Seek to understand, not to judge
You and your partner were raised differently and have different jobs, incomes, and circles of friends. But “different” doesn’t mean “wrong.” If you both want to create a relationship of honesty and trust, you can’t make it scary for your partner to talk to you about the tough stuff. No one is “bad” because they have debt, they haven’t started saving for retirement, they don’t know anything about investing, or they financially enable someone in their family.
Remember that you love this person, you chose them, and you are building a life together. The two of you can create the kind of household you both want, and that may mean working together to pay down debt or start saving.
You are each other’s safe haven. That doesn’t mean you enable dangerous behavior, but it does mean that you can tell each other the hard truths.
Consider working with a financial professional
It’s often helpful to get an outside perspective when you’re making a plan for your money, and that’s doubly true for couples. You’re often making huge financial decisions, like buying a home, planning a wedding, having kids, creating an estate plan, or helping other relatives financially. Working with a financial planner makes it possible to create an empowering, actionable plan that you can complete together. Since couples often have double the bank accounts, a financial planner can also find ways you can streamline your money so it’s easier to manage in the long run.
Know what not to ignore
There’s disagreeing, and there’s creating unhealthy patterns. There are some serious red flags that may make you want to invest in couples counseling ASAP. I know that’s hard to consider when you love someone, but trust me, your partner’s actions can really hurt you. Here’s what some red flags look like:
- Your partner lies to you or steals from you: They lie about debt or their credit score, or hide money from you in secret accounts. They help themselves to money in joint accounts for things that aren’t joint expenses, leaving you without the money you need to afford your bills.
- Your partner exhibits signs of addiction: Gambling, shopping, drug, or alcohol addiction can wipe out a family financially. Therapy and rehab can help, but the person with addiction issues has to want the help.
- Your partner jeopardizes your household’s financial stability to enable someone else: Their parents, siblings, or friends get generous financial help while the two of you struggle to make ends meet, and they refuse to change.
- Your partner changes the terms of your relationship and won’t let you have a say: They make big decisions that affect both of you without your input, like quitting a job without another one lined up, buying a car without you knowing, or taking out a large loan without your knowledge.
If any of these situations are happening in your relationship, please get the help of a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). I’ve recommended therapy to dozens of clients who come from very different money backgrounds than their significant other and are having challenges aligning around money, however, the bullet points listed above are much more serious and it’s important to get the help you need.
Some of the above issues can also be a sign of financial abuse, where your partner controls you by stripping away your financial autonomy. Sometimes this is part of a larger pattern of physical or emotional abuse. If you don’t feel safe with your partner, get help from an organization that specializes in helping victims of domestic violence, like the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
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