It’s no secret that money is one of the most common reasons couples fight. Unfortunately, conversations about money tend to be uncomfortable and awkward, and some people label any financial discussion as a faux pas. But with a 50% divorce rate, many new couples are smarting up and talking economics before walking down the aisle.
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Slightly more than half of all couples (53%) say they discuss their personal finance situations before getting engaged, according to a study by Northwestern Mutual. Another 25% say they discuss money matters after getting engaged, but before signing the marriage license.
“It’s great that 53% of couples discuss their finances, but that number could be higher,” says Rebekah Barsch, vice president of market strategy at Northwestern Mutual. “When you think about everything that young couples need to address: buying a house, having a family, saving for retirement, you see that finances are at the heart of so many life decisions.”
Couples who have already had pre-marital financial conversations should continue an open and honest dialogue into their married years, says Barsch.
“You’re going to continue to delve deeper and deeper into a greater level of detail with your finances. You need to understand how expenses will get paid, how you’re going to spend your entertainment dollars, and even where you’re going to go on vacation.”
The study also shows 12% of couples didn’t discuss financial matters until after they were married, and 11% have never had a conversation about financial planning—even after years of marriage.
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“It’s a real risk for people not to discuss money before their marriage,” says Susan Misner, co-author of It’s Your Money, Honey, and founder of women’s personal finance site Golden Girl Finance. “I see a lot of couples who spend more time planning the wedding than they do discussing their financial future.”
Misner recommends couples talk finances before getting engaged. “You have to establish your financial goals early on so you can start working together to accomplish those goals,” she says. “Both people need to be working towards the same goal in order to ensure that there’s no friction where money is concerned.”
Sitting down to have the money talk may seem intimidating to some couples, says Misner, but it's really not such a big deal.
“Don’t be afraid to have a little fun with your discussion. It’s just numbers. Order a pizza, have a glass of champagne to celebrate the future, and try and make it engaging,” she says. “Talk about your dreams and values and then talk about how you’re going to save and manage your money to pay for all of those wonderful things you want in life. Think of it in a broader context than ‘just money’”
Some couples may want to bring in a financial expert with experience advising couples entering married life, recommends Barsch.
“It’s nice to talk to someone professional who has helped other young couples down that same path, but really you can start by just discussing your attitudes toward money,” she says.
Because most people develop their personal finance management skills from their families, Barsch says a good way to start the conversation is by asking, “When you were growing up, what were the conversations about money in your home?” Having a sense of where the other is coming from will make it easier to broach the subject and understand the other’s point of view.
Of course, simply discussing a strategy for saving money may not be enough, Misner says. Debt is also a big issue in relationships, and both parties must be aware of the debt coming into a marriage.
“Once you marry someone, you could be responsible for their debt,” she says. “The sad truth is that love doesn’t conquer all, and if there’s undisclosed debt in the picture, it will likely cause problems down the line.”
For couples who are already married and still haven’t discussed finances, Misner says to get started—those discussions should absolutely occur before children are in the picture.
“Once you have kids, you’re going to start saving for college, spending money on childcare, and it’s only going to compound what financial issues may already be present in the marriage,” she says.