Whether you’re just casually dating or you’ve legit vowed to love someone “for richer or poorer,” it’s hard to deny that money is an important and unavoidable topic in many relationships. According to Fidelity’s 2021 Couples & Money study, one in five couples say money is their greatest challenge. And that tracks since we all have different approaches and experiences when it comes to our finances. It makes sense that it would be a touchy subject, but it’s also not a topic that you want to avoid in your relationships.
Here, we consulted the professionals to find out how to deal with a few common money problems that pop up in relationships. Heads up: You’re going to have to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.
What to do if: One of you is a saver and the other is a spender.
While at first glance this financial duo might seem like oil and water, couples therapist Erica Turner, LMFT, owner of Rosewater Therapy, says it’s quite common for self-proclaimed spenders and savers to fall in love. And there’s no reason it can’t work—as long as you follow one golden rule: “There has to be some acceptance up front that each of you is not going to fully get what you want,” Turner says.
Basically, the saver can’t try to turn the spender into a spendthrift, and the spender can’t expect the saver to throw caution to the wind. “If you go into this conversation trying to make your partner agree with you or trying to have them have the same perspective as you, you will fail,” she says. Instead, try to identify what it is you need in order to feel safe (usually a main concern for savers) or independent (often a big deal for spenders).
When it comes to tackling everyday expenses, compromise is key, Turner says. That might look like the saver agreeing to put a little less into savings in order to put money aside for a priority for the spender. There’s no one way to do it—you just have to make sure both of your needs and values are being considered.
Staying focused on the bigger picture can help couples navigate their differences, says Nancy Kwan, head of Financial Wellness at Fidelity Investments. Even when couples have different financial habits or values, they often have shared long-term goals, like saving for retirement, sending their kids to college, or paying down debt. By agreeing on your long-term goals, you and your partner might have an easier time agreeing on day-to-day financial practices to help you reach those goals.
What to do if: You’re not sure if/how to combine your finances.
If you’re even having conversations about your finances before you’re commingling money, you’re leaps and bounds ahead of most people, Turner says. Most couples “fall into a routine or way of doing things and kind of keep doing that”—even if it’s not working for them.
When you’re considering combining finances, get really honest about what money means for each of you, why it matters, and the financial future you want to work toward together, Turner says. If you need some help navigating that conversation, these tips can give you a head start, including being honest and open about your finances and choosing the right time and place to have these money conversations. You and your partner are going to be in a much better position once you both have a clear understanding of each other’s finances, says Kwan.
After you’ve had that conversation, you can discuss your financial goals and priorities as a couple. “Once we know what the goals are, we can figure out what direction we need to head in terms of how we allocate our money,” Turner says.
Sharing money in a relationship is a big step and should be treated as such, says Kwan. First, it’s important to get organized and create a shared financial plan that may include listing your assets and debts, creating a budget, updating paperwork if your name has changed or for accounts moving to joint ownership, and deciding how you will own and divide assets. From there, you can decide if you’ll share accounts or keep your finances separate.
Creating a shared account can help a couple save toward joint financial goals and manage living expenses. Depending on personal preferences and your incomes, you may decide to contribute equally or varying percentages to a shared account. Many people also choose to have their own personal checking account for various reasons—like maintaining a sense of independence, for example. “Personally, I love the idea of having a joint account because it helps my husband and I keep a really close pulse on how we’re tracking toward our goals,” says Kwan.
One thing couples should do no matter how they choose to combine their finances is to “make sure that every single account has a beneficiary,” says Kwan. This is a relatively simple task that many couples overlook, but it can help get your accounts organized, especially in case something unexpected happens to one of you.
What to do if: One partner makes a lot more money than the other.
There’s no universal rule for how you split money as a couple, Turner says. Going 50/50 might work for some people, while others might choose to split things based on each person’s income, and others might split entirely differently—like one person handling bills and the other person handling savings.
“What's most important is that each partner agrees on how they should split the money and that they have a very open, transparent conversation about how they're going to split their finances,” Turner says.
During that conversation, ask each other why you value splitting finances a certain way. What’s important to you about that structure? “Often couples—instead of really listening to the other person—they're more just trying to argue their point,” Turner says. Stay curious and open to the other person’s perspective for a more productive talk.
What to do if: One or both of you have debt.
Rule #1 about debt, Kwan says: Be transparent about it.
From a financial standpoint, there are a few basic principles that will help with debt. “Make sure you're at least making the minimum payments,” Kwan says, which will help protect your credit score and avoid compound interest charges. And try to get all of your debt in one place, with the amount and interest rates right in front of you. Doing that, “you can see pretty clearly which ones you'd want to tackle first,” Kwan says.
Beyond that, how you tackle debt is super individual to the relationship. Even if you decide to handle debt independently, be realistic about what that will mean for the time you spend together. “Having a plan in place as a couple to eliminate debt can help you save more money for your future together,” Kwan says.
“Where it can cause conflict for couples is when you start planning out the long term,” Turner says. “If one of you is saddled with debt, you're not going to be able to do certain things that you might want to do as a couple.” For example, if you want to go on a vacation together, one partner repaying debt might limit your options or cut into your savings. “You have to look at the full picture of how money impacts your life and how money impacts your relationship,” Turner says.
What to do if: One person in the relationship just lost their job.
Job losses are hard, both on an individual and on a relationship. But, unfortunately, getting laid off or needing to leave your job for any number of reasons is a reality and something worth planning around.
It’s important to always plan for the unexpected, including potential layoffs, to help provide a financial cushion when necessary, Kwan says. Ideally, you and your partner should work together to build an emergency savings fund that has between three to six months of your salary to help pay for essential expenses in case you lose your job. If either one of you lose your job, you’ll want to take a look at your expenses and start minimizing anything that isn’t essential. One of the first places to consider cutting back on are streaming services and subscriptions, Kwan says. While it can be hard not to panic sell, you should try to hold on to your investments, like your 401K. There can be extra taxes and fees for pulling from these accounts and the longer you leave them alone, the more money they’ll earn long term. If absolutely necessary, take out only what is needed.
Beyond that, keep the lines of communication open. “It becomes really important to discuss: What are the expectations for each person moving forward? What is the plan to get out of this financial crisis? And what does each person need to do in terms of that plan?” Turner says. Too often, couples don’t share their honest expectations and resentment starts to build. Check out these tips for figuring out what an equitable relationship can look like in your own partnership.
What to do if: You disagree about a major financial decision.
Even couples who are two peas in a pod and generally get along great can come up against a situation they just really, really don’t agree on. Maybe it’s lending money to a family member, or taking on a large upgrade to your house, or making a large investment. What can you do when you two have totally different ideas about what to do with a large chunk of money?
Here’s the thing: It’s probably not about the money at all, Turner says. Standoffs like this are “usually about an underlying issue in the relationship or a difference in values,” she says.
Rather than trying to solve your financial decision head-on, step back and ask yourself why you feel so strongly about your position on the issue, Turner says. And ask yourself why your partner’s position feels so impossible. For example, if a partner wants to lend or give the money to family, there might be some underlying resentment that the partner’s family is taking priority over the relationship.
Each partner being able to explain why it matters so much “tends to at least reduce the anger and frustration around the conflict and then makes it easier to figure out a solution to move forward,” Turner says.
Ultimately, constant communication is key, especially when it comes to your finances. Fidelity’s Couples & Money study found that couples who communicate well about their finances also appear to be in a better financial position. Keeping those lines of communication open can help, especially when you need to make a major financial decision and don’t agree right away, says Kwan.
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