A bit of friction in a relationship can keep the spark alive. But when it comes to money, it’s best if things run smoothly. Sure, talking about finances isn’t exactly romantic, but neither is fighting about it.
So if you want to make sure you and your significant other are on the same page about money, be sure to ask these important questions at significant stages of your relationship.
The third date: “What are your values?”
The first few dates are about feeling each other out and seeing if there’s a connection. Usually it’s best to tread lightly when bringing up more serious topics, such as marriage and kids. The same goes for finances.
At this point in your prospective relationship, you don’t have to ask about money point-blank. Instead, observe their behavior.
“Do they do things that are irrational or impulsive?” asked Reshell Smith, a certified financial planner and the founder of Ames Financial Solutions in Orlando, Florida. “I also think people’s attitude about money comes from their family. Talking about family, parents and how you were raised — you can get an idea from there.”
Erin Voisin, a CFP and the director of financial planning at EP Wealth Advisors in Torrance, California, suggested playing the lottery game as an icebreaker. “Ask them, ‘If you won the lottery, what would you do?’ I think that tells you a lot about a person,” she said.
For instance, would they give some of the money to charity? Invest in property? Blow it all on cars and parties? The answer could tell you enough to know whether date No. 4 would be worth your time.
When things get serious: “How do our financial lives compare?”
Relationships move at their own pace. You might be exchanging I-love-yous after three months or waiting to make things exclusive several years into dating. Whatever “serious” means to you, be sure to have a serious conversation about your current financial situation too.
“Talking about financial successes and failures is important,” said Voisin. She recommended sharing with each other your proudest accomplishments as well as your money mistakes or regrets. This can serve as a good jumping-off point to dig deeper into each other’s financial pictures.
“We definitely need to bring up the big C-word, credit,” said Smith. She pointed out that if you eventually want to get a house or apartment together (more on that below), your credit scores will inevitably come to light. It’s best to put that information on the table early.
In fact, the more transparent you are with each other about your savings, debt and overall financial health, the better you will understand what your future as a couple might look like and what part you’ll each play in it.
Moving in together: “What’s mine, yours and ours?”
The moving-in stage is often the ultimate test of a relationship. Adorable quirks can transform into irritating habits. Alone time becomes harder to come by. And suddenly, you share everything.
Navigating this relationship milestone requires a ton of compromise. What will you each keep? What will you sell, toss or donate to make room for this new person in your life? “If you both are living in separate places, you probably have two washers, two dryers, two TVs. These are things you can sell to raise money for a wedding or to help pay down debt,” said Smith.
Voisin said that if you’re comfortable with it, opening a joint checking or savings account can help you get used to managing money as a couple. It also prompts you to have the conversation about how you’re going to allocate your money. “Are we agreeing to save a certain amount and then spend the rest as we wish?” said Voisin. “Or should we be putting a little bit extra into the joint account … and if things go wrong, we split the savings 50/50?”
And there’s one more scenario you shouldn’t neglect to discuss: What happens to your shared belongings if you break up? This issue can feel especially awkward to raise, but imagine how much more difficult it would be to work out when you’re no longer a couple.
Getting engaged: “How do we envision our future together?”
Getting engaged means you’re ready to commit to each other. This transforms your conversations about money from what’s going on right now to what you want for the future. It’s time to talk about everything from how many kids you want, if any, to how much retirement income you’ll need.
Although discussing your future together can be exciting, one important matter you shouldn’t neglect is protection planning, according to Voisin. If the worst happens, how do you ensure that a surviving spouse has the financial support he or she will need?
“It’s making sure that each person has enough … and having that conversation about what does ‘taken care of’ actually mean,” said Voisin.
Of course, marriage isn’t for everyone. But couples that stay together for the long haul still experience many of the same financial concerns and needs. So if you think your partner is your forever person, it’s still important to have this conversation even if you don’t plan to get married.
Starting a family: “Where will our kids go to school?”
Once you have kids, your lives will generally revolve around them and their education. For instance, will you need to budget for child care, or will one of you take time off work to raise your family? If you live in a neighborhood where the public schools aren’t great, will you need to save for a private education or move to another district?
“Those are conversations you definitely want to have ahead of the baby coming, because that’s a very short time frame,” said Smith.
And while you don’t need to open a 529 plan the moment your pregnancy test comes back positive, it is important to at least start talking about college. Voisin recommended discussing whether you will expect your children to pay their own way through school or if you plan to help. And if you do, figure out how much you need to sock away each month.
Growing older together: “How will we support our family in our golden years and beyond?”
Spending your days with the person you love at your side means a lifetime of shared adventures and memories. You’ve built a life, family and legacy together. These golden years should be cherished, Still, it’s also important to talk about how that legacy will be protected if one of you is no longer around.
At this point, you will need comprehensive financial planning. “Your life has changed so much,” said Voisin. “You’ve maybe paid off a mortgage, put kids through college … Maybe there are grandchildren in the picture now. It’s really a discussion about your estate distribution,” she said.
To guide that conversation, it’s important to enlist the help of a professional. “Financially responsible couples have hired a financial planner to help put a plan in place for them,” said Smith.
She added that most financial planners are going to require that couples have a living will and know how their health care will be paid for, as well whether they have sufficient insurance and retirement savings to support one partner if the other dies earlier.
“Those types of conversations are absolutely going to come up when working with a financial planner and estate planning attorney,” Smith said.
Keep the conversation going.
Some of these money talks can be difficult to bring up. But it’s important to get through the awkwardness and maintain an open dialogue about finances with your partner.
One way to do that? Schedule monthly or quarterly “money dates,” recommended Smith.
“Money can cause fights. You don’t want to bring up a conversation about the electric bill when someone’s had a long day,” she said. Instead, set aside time when you both know you’re going to discuss financial matters and nothing else.
Money can make or break a relationship. If you and your partner are as committed to speaking transparently about finances as you are to each other, you can avoid unneeded stress and arguing that often tears couples apart.