6 Questions About Money Every Couple Should Ask Themselves
These conversation starters will help make dreaded money talks easier.
Let’s face it: Talking about money can be a total turn off—and a huge source of stress—for couples. But money factors into a partnership again and again and, you guessed it, again, from the first date (who pays?) to moving in (who contributes to which bills?) to merging finances (you’re in how much debt?) to planning a long life together (how will we handle retirement?), and any one of these conversations, while crucial, can be uncomfortable.
But there are ways to make these necessary financial check-ins less of a chore. Money coach Denise Hughes recommends adding a dose of fun by doing an activity while you talk. “I think that for money discussions, we need to invite in some lightness and be open-minded, no matter what that means for a couple. Maybe it means going out to dinner, or cooking a great dinner at home, and having a conversation about what their dreams are for the next year,” Hughes, the author of Earn, Save, Spend, Give: 4 Things to Do with Your Money and How to Make It All Work. says. “My husband and I go on a hike at the beginning of January every year to discuss our money goals. We talk about what needs to be done around the house, where we want to go on vacation—all while hiking in nature."
Doesn’t that sound actually pleasant? Whether you hash it out on a mountain or over a meal, six months into dating or sixteen years into marriage, here are some of the questions Hughes suggests you cover.
“It might be surprising, but a lot of couples live in such vagueness, or even secrecy, around their money. So asking the question ‘where are we?’ really requires people to have their eyes wide open,” Hughes says.
Data from 4,500 families in the National Survey of Families and Households found that financial disagreements were the greatest predictor of divorce, so it’s well worth the initial awkwardness to ward off a troubled future. For couples in the early stages of commitment, that could mean revealing salaries, savings, and debts. More established couples may need to assess bills, expenses, and make plans to stay on track with where they want to be.
If that initial conversation reveals you’re off track with your spending or saving goals, Hughes recommends tracking every financial output as a couple for one to two months.
“Look at the expenses, without judgment, to understand where money is flowing,” she advises. “Look at what is coming in and what is going out.” Then ask, why are we spending there? What psychological need is being met with this expense?
It may sound touchy-feely, but if certain purchases aren’t “nourishing to you as a couple,” as Hughes put it, then they have to go. While some expenses, like your electric bill, might not spark that Marie Kondo joy, they are still extremely necessary. But what about the money spent on double dinner dates with friends? It may be worth dedicating that money and time to a night out with just the two of you. After all, you're less likely to tack on one more bottle of wine or an extra dessert when you’re out alone together.
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Your pressing needs will change throughout your life (hello, children!) and even year-to-year, which is why it’s necessary to figure out the prize so you can keep your eye on it. It could be paying off credit-card debt, replacing your car, or saving for college.
“Some couples might say, Funding private school for our kids is our top priority. Another couple might say, This year, vacation is our top priority,” Hughes says. “Another might say, We will work on saving as much as we can because last year we went into debt because of unforeseen expenses.” Having a shared goal helps keep you on the same page.
This question can be incredibly enlightening no matter the stage of your relationship. Hughes envisions “two people sharing what their money story is: what it was like in their younger years, how do they think about money, and how is it important to them?”
Perhaps your partner or you grew up in a home in which money was a constant source of anxiety, or maybe you had a mother who loved to splurge, or a grandfather who kept wads of cash under the mattress.
“Everyone has stories about money that have shaped their life in positive ways and not-so-positive ways,” Hughes says. By connecting the dots, you can better understand why a big back-to-school spending spree might cause your partner distress.
Hughes views sex and money as similar topics in terms of their level of importance to a couple—and their potential level of shame.
“Whether someone has a lot of credit card debt or not enough in savings, whatever the issue is, we all have money stuff,” Hughes says. She suggests approaching these confessions from a place of curiosity and compassion rather than blame and judgment, because neither of you can move forward and fix the problem if you’re not comfortable talking about it.
Unless you have the same jobs with the same hours and same salary, one half of a couple will always make more money, and thus will have more money to contribute to the household. That’s just math, so “figure out how you’re comfortable divvying up the financial tasks,” Hughes says.
Will you have a shared checking account for fixed bills like the mortgage and car payments? Would you feel most comfortable if some of your paycheck went to your own savings account, so that your partner isn’t poring over every latte purchase? “It ultimately doesn’t matter which person pays for what parts of your life, but it does matter that both of you know what is going on with your money,” Hughes says. “There are so many forms of contribution currency,” she notes, and with the right conversations you will stay in the black.