Talk to any married couple, and you know that money is one of the most common stressors, and studies show that financial troubles are among the top five reasons for divorce. Couples fight so much about money because each partner enters with their own financial baggage, from personal experiences, debt and even cultural expectations. But one of the best ways to prevent that stress is to start talking about money early and often, especially before you ever get married.
To help you get started, I sat down with Erin Lowry, author of the three-part Broke Millennial series, to talk about what engaged couples need to discuss before tying the knot. We get into everything from prenups, pooling finances and navigating financial uncertainty.
Erin, thanks for joining me. Let’s kick it off with a big one: What do you think are the three most important things a couple should do with their money before they get married?
Marriage is the single biggest financial decision you will make. Not your wedding. Your marriage. It’s critical you go into the marriage being able to have financial conversations in a healthy way.
Here’s how you can make that a healthy financial decision:
One, talk about money. I know that sounds simple, but it’s alarming how many people elect to get married without achieving full frontal financial nudity. You need to know all the ins-and-outs of your future spouse’s finances including salary, debt, financial goals and whether or not you two will help support other family members. Yes, it is your business. No matter how you plan to handle money in your marriage, your partner’s financial situation will now impact your own.
Second, set and prioritize your financial goals. Your financial goals should be the bedrock of your overall financial plan. Setting and then prioritizing your financial goals is an important part of getting on the same team as a soon-to-be-married couple.
And third, discuss a prenup. Guess what, you have a prenup. It’s just the default laws of your state. You should understand what your state’s laws are around the splitting of assets brought into a marriage and created during a marriage in the case of divorce. Of course no one goes into a marriage thinking they’ll get divorced, but life is long and people change. You also have no control over another person. Even if you’d never leave your partner, you can’t control his or her actions. If you aren’t comfortable with your state’s version of a fair division of assets, then you should consider getting your own prenup. Think about it like a marriage insurance policy. You don’t have car insurance or homeowner’s insurance because you hope or think something will go wrong. You have them just in case. A prenup is the same.
I imagine most people don’t understand that their state’s laws surrounding the division of assets are essentially their prenup. The idea of putting together a prenup, then, is more about making it work for you and your spouse. Makes complete sense.
What advice would you give to someone who isn’t happy with the default laws of the state and wants to get their own prenup, but their partner refuses to sign it?
For starters, you need to start the prenup conversation early. Really early. I started mine before my husband and I were even engaged. I asked him his thoughts on prenups and used that as a way to explain why I believe them to be important.
Don’t escalate this into a fight and don’t threaten to withhold marriage until he or she signs the prenup. Instead, you need to have a healthy, productive conversation (perhaps with a therapist) about your whys. Why is your fiancé feeling uncomfortable with the prenup and why is a prenup important to you?
A prenup should ultimately feel fair to both parties and not be used as a way to exert leverage or control over another person. If the prenup doesn’t feel fair, then you need to have a conversation about what would feel fair to both parties and, without anger, explain your reasoning.
You should also never blame parents or other family members for requesting the prenup. That’s a quick way to spoil your future spouse’s relationship with your family!
I want to stay on the topic of prenups for one more question. Any important points couples shouldn’t overlook in writing one?
Hire lawyers. Each of you needs your own lawyer in order to have fair representation. One lawyer can’t represent both parties. You can also print out a prenup template ahead of time to talk through and discuss together what feels fair in the context of your relationship and marriage. That can help reduce billable hours if you go in with a united front about what you want in a prenup.
Thinking that maybe you don’t need a prenup because you don’t have much in assets? One consideration: retirement accounts. You should ensure your retirement accounts are protected because those are often heavily hit in divorce proceedings. There should also be a clause about the financial support a spouse would get if he or she left the workforce to be a caregiver. For example, a spousal IRA would need to be funded or being out of the workforce for a period of time would void waiving alimony.
Do you have any suggestions for couples who are struggling to open up and talk about their finances before marriage?
Frankly, you shouldn’t be getting married if you can’t have healthy, productive conversations about finances. Money impacts every part of our lives. The inability to have healthy conversations about money sets you up for a long-term struggle. It also could be an indicator of an underlying issue around communication. Instead of rushing to the “I do’s”—take time to meet with a financial therapist or couples counselor to help sort out the blocks you two may be having around communication.
For engaged couples who haven’t spent much time discussing their finances, are there any red flags they should look out for as they begin to open up with each other? Debt, for example, is a pain point for a lot of couples.
Debt doesn’t need to be a deal breaker. Instead, the focus should be on behaviors around money. For example, your partner reveals that they have credit card debt. The existence of credit card debt itself doesn’t need to be concerning. You need to discuss how the credit card debt happened and what the plan is to pay it off. Perhaps your partner had an unexpected medical emergency and didn’t have enough in emergency savings to pay it off. Even if the credit card debt is a relic of a prior mismanagement around money, that’s not the red flag. The red flag would be a continued mismanagement of money. Use today’s behavior to evaluate your partner’s relationship to money instead of being overly critical of their past.
Research is showing that millennial couples are combining finances less often than older generations, what do you think the reasons are?
Millennials have historically gotten married a little later in life than previous generations, which means both parties are more likely to have established themselves in their careers and set up their preferred methods for handling money. It can be as simple as wanting to maintain status-quo after marriage or just enjoying a level of continued financial autonomy. The “yours, mine and ours” system of being joint for shared expenses and separate for personal spend does seem to be fairly common.
It doesn’t really matter how you handle your finances in marriage as long as you’re communicating and both comfortable with the strategy.
Communication is obviously key. But I also recently read a study that discovered that couples who pooled their money together have a higher quality relationship. Can you talk to me a little bit about why that would be true?
I actually wrote an op-ed about this study.
Notably, those with fewer financial resources were the ones who found the greatest benefit from combining finances in marriage.
Ultimately, it all comes down to communication skills. I truly don’t buy into the idea that any version of separate finances indicates a crack in the foundation of your marriage. It does, however, require higher levels of communication.
That all makes a lot of sense. Now, for couples who do decide to combine their money, any tips?
Whether your money is separate or joint, both parties need to be able to operate as the Chief Financial Officer of your household. It should never be one person with all the knowledge around paying bills, investments, and savings.
Those who elect to be 100% joint should ensure that it’s still a partnership and one person doesn’t turn into the financial dictator. You need to be careful about not micromanaging your partner’s spending habits and be okay with the fact that you won’t always value the exact same things. Have discussions about how you are each allowed to spend on “wants” vs “needs”.
We’ve covered the kinds of conversations that need to happen before marriage, then what are the three most important things after they say, “I do”?
One, start to implement your financial strategy and household budget based on your financial goals. You might have to go through the logistics of setting up new joint bank accounts or sharing passwords.
Two, update your beneficiaries. Make sure that your spouse is now the beneficiary on your life insurance policy, retirement plan, bank accounts, investment accounts and any workplace benefits. A beneficiary will often override a will, so be sure to update your beneficiaries!
And three, update your wills and estate plan (or create one!). I know it’s a morbid topic to many, but you need to have a will and an estate plan, yes, even before having kids, but especially if you do have kids!
This is all really great, and I appreciate your time. One last question with all of the financial turmoil happening in the world right now, and it can be scary for people getting ready to start a life together. Any advice for staying calm?
Focus on your own financial household and journey. Don’t forget to celebrate incremental wins and be sure to track your progress to reflect back on how far you’ve come when the going gets tough. Having a partner should be an advantage and can be as long as you have open communication, set realistic, actionable goals and work together to achieve them.