How to Discuss Finances With Your Partner
Easy to do for some, hard for others. If you’re having trouble discussing money matters with the person who matters in your life, here are some tips.
If you’re married or living with a significant other, and you’re having trouble discussing your finances, that’s an understandable dilemma. After all, if you two have a connection, what you have is intangible. But then bringing money into the equation can suddenly make a relationship feel like a business.
Relationships are, in many ways, a business. Frequently, couples refer to each other as partners. If you’re married, you have a license, and you may have even signed a prenuptial contract.
The American Institute of CPAs found that 73% of their 2,040 respondents said financial decisions are a regular source of tension in their relationship, and 47% said the tension had impacted their intimacy with their partner. Finances can affect the quality of everybody’s life. The more easily you can discuss money with your partner, the better your relationship is likely to be.
When Is the Right Time to Talk With Your Partner About Finances
Almost any time can be the right time if you’re both willing to discuss money. Here are some guidelines to consider based on the stages of your relationship.
When You’re Dating
You don’t need to start talking about serious financial issues on the first date, like how much debt you may have. But if you feel like it’s going to become a problem later, you may want to bring it up. Debt in relationships can be a major source of stress.
You do want to reveal any serious debt that you have at some point, says John Grabowski, a professor of moral theology and ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
"If someone has massive debt, they need to disclose that — maybe not on the first date but definitely before they head down the aisle toward the altar," Grabowski says.
The best thing you can do is be upfront about any serious debt you have early on with a potential partner. It may be what ends the relationship, but it also may strengthen your bonds. Your partner may appreciate your honesty and feel that you’re taking the debt seriously.
If you both are already open to discussing debt, you may also discuss other financial topics such as credit card spending habits, retirement plans and investments.
When You’ve Been Dating for a Few Months
Ideally, you should be discussing money a fair amount and getting a sense of whether your values and financial habits are similar after dating for a few months. Maybe one of you likes to splurge, and the other is constantly looking for discounts.
If you haven’t already started these conversations, it’s a good time to discuss debt, credit scores, savings accounts, emergency funds and retirement plans if your partner has any.
If you feel uncomfortable, keep in mind that you will have to discuss finances at one point in your lives together. Depending on your partner’s spending habits, you’re going to want to ask yourself if their financial habits will be something you can live with long-term if you’re looking for a committed relationship.
If you are a financial mismatch, that doesn’t mean you two should part ways. But it’s better to know whether you think alike or are on other planets before you move in with each other and start mingling your money.
When You’re Married or Living Together
At this stage, you’re going to talk about money a lot. It isn’t a topic that should be discussed once or twice, and then you never bring it up again. Money is going to be in the backdrop of your married lives. Ideally, you want to discuss finances pretty easily and whenever naturally.
But to get there, you may want to try having “money dates,” says Stacy Mastrolia, an associate professor of accounting at Bucknell University's Freeman College of Management in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Mastrolia recommends that couples set up a time and place to talk where each person is comfortable and when you both can have “an unhurried, uninterrupted, private talk.” Ideally, you’ll do this on a regular basis.
If it’s the first money date and one that you’re going to reveal something financially problematic, like debts you haven’t mentioned before — and hopefully, you are having this discussion well before marrying or living together — Mastrolia urges you to “be honest and thorough.”
“Don’t tell partial truths,” Mastrolia says. “You only get one chance to come completely clean without seeming dishonest later.”
Questions to Ask Your Partner
Whether you call a financial conversation a “money date” or something else, it’s important to have at least one serious talk — and preferably several — before you live together. Because once you two begin sharing a bank account, paying bills and mixing your money, your lives may get complicated.
It's far easier to set expectations for each person and try to follow them — rather than get into habits and patterns of financial behavior and then try to backtrack and start coming up with a fair way to manage your money together.
Here are some questions that you may want to ask each other:
- Where do you want to be financially in the future?
- What do you think was your biggest financial mistake?
- What do you feel is a financial need? And what’s a financial want?
- How do you feel about going into debt in general?
- What has your experience with credit cards been like? Do you use them successfully, or have you had problems with them?
- How much do you make at your job?
- If one of us wants to buy something expensive, should we tell the other if we have the money? And if we think we should, what do we define as expensive? Something over $100? Something that is $500 and more?
- Are you carrying debt? If so, how much?
- How did you get into debt?
- How do you plan on paying your debt off?
- Do you think that debt could affect me? Do you think I should help you pay it off?
- What’s your credit score?
- If it is low, how do you plan on raising your credit score?
These are just guidelines and questions you could ask. Asking your partner how much they make could be invasive — for instance, if you’re discussing money early in the relationship and you’re not yet living together. On the other hand, if you plan on moving in together or are married, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to know how much the other makes.
Keep in mind that you’re discussing finances in a comfortable environment for both of you. It shouldn’t feel like an interrogation. Asking every question on this list and any others you feel you need to ask, may be overkill — but you may someday find yourself in a financially unhealthy relationship if you’re asking no questions. Especially if you’ve set up a “money date,” you should feel free to ask questions and be prepared to answer.
How to Budget With Your Partner
When budgeting with your partner, you need to agree on how you will budget and continually communicate about how you’re managing your money together.
Some of the questions and topics you’ll want to discuss include:
Addressing Debt as a Team
If one or both of you have debt, such as high balances on credit cards or student loans, you’ll want to discuss it. Like budgeting, the best strategy is to work together and agree on the approach to pay off your debts, especially if you’re in a committed relationship or married.
For instance, this may be your debt — or your partner’s — and you or your partner may have differing opinions on how it should be handled. Some feel that married couples are responsible for each other’s debt, and both of them will make some financial sacrifices, like not buying a new car or not going on a vacation, until it’s paid off. Others prefer the partner who got into debt to solve the issue on their own.
You want to agree early on about the approach to managing the debt — if one of you will handle it or if both of you will. Once you have that down, you can start to budget and figure out how much money to put toward the debt. Also, keep in mind your mental health as you tackle your debts.
3 Ways to Manage Debt
After you figure out how much you have in your monthly budget to pay off your debts, you’ll want to decide on the best strategy for paying it off the fastest.
For instance, there are the popular debt avalanche and the debt snowball strategies.
The debt avalanche strategy focuses on paying off your debts with the highest interest rate first (and you make the minimum payments on the other debts). After that first debt is paid off, you can focus on paying the next one with the highest interest rate. And so on.
The debt snowball strategy works in which you focus on the smallest debt. For example, if you have a credit card debt of $1,000, a credit card with $5,000 and another with $10,000, you’d get that credit card with the $1,000 balance paid off first. Then you’d focus on the card with $5,000. And so on.
Continue Discussing Your Money
You’re probably starting to notice a trend when it comes to money and romance: you’re in this together. And as with anything involving a relationship, good communication is especially essential when discussing money.
If you start the conversation early, you’ll naturally get better at communicating about money and managing it. Of course, if things don’t go well and you discover that early in the relationship, that’s better for both of you in the long run.
It’s a truism in love and money — bills always come due. If you don’t talk about finances with your partner early on, you may both end up paying for it later. According to Fidelity, “one in five couples identify money as their greatest relationship challenge.”
Experts' Tips on Discussing Finances With Your Partner
- What are some practical ways to initiate a financial conversation with a partner?
- How can couples balance the desire for individual spending with the need for shared financial goals?
- How can couples navigate the challenges of paying off debt, such as student loans or credit card balances?
- What advice would you give to couples who have different attitudes towards spending money?
Owner of Financial Coach Seth Connell, LLC
The Couples Financial Coach
About Geoff Williams
- Fidelity Investments. "2021 Couples & Money Study." Accessed January 21, 2022.
- The American Institute of CPAs. "Relationship Intimacy Being Crushed by Financial Tension: AICPA Survey." Accessed January 21, 2022.