I am really bothered by the results of a recent poll of engaged couples on the website of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. The poll reveals that 68 percent of respondents held negative attitudes toward discussing money with their fiance. Five percent indicated that talking about money with their fiance would cause them to call off the wedding. Well, guess what? If you can’t talk about your finances with your fiance, you should call off the wedding!
I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it until the message gets through: You can talk about money before you get married—or you can fight over it through the divorce. Court records show that financial issues remain one of the main contributing factors, if not the outright cause, of the conflicts that result in 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce. If the inability to have the money talk causes you to delay, or even cancel, the wedding, good. Better a cancelled wedding than a devastating divorce. I speak not just as a money expert, but from personal experience when I say that the latter is far more costly—and more painful.
If your goal is to make sure that the wedding goes off perfectly and without a hitch, then by all means, skip the money talk. But if your goal is to give you and your fiance the best possible chance for a lasting, successful marriage, you need to have that financial conversation as early and as regularly as possible. Recognize that when you marry, you are entering into legal and financial contracts as well as spiritual and emotional ones. You are literally merging two incomes, lifestyles and sets of financial attitudes. And just like two corporations, if your merger is not thoughtfully planned out, it could be disastrous to you, your finances and your relationship.
Both of you likely have financial baggage, such as bad credit, student loan debt, child support commitments, unpaid tax obligations and other issues. If you choose to ignore them now, they will breed conflict and discord in your marriage later. It will be initially uncomfortable or even agonizing to address these issues, but the only way to make it easier is to openly discuss them and come to agreement on how you will live your financial life as partners. Money talks must begin before you tie the knot, and continue at least monthly throughout the marriage—which means you’re committing to it for a lifetime, even though it may not ultimately turn out that way. For some basic guidelines to get you started, here are some dos and don’ts from the NFCC for this financial conversation (with additional editorializing from me in italics):
Don’t spring the conversation on your partner out of the blue. Instead, set a time to talk that is convenient for you both. By the way, constant rescheduling is a sign of a lack of commitment from you, your fiance or both—not the sign of a couple who is ready for marriage.
Do make it a casual conversation about a serious subject, respecting the fact that each of you have valid opinions and concerns.
Do be honest about the current financial situation. If the courtship phase has painted a financially unrealistic picture, it’s time to be honest about what your long-term financial lifestyle will really look like as a married couple. So, for example, if you and your boo had been dining out several times a week when you were dating, now is the time to face the fact that your budget can only accommodate fancy date nights once a month.
Probe to understand long-held financial attitudes, often present since childhood and likely ingrained by observing how parents addressed money issues. This will likely be sensitive personal territory. However, if you can’t trust each other enough to be both honest and intimate about money, you’re not ready for marriage.
Don’t hide income or debt. This is just one example of financial infidelity. Both of you should share all financial documents, including recent credit reports, pay stubs, bank statements, insurance policies, etc. Again, if you’re not ready to do this, you’re just kidding yourself about being ready to get married. Financial infidelity is just as destructive to a marriage as the sexual kind.
Don’t point the finger of blame—that’s a real conversation stopper. It’s also a sign that you or your fiance will use financial issues as justification for belittling, punishing or controlling your partner—a proven relationship killer. You’re bringing your issues out into the open not to have ammunition to use against each other, but so you can work together as partners to resolve them.
Do make a plan to deal with any skeletons that come out of the financial closet. Ignoring them now could have devastating consequences, including damaging your credit, later.
Do create a budget that includes savings. When just getting started, money is often tight, making it tempting to put off beginning to save. But the fact that money is tight means having a financial safety net in the form of savings is more necessary than ever.
Do decide which person will be responsible for paying monthly bills. However, though one person might manage this process, both partners must always be engaged, informed and in agreement on how the budget is to be managed.
Do decide on short-term and long-term goals for your household and family, as well as for you as individuals.
Do talk about loaning money to family members and friends. Decide if it’s something both of you are comfortable with, or would rather avoid. Agree upon ground rules and conditions under which such loans would be made, if at all.
Do talk about caring for aging parents, and how to appropriately plan for their financial needs, if necessary. The same discussion should be had about children and grandchildren from other relationships.
For help with merging your finances and coming up with a plan to manage your money as a couple, speak to your certified financial planner—especially if you and/or your partner have been married before. Also consider an appointment with a certified consumer credit counselor at an NFCC Agency. To find an agency closest to you, go to DebtAdvice.org or call 800-388-2227.