Opening Lines of Communication: Asking Financial Questions before Marriage

By: Carol Church & David Lee Sexton, Jr., MS

Pexels[Man and Woman Sitting Together by Juan Pablo Arenas, March 15, 2018, CC0]
Are wedding bells ringing soon for you or someone you know? Planning a wedding can be surprisingly hard work. It’s easy to get caught up in all the many details, from booking a venue to making the guest list. At times, couples can forget about the “big picture”…preparing for the rest of their lives together.

During engagement and up to the first few years of marriage, many couples may be experiencing “la vie en rose”… That is, seeing their life, and their partner, through rose colored glasses. Everything will likely seem to be going so perfectly that couples forget to take the time to really get to know the nitty gritty about the person with which they will be spending the rest of their lives. As such, it is important to have those potentially tough conversations so that once the honeymoon phase is over, you and your partner won’t be in for any unexpected surprises.

One key aspect of planning for the many years ahead is getting on the same financial page with your partner. Though this may not sound like the world’s most romantic conversation, it’s key. Disagreements about finances are one of most common problems in marriage, and may even be the #1 source of conflict in newly married couples. Getting really mad about money is an especially big problem; couples who tend to get into bitter, angry fights about finances are especially likely to end up in divorce court. But debt also looms large in the divorce crisis. Research shows that “consumer debt” (like credit card debt and car notes) can and does eat away at marital happiness.
Meanwhile, couples with low debt who communicate well about money are significantly more likely to report being happy in their marriages. Obviously, whether we like it or not, money matters to marriage.

So what’s an engaged couple to do? The key is not to rush into a new marriage simply hoping and wishing for the best…instead, talk about it. Flora (2014) notes that while many of us would like to believe that we are completely open with the ones we love, even the best relationships can have “simmering topics” that are just outright avoided, such as housework, in-laws, or, of course, money. However, relationships are built on compromise, meaning that sometimes things are better left undiscussed, as constant discussions about little stressors or inconveniences can be damaging to relationships.

Researchers have examined why some topics may be avoided and some may be brought up, and they have found that the reasons for avoidance may play a larger role than the topic itself; for example, self-protection was found to influence whether or not individuals broach topics with their partners (Flora, 2014). Perhaps the subject is embarrassing and the individual would rather avoid it than subject themselves to the embarrassment of discussing it. However, Flora also notes that disclosure begets intimacy, and while it may be difficult to balance disclosing and avoiding at the start of a relationship, the act itself can strengthen bonds. Below are some tips for better communication and some specific questions should help engaged couples get on the road to financial and marital success.

Communication Tips:

• Before broaching a topic, ask yourself “why am I bringing this up?”
Is the topic beneficial for just you or the relationship? Communications professor Melanie Booth-Butterfield suggests that broach topics that benefit both parties will be more beneficial (Flora, 2014).

• Consider your emotions before broaching heavy topics
It is also important to wait until you are in the right state of mind to discuss sensitive topics. If you are feeling angry, anxious, or upset, it may not be the right time to discuss serious topics like finances. Take some time to cool down first.

• Consider your emotions before broaching heavy topics
Finally, be as empathetic as possible. Think about how your partner will feel and consider their emotions and experiences when discussing tough topics. Furthermore, be prepared to own up to any blame you hold for problems you and your partner may have faced.

Financial Questions to Ask Before Marriage:

• Will you combine money, keep it separate, or try some other method?
The question of whether or not to put all money in one big “pot” can be a difficult one for some couples. In most cases, combining makes sense, and can be a demonstration of trust in your partner and the marriage. Not combining has actually even been found to be a risk factor for divorce in some studies. However, there may be times that full combination is not the best choice, such as when one partner has come into a large inheritance or needs to set aside money for children from another relationship. Joint accounts can also create stress when one partner tends to be irresponsible about spending. Some experts advise combining accounts for all major expenses, while allowing each spouse a small “fun money” account that he or she can spend out of at will.

• How will you budget?
Perhaps one of you already has a system in place—for instance, devoting 20% of income to savings, or paying all bills up front and only then allowing “frivolous” spending. That’s great, but at this point, you’re going to need to talk that over with your future spouse. Consulting one of the many budget sites out there, like Youneedabudget, may help couples come up with a system that works.

• Do you know the nitty-gritty details of each other’s financial situations?
Though it may seem surprising, it’s not uncommon for partners to avoid revealing problem debt, past bankruptcies, or other financial “oopsies” to their partners, even for years. Marriage and financial counselors alike say this is a bad idea. Couples should be financially “naked” with each other: your partner needs to know your monthly financial obligations, your credit score, your student loan balance, what you have in savings and retirement accounts, and any kind of “money trouble” you’re in. Your financial pasts are bound to come to light at some point, and if the two of you can’t handle those realities together, that’s a concern.

• Do you know each other’s financial strengths and weaknesses?
Are you in touch with what your partner does well and not-so-well when it comes to money? For instance, maybe he balances his checkbook faithfully every month, but can’t stop buying $200 sneakers. Or maybe she has a ton of money in her 401K, but keeps forgetting to pay her credit card bill on time. These are habits both of you need to know about, talk about, and be honest about.

• Do you know each other’s financial values and beliefs?
We all have a set of values and beliefs when it comes to money. For instance, some people tithe 10% to the church, while others would be shocked by this amount. Some people will lend or give money to family in need with no questions asked; others never discuss money with relatives. Some donate generously to charity even when their own finances are tight, while others rarely give.
Similarly, many of us have strong feelings about “wasting” money or about being “cheap” that can be quite emotional. For instance, one member of a couple may want to take friends out for drinks regularly or may find it shameful to shop at a thrift store, while the other might feel very differently.
These patterns may well be tied to family financial history: how money was handled in each person’s house growing up and what was modeled for them there. This is another topic to discuss!

• What about a pre-nup?
While pre-nuptial agreements are not common (about 5-10% of marriages put one in place), for some people, they can be the smart choice. Typically, a pre-nup is drawn up when one member of the couple has very substantial assets or owns a business. If your future spouse is suggesting one for other reasons, it’s possible that trust issues are at play.

• Who will do what?
In many marriages, one person tends to be the financial manager: paying the bills, tracking investments, and keeping an eye on the general financial health of the union. While this can have its advantages, it’s important that both members of the couple feel good about it and that the “nonmanager” knows how to check and access accounts in case of emergency. In addition, remember to be cautious about consolidating all the financial power in the relationship. Even if someone “manages,” there should still be frequent and clear communication about finances and money goals.

• What are your financial goals and dreams?
Have you talked about your future goals and how they relate to money? For instance, when do you want to retire, and what do you picture that being like? If you want children, is it important to you that someone stay home with them, and for how long? What kind of house do you want to own? Do you want to leave a financial inheritance to your children? All these factors can affect how the two of you think about money, savings, and earning income as a couple.

References

Cobb, C. (n.d.) Money Talk Before Marriage: Five Conversations You Should Have. Retrieved from http://finance.youngmoney.com/credit_debt/money_management/saving/money-talk-before-marriage/

Flora, C. (2014). Just say it. Psychology Today, 47(5), 52-61.

Martin, A. (2016). 11 Essential Money Matters to Discuss Before Marriage. Retrieved from https://www.moneytalksnews.com/10-money-matters-discuss-before-marriage/

Martin, E. (2016). 8 money conversations every couple should have before getting engaged. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/money-conversations-before-getting-engaged-2016-12

Potier, B. (2003). For many, prenups seem to predict doom. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2003/10/for-many-prenups-seem-to-predict-doom/

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