6 Money Conversations to Have Before Getting Hitched + Red Flags

Chang Fu
Mar 05, 2021

Money is a hard enough topic of conversation as it is, and most people wouldn’t dare bring it up on a first date. However, finances play a huge role in the success of a marriage, according to psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, PhD. She explains, “Money is one of the biggest generators of problems, arguments, and resentment in long-term relationships.”

There’s no denying dating and money are important compatibility factors when determining a life partner. The earlier you start having financial talks with your significant other, the easier it will be to align your future goals and overcome challenges. Start with the basics like money history, and then delve into more complicated topics like outstanding loans, income, saving and spending habits, and, eventually, beneficiaries. 

Table of Contents:

The Framework of Successful Money Conversations

Successful money conversations for couples are all about being on the same page. Start with the big picture. What are your financial goals in 5, 10, and 15 years? From there, work backwards to agree on concrete steps to reach those goals. 

“Knowing the way(s) in which your partner views and deals with money tells you a great deal about what you can expect financially in your future relationship with him or her.”

—Dr. Fran Walfish

We asked Dr. Fran Walfish — a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” regular expert child psychologist on “The Doctors,” CBS TV, and co-star on WE tv — to explain how to talk to your spouse about money. She states, “Be aware of your own issues. Be accountable and own up to your part of the problem.” In regards to addressing conflicts, she continues, “Don’t react immediately. Cool off first. Listen carefully without interrupting to understand what doesn’t feel good to your partner and with genuine interest.” Lastly, she suggests sticking to the topic at hand and using humor to diffuse intensities and maintain perspective. 

So when’s the right time to have money conversations with your sweetheart? Different stages in dating call for different money conversations, some with more difficulty than others. Use the key below to navigate when to bring up various money topics with your partner and gauge just how tough they may be.

money-conversation-key

Money History

Understanding your partner’s money history is one of the first money conversations you should have. You may get a sense of their wealth as you begin talking about general family history, but as your relationship evolves, consider delving in deeper.  

Find out the general financial relationship your partner had in their childhood home by asking about their happiest and their hardest money memory. Continue the money conversation with questions like: 

  • Were you ever taught lessons in financial literacy?
  • Did your childhood feel financially secure?
  • What’s your first money memory?
  • What’s your opinion about giving or loaning money to family members?
how to talk about financial history

When talking about money history with your partner, remind yourself to be judgement-free. There are often factors your significant other had no control over and could be a source of guilt or embarrassment. 

  • Why you should bring it up: Everyone’s history with money is unique and it’s important to understand where they are coming from to see how it’s impacted them.
  • When to bring it up: When you’re casually dating in the early stages of the relationship. 
  • Expert advice: “Family models about money can have a lasting impact on a person. Some believe it is unromantic, some believe it is crass, and others believe it is odd to discuss money because their parents upheld certain gender norms.” — April Masini, relationship author and columnist, Ask April

Outstanding Debt

In marriage, there are two ways to go about any outstanding debt. You and your partner can either decide to take it on as a joint responsibility, or leave it as the payee’s sole responsibility. While there’s no right or wrong answer, it’s important to make that decision before you cosign with credit scores that may vary significantly. Ask your partner:

  • How were you able to pay for college? 
  • Do you use credit cards? 
  • Do you pay the minimum balance on your loans each month?
how to talk about debt

Forty-seven percent of people with consumer debt say that debt is a source of anxiety, according to a study by Ramsey Solutions. Talk with your partner openly, and help them structure a plan to pay off debt if necessary. 

  • Why you should bring it up: If you were to cosign on a lease, house, car, or any other type of loan, you’re responsible for any delinquent debt. 
  • When to bring it up: During serious relationships, when the relationship begins to get more serious, and before you sign a lease or housing agreement that could affect your credit score.
  • Expert advice: ”In many cases, partners might be ashamed of their debt which could be a reason they haven’t shared that. Opening up about these things can allow your partner to share advice or help guide you in the right financial direction.” — George Birrell, CPA & Founder of Taxhub

Income Streams

Depending on your level of comfort, income streams may change when you tie the knot. If you plan to have kids, this may be impacted by whether or not your child will be in daycare versus someone staying at home with them. Ask the following questions to get familiar with where your partner’s income stands: 

  • What do you consider being “enough” money?
  • Do you prefer having a joint account or separate? 
  • What happens if one person loses their job?
  • Do you have any passive income streams or inheritance?
How to talk about income

Income is a topic that helps direct how you want to spend your time in the relationship. Do you both want to work the same hours? Does someone want to work 50+ hours a week so the other can be a stay-at-home parent? Or would you rather make sacrifices to spend more time with one another.

  • Why you should bring it up: How we earn our money shapes how we live our lives. Whether it’s a 9–5 or an investment portfolio, this money conversation sheds light onto future work-life balance.
  • When to bring it up: During serious relationships, just prior to, or as you’re beginning to cohabitate. 
  • Expert advice: “Couples tend to assume that money should be pooled, but it usually isn't that easy. A disparity in income can mean struggling about who pays for what, or whose income determines your lifestyle.” — Tina B. Tessina, PhD, (aka "Dr. Romance") psychotherapist and author of “Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things that Can Ruin Your Relationship” 

Spending Habits

Nearly half (44 percent) of couples report disagreeing about what constitutes a need versus a want. Luckily, if your significant other is a spender, and you’re more of a saver, it’s not the end of a relationship — it’s just something that needs to be discussed, agreed upon, and upheld. 

To start understanding how your better half may spend their funds, find out who they look up to. You can often gauge how someone spends their money by asking about their idols, whether that be a celebrity or a CEO. When you’re comfortable, ask your partner the following questions to get the conversation started:

  • What are your spending priorities? 
  • Would you rather take a vacation or buy merchandise? 
  • How will we pay our bills? 
  • Would you make a purchase if you knew you’d incur overdraft fees?
how to talk about spending

During money conversations about spending, understand that people have different needs and ideals and it’s important to create a balance between both so each partner feels comfortable. 

  • Why you should bring it up: Spending habits can illuminate what your partner values in life, whether that be material items or quality time.
  • When to bring it up: When you begin to live together you can align your spending habits and target potential misalignments.
  • Expert advice: “Talking about past financial problems can reveal how easily [your partner will] own up to and learn from money mistakes” — Jacquette Timmons, financial behaviorist and author of “Financial Intimacy: How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Your Money and Your Mate”

Saving Strategies

Defining savings strategies early helps set the stage for your long-term financial goals by preparing you for unexpected expenses and large purchases. The earlier you develop this strategy with your partner, the better your chances will be to afford the life you want. Circle back to your original talk when you’ve aligned your life goals and ask:

  • Do we want to buy a home? If so, when?
  • How should we save for retirement?
  • Will we pay for our child’s college?
how to talk about saving

Savings discussions, just like all money conversations, can’t be addressed in a one-and-done talk. Successful couples need to discuss and realign often to stick to budgets, pay down debt, and, ultimately, save for their dream. 

  • Why you should bring it up: As a couple, defining what you’re saving for together creates a goal that’s easier to stick to in a partnership. 
  • When to bring it up: When you're living together.
  • Expert advice: “When it comes to spending and saving, it's important to recognize there's value in both. Both partners need to have an equal voice and for both to feel like they can influence their spouse. When it comes to how much to save and spend, couples must learn the art of compromise by meeting in the middle so both of their financial needs are honored.” — Wyatt Fisher, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist

Deciding Beneficiaries

While it may seem morbid, deciding who your beneficiaries are is an act of love to ensure your assets go to the correct person, whether that be your significant other, your children, or elsewhere. Get the following out of the way so there are no surprises after your nuptials:

  • What money values will we instill in our children?
  • If we provide our kids inheritance, will we have someone else manage it until a certain age?
  • Where are legal documents stored in case of an emergency?
how to talk about beneficiaries

Selecting beneficiaries goes beyond monetary value. These decisions dictate who will be able to make medical decisions if you become debilitated. 

  • Why you should bring it up: Not only are your assets distributed based on state law when there are no beneficiaries selected, but medical decisions will be up to the selectee. 
  • When to bring it up: During your engagement and before you’re about to tie the knot.
  • Expert advice: “Make sure to check all beneficiary designations. Beneficiary designations don't pass through your will, so even if you change your will after marrying someone new, that won't impact accounts that have beneficiary designations, like retirement accounts (401ks and IRAs) and life insurance policies.” — Derek Hagen, CFP®, CFT-I™, FBS®, Financial Therapist, Money Health Solutions, LLC

How to Navigate Red Flags in Money Conversations

While your partner likely won’t outright say, “I’m marrying for money!” there are tell-tale signs that may pose red flags while discussing financials with your significant other. Hagan explains, “Keeping money secrets, which is called financial infidelity, is a red flag. Financial infidelity could be as big as keeping hidden accounts or as small as paying cash and telling your partners the transaction was less than it was.”

“The key and most important issue that determines whether partners can and will stay together, coupled with healthy communication, is their conflict resolution skills.”

—Dr. Fran Walfish

If you and your partner hit a roadblock while discussing money conversations, consider if it’s something you can compromise on. If not, it might be time to bring in outside help in the form of a neutral third party who can give impartial guidance. Whether that be a therapist or a financial advisor, as long as you both are willing to move forward, most financial issues can be worked out for a happy, healthy marriage.

Having money conversations requires give and take, just like most relationships. When you’re navigating these difficult talks, give your partner compassion and listen to their wants and needs. Start small by discussing their general life and financial goals, and when you’re comfortable, delve into more complex conversations like outstanding debt and loans, spending habits, and income. By discussing the most difficult financial topics early in the relationship, you create an open line of communication and overcome the first of many hurdles. 

Chang Fu

Chang is an avid writer, among other things, at Possible. He grew up loving reading and writing, creating his own poems and even a book he's now hidden in an old closet, unpublished. His financial experience at a large bank along with his passion for technology to help underserved communities inspires him to write for Possible.

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