Sure it’s a romance buzz kill, but you need to ask your intended a few pointed questions about money before you get married. Just ask the authors of “Fatal Fiscal Attraction,” a research paper done by professors at The Wharton School and Northwestern University, who found that financial opposites tend to marry — and self-destruct. Think of the financial discussion as divorce protection.
“Money is the source of a lot of marital discord,” said Eleanor Blayney, a financial planner and spokeswoman for the Certified Financial Planners Board in McLean, Va. “When a relationship gets serious, it’s really time to talk about not only what it means but the role that it is going to play in your life together.”
1. What does money mean to you?
If you think money is important just because of the things it buys, you’re missing half the point, said Cecily Maton, a Chicago-based financial planner. For many people, money comes with all sorts of psychological baggage — which can cause people to equate spending with love, saving with security and, sometimes, use money as a substitute for attention. If you understand that your spouse might be placing an illogical importance on spending, you can address it before it causes a rift.
It’s easier to raise the subject if you stop thinking about money as being something you discuss only when it’s a problem. This is really a talk about personal histories: What was it like to grow up in your household? How did your parents handle money? How would you like to handle money when we’re handling it together?
If you just can’t broach the subject, Maton suggests you enlist the help of a professional. An impartial third party can bring up the sticky questions that you can’t get yourself to ask, but know you need to answer. Or you can bring up the subject by taking our love and money quiz and comparing the results.
2. How’s your credit?
Tina Tessina, a licensed psychotherapist who calls herself “Dr. Romance,” suggests a highly unromantic notion: Swap credit reports before you wed, says the author of Money, Sex & Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things that Can Ruin Your Marriage.
Uncomfortable asking? Try volunteering your own: “Hey sweetie. I just found out we can check our credit reports online for free. Want to try it? I figure you ought to see what you’re getting into, don’t you?”
If you’re a saver and he’s a spender, it’s going to show up in those reports and provide a launching point for discussion. The credit report also will show whether your intended is responsible enough to pay bills on time or is buried in debt. Discovering that you’re money opposites isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, said Deborah Owen, author of “A Purse of Your Own: An Easy Guide to Financial Security.” But it might be a reason to keep your finances separate.
3. How will we pay the bills?
It’s one thing to keep track of your own checkbook, but when you merge your lives, do you plan to merge the finances too? If so, who will take the task of physically paying the bills, and how will that person keep the other spouse informed? If you keep finances separate, who pays which expenses?
There’s no formula, but couples are increasing going to a “yours, mine and ours” system: Partners put the bulk of their assets in the “ours” account to pay joint bills, but leave small individual slush funds so each person can spend a bit without the other’s approval.
4. What do you want ... and when?
Not all your goals, individual or shared, will be explicitly financial — but most will have significant financial repercussions. Consider, for example, having kids. Children are expensive, necessitating everything from costly little jars of baby food to tons of heavy equipment like high chairs, cribs, and strollers. And that’s just the start. Will one of you need to put a career on hold while the kids are young? If so, does that person lose the ability to spend joint assets or save for retirement? And what about the child’s education? How do you plan to pay for that?
Then there are the questions of timing. Even if you both want kids, do you want them before or after you ...
- Get a house?
- Go to graduate school?
- Travel the world?
- Buy a Volvo station wagon?
- Fund your retirement accounts?
Do you both want the same things at roughly the same time? If not, can you compromise?
These shouldn’t be tough topics to bring up, since they’re essentially about sharing your dreams. But if it is uncomfortable, enlist the help of a friend. “Bob and I were talking about what this whole marriage thing means, and we started talking about all the other milestones — like getting a house or sending our kids to college. How do see this stuff happening with us, honey? What you want first, kids or grad school? A home or travel?”
These can be fun topics to discuss, as long as you discuss them openly and with an open mind. Because your goals are all attainable — but you can reach them much more easily if you’re on the same page and working together.