How to Talk about Money Before Marriage
So, things are going great in your romantic life. Your partner is awesome. Sunshine and rainbows are everywhere. Here, finally, is the one you cannot live without, who also cannot live without you.
Who wants to talk about finances, let alone credit card debt and student loan debt — at a time like this?
Love conquers all, right? All you need is love. The Beatles sang it. You believe it. That settles it.
Well. As Ellen Foley advised Meat Loaf by the dashboard light: Stop. Right. There.
Romance is wonderful. It’s the best. But romance alone can’t keep the lights on, or the landlord happy, or put groceries on the table, let alone foot the bill for the sorts of exotic getaways a romance like yours deserves.
And so, committed lovers, before you take those marriage vows, you must have … THE MONEY TALK.
Darn right capitalized. It’s that important.
Having ‘The Talk’ About Money Before Marriage
Yes, it’s scary, and fear is a strong de-motivator. Fifty-seven percent of American couples, according to a recent survey from John Hancock’s Twine (a collaborative saving and investing app), concede they avoid bringing up money on a daily or weekly basis with their partner.
This naturally gets in the way of having productive conversations about planning, working together, and saving and investing — all crucial considerations for happy, enduring marriages, says Twine CEO Uri Pomerantz. “There’s no right answers to [a couple’s preferred paths],” he told InCharge.org. “What’s most important is the discussions that happen along the way at getting to your answers.”
Proactive operation No. 1: Set a date, what Hood River, Ore.-based financial consultant Marques Lang calls “a money date.” Strive for a time that is certain to be stress-free (not after a long, hard day of work; not after a visit from the future in-laws) and power-neutral (perhaps a favorite coffee shop).
Some topics Lang suggest you cover include:
- How much debt do you have and how will you deal with it?
- How much debt are you willing to take on in a marriage?
- Do you want joint or separate bank accounts?
- What’s your budget for furniture, gifts, entertainment etc.
- What happens if one of you loses a job?
- What are your short-term, long-term financial goals?
- How do children/aging parents figure into those goals?
“With relational love, handling different notions about money — and other attitudes, habits, likes, dislikes … err, restaurant and movie choices — is a subset of compromise,” says Preston Cherry, a doctoral candidate in Texas Tech University’s Department of Personal Financial Planning. “Sincerely hear each other out.”
Now is the time to build trust, says Rob Drury, executive director for the Association of Christian Financial Advisors. Open the closets; let the fiscal skeletons out.
“The couple needs to ensure that there are no surprises about how each views and operates with money,” Drury says, “or if either party is carrying financial baggage (debts or obligations, unusual expenses, or habits) into the relationship.”
My Fiance Has Debt: What Do I Do?
Your fiscal cards are on the table. What if some of them are printed in deep red ink? Do you delay the wedding/move-in day? Do you even consider breaking it off? Are you worried you’ll be responsible for your spouse’s debt after marriage?
Let’s not be hasty about the latter. Remember the sunshine and rainbows, the song in your heart? That shouldn’t change because your potential life partner was honest about his/her financial predicament.
Besides, if you’re going to get persnickety about debt problems, you’re going to have big problems partnering up. From an NBC News/GenForward survey released in April of 2018: “A quarter of millennials are over $30,000 in debt, including 11 percent who are over $100,000 in debt. Only 22 percent of millennials are debt free.”
In a mild surprise, the poll found credit cards, not student loans, are a primary driver of millennial debt.
The upshot: Significant numbers of millennials are putting off a host of landmark life events: buying a house or a car, saving for retirement, having children … and yes, getting married.
Postponing marriage is not the worst possible decision, especially if the indebted partner lacks a viable plan. (This might be a moment in the money talk to gently recommend a nonprofit credit counseling service to clean up a credit card mess.)
This does not mean that the hesitance of a thrifty, solvent, in-the-black partner isn’t perfectly reasonable. But, as New York-based Financial Gym founder Shannon McLay told MarketWatch, such reluctance is psychological, similar to putting off a wedding until the bride can fit into her dress.
It’s better, in McLay’s view, “to start working on money challenges together as soon as possible.”
Am I Responsible for My Spouse’s pre-Marriage Debt?
Pre-existing debt belongs to the spouse who incurred it. Whether the couple decides to tackle it together is a point of negotiation. This is among the reasons couples in love must have the money talk.
Each partner should arrive at the talk with a list of his/her assets (bank accounts, investment accounts, properties) as well as any debt (credit card, school loans, car loans, mortgages) and share it with their significant other.
After all, beyond creating a union that completes each partner romantically and spiritually, what we are talking about here also is “a financial merger,” says dontpayful.com blogger Richard Best, “and it should be approached as such.”
“Many couples bring their own debt into a marriage,” Best says, “and problems often occur when the debt is weighted toward one spouse. There needs to be agreement up front as to how it should be handled, with a goal of when it is to be paid off.”
Pay off Debt or Pay for Wedding?
However marvelous they were when they were released, shifting sensibilities have reduced those “Father of the Bride” movies — the classic with Spencer Tracy and the Steve Martin remake in the role of the beleaguered, resentful, tapped-out poppa — to period pieces, quaint antiques with scant application in our post-Great Recession lives. Anymore, the prospective newlyweds are as likely to assume responsibility for expenses of the Big Day as either set of parents.
If that’s the case with you, dear reader, keep in mind that your wedding and honeymoon budgets do not exist in a vacuum. They’re as much a part of your financial life as any other obligation. If you’re carrying significant debt — five-figure student loans, four-figure credit card balances with double-digit interest rates, mid-three-figure-60-month car payments — beware of adding to your burden with an expensive wedding.
The average wedding costs an eye-popping $33,391, according to a 2017 from The Knot. To shoulder such an expense, or even one only a fraction as large, means borrowing for nearly three-quarters of couples who plan to marry in 2018, according to Student Loan Hero.
That’s fine if your budgets are well in hand. We like a big party as much as anybody, and the toasts are almost always a hoot. But if your marriage budget is on thin ice, avoid going deeper into debt for a one-day fling.
Consider, instead, a do-it-yourself wedding. Websites such as theknot.com offer lots of tips to shave wedding expenses. Or simply enter “inexpensive wedding” into your preferred search engine.
Similar keep-it-reasonable advice applies to engagement rings and wedding bands. That old advice about investing three-months’ wages into an engagement ring is just that: old.
De Beers, meet the post-Great Recession wariness. Guys, spend what your budget, not your heart, commands. If it’s not as impressive as you’d like, tell your fiancé it’s merely a starter ring.
Getting on the Same (Financial) Page
It’s not romantic, and it darn sure isn’t sexy, but the result of failing to establish firm financial ground rules can, over time, creep into every part of a couple’s life together, from the dinner table to the marital bed.
“Identify whether your financial goals match up,” says Leslie Tayne, a New York-based financial debt attorney and author of Life & Debt. “Your objective is to create a healthy, harmonious and long-lasting relationship. This is dependent on putting everything, including your financial cards, on the table. There should never be any bluffing where this is concerned.”
“If you want to crash and burn financially,” says Gordon (Mass.) College’s Alexander Lowry, director of the school’s Master of Science in Financial Analysis, “try taking on all the financial goals of your marriage without getting on the same page with your spouse first. Marriage means you do life together as one unit. All decisions, especially money decisions, should be discussed and agreed up-front.”
To get there, talk, especially, about the role money played in your upbringing.
“It’s not uncommon for people to have wildly different views on money based solely on how they were raised,” says Derek Hagen, a Minneapolis-based wealth coach and financial counselor. “Once you have a better understanding of how your partner’s money views were formed it’s easier to reconcile different views.”
Expect some blows to your ego. “This,” says Lowry, “was the hardest part of my new marriage. Before this time, I’d managed all my money independently. (And felt I did it well.) But now I needed to adjust to making joint decisions. To discussing purchases. To agreeing on a long-term plan. These are all good things. But they took time to become the new norm.
“Being honest with my wife about our finances and making joint decisions has been one of the keys to our marriage thriving.”
As the credits on our personal rom-com roll, isn’t healthy, happy, and thriving what we’re all after?
About The Author
In his 40-plus-year newspaper career, George Morris has written about just about everything -- Super Bowls, evangelists, World War II veterans and ordinary people with extraordinary tales. His work has received multiple honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press and the Louisiana Press Association. He avoids debt when he can and pays it off quickly when he can't, and he's only too happy to suggest how you might do the same.
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