Just over half of adults (about 53 percent) are married and 59 percent have cohabitated with an unmarried partner at some point in their lives. In fact, for the youngest adults (ages 18-24) cohabitation is more common than marriage. With commitment comes the need to combine and manage finances. But what are the best ways to budget together without fights and resentment?
You’ve probably already heard that money stress can cause problems in your relationship and even lead to its demise. But your budget (or lack of one) doesn’t have to be a source of tension between you and your person. Start talking about money early–and often–and follow these tips for smoother sailing through the financial waters of your shared life.
Discuss finances openly and honestly.
Ideally these conversations will begin before you move in together or get married. But wherever you are in your relationship, it’s not too late to start.
Before you dive into the nitty gritty, stick to the big picture. Here are “84 Questions to Ask Your Partner About Money” broken into different relationship stages from newly dating to seriously dating, engaged, and married.
Couples are naturally inclined to dream, hope, and plan for the future together. It’s one of the aspects of relationships that makes you feel like you’re on the same team. Hopefully a big picture conversation will lead to shared goals and feelings about money. At the very least, it gets you ready for specifics.
Each partner should make a list of the following:
You can make a spreadsheet or just write it down with pen and paper. Keep it simple and promise each other beforehand you won’t get judgemental about what’s on the list. We’re just dealing with current facts right now.
- Debt: The type (i.e. student loan, auto loan, credit card(s), etc.). Next to each type, write the current balance.
- Credit Score: You can get a free estimate of your credit score through apps like Credit Karma and Credit Sesame. Knowing whether you both have good-excellent credit will be helpful when it comes time to apply for a rental home together or a mortgage.
- Current deposit account balances: This would be your basic checking and savings accounts. What is the current balance for each?
- Investment Accounts: List any individual brokerage accounts, Roth or Traditional IRAs, and 401(k)s. How much do you have in each?
While these numbers are objective, they can tell you a lot about yourself–and your partner. Is one of you a “money burns a whole in my pocket” type while the other is good about saving? Do you have a negative net worth (debts are more than assets) or a positive one? Does anyone have a credit card problem?
Again, this is not the time to sling accusations. (“You spend too much!” “Well, you never want to spend anything and it’s no fun.”) Just analyze the data together to look for weaknesses you can tackle together and strengths you can build on.
Decide which finances will be combined and which won’t.
Plenty of ink has been spilled over whether couples should have a joint account or just split everything 50/50 from their own accounts. Ultimately, this decision can be as individual as your relationship. Here are the options to consider:
- A single joint checking account can work well if one person manages the money (and the other follows instructions) or both people manage the budget without a lot of disagreement. The one thing you want to avoid with sharing an account is “the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.” That leads to overdrafts and lots of recriminations over every transaction.
- Maintaining separate accounts may work particularly well for cohabitating, unmarried couples or any couple who prefers a certain degree of independence and privacy around spending. In this scenario, one person is responsible for paying a specific bill and the other transfers money (the Venmo app can be popular for this) to cover their share.
- A joint account for shared bills and expenses, plus two separate accounts is a popular alternative to the first option. With this set-up, the joint account is only used to pay bills and cover living expenses the couple agrees on in advance. Whatever’s leftover can be divided equally into each individual’s account for discretionary spending. This can help you avoid fights that start with the question: “Did you really need …?”
Identify your mutual goals.
These may arise out of your initial conversation, but should also be updated as your life together progresses. Goals can be divided into the following categories:
- Short-Term: Includes things like sticking to a budget, paying off the lowest-balance credit card, saving for the year’s vacation or holiday expenses, etc.
- Medium-Term: Saving for a wedding or home down payment, planning to become a one-income family once children arrive, getting out of student loan or credit card debt completely, launching a small business, etc.
- Long-Term: Save for retirement, save for college tuition, get out of all debt, move to the beach, etc.
Create a budget.
Your budget is a road map for your financial present and future. It’s also a helpful tool for avoiding conflict since, once you both agree on what goes in the budget, sticking to it should be fairly straightforward.
A basic budget consists of:
- Your combined monthly income
- Monthly bills (rent or mortgage, utilities, cable/Internet, phone, etc.)
- Monthly debt payments
Whatever’s left after bills and debt payments are accounted for can be divided up as you see fit between various savings goals and discretionary spending amounts for both partners.
If you want to get techy with it, there are a bunch of great digital budgeting tools out there, many free and some paid. Experiment until you find the best method for you.
Discuss finances regularly.
Life changes and our finances change, too. Checking in once a month or so lets both partners collaborate on the budget and goals even if one person manages day-to-day budgeting. Make a “money date” in a place you enjoy, like your favorite coffee shop or bar. A good drink and relaxing background can make your conversation more fun, too.
Save for emergencies & retirement.
From natural disasters to economic downturns and global pandemics, recent history has taught us all the value of an emergency fund. Start with a small goal like $1,000 and gradually work your way up to stashing 3-6 months of living expenses. A regular savings account is the best place to keep your emergency fund because you can still earn interest but don’t face the risk of the stock market.
The First is here to help you reach your financial goals!
For more than 155 years, The First has been a rock of stability in Bucks County–reinvesting all our deposits in local businesses, local mortgages, and local people. We know what it’s like to be a new couple just starting out on your financial journey. Check out our personal banking services and let us know how we can help you! Find your nearest location in Warminster, Richboro, Jamison, Langhorne, Levittown, Doylestown, Newtown, Fairless Hills, Wrightstown, Washington Crossing, or New Hope.