Whether you’ve recently fallen in love or celebrated wedding anniversaries for years, you have plenty of company if you experience money conflicts in your relationship. While believing love will conquer all is romantic, avoiding difficult conversations about your finances and their impact on your life and happiness can be a big mistake.
There’s no shortage of studies showing that disagreements over managing money and the on-going stress over challenging financial situations can lead to relationships ending. It’s such a common problem that you likely know someone (or many people) who’ve been in this position. And you may have faced (or are facing) difficult financial circumstances with someone you love too.
By understanding why this continues to be an issue for couples, you can safeguard against it. Then your financial wellness will flourish as your love for one another grows, too.
Uncovering Your Money Stories
It’s no surprise that childhood experiences shape who we become as adults and affect us throughout life. But you may not understand how much our money stories (our personal narratives about money) impact our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about money and the financial decisions we make as adults.
You might have a money story that provided you with the tools you need to build a solid financial house. If this is the case, chances are you grew up in a home where money was managed well and talked about openly and honestly. But it doesn’t mean your family was wealthy didn’t have money concerns.
While family members met your needs, loved, and cared for you, you were also taught delayed gratification young. And learning to save up money to pay for things you want has helped you avoid taking on more debt than you can manage as an adult.
But many people have a money story that isn’t so uplifting. Money is a “taboo” topic in many households or one that elicits strong emotions from adults. A job loss, medical event, death, divorce, or a combination of those and more could have meant on-going financial challenges in your family.
Parents who were under-earners, over-spenders, or gamblers may have grown up with their own negative money stories, which then passed on to you without you even realizing it.
Your money story influences your money personality as an adult. But two children growing up in the same family may handle their finances very differently as adults.
If money was tight, you might be a saver to reduce the stress you felt as a child over family finances. Others might become spenders as adults attempting to make up for what they didn’t have in their youth. If money was a painful subject or never discussed, you might take on an avoider role to not deal with your feelings or become overwhelmed learning to manage your money.
As you can see, our money past influences our current financial position. When two people come together with their own (and possibly very different) money stories, it can be challenging to manage finances as a couple.
It’s essential to explore and discuss your money stories individually and as a couple to understand any past and present unhealthy financial behaviors and plan for better outcomes in the future.
Your conversations may help solve many of your money issues. But some couples will struggle to have these talks on their own and may need to seek outside support to work through their financial pasts. Couples financial therapy or consultations with a financial planner are options to consider. Your church may also offer counseling to help address the economic challenges you’re facing in your marriage.
Taking Control of Your Current Finances as a Couple
After exploring your financial pasts, it’s time to use that information to help grow a healthier relationship with money as a couple. Prioritizing your finances may help you move through the suggested steps below quickly.
But this isn’t a race. Strive to keep making progress because the work you’re doing is important and deserves your focus and attention.1. Assess your current financial situation.
Calculate your actual income. Use your pay stubs and employment contracts to determine your gross and net monthly income. Record where and how much money is deducted from your paychecks (flexible spending accounts, monthly health share payments, 401(k) contributions). If either of you has a side hustle or rental income, make a conservative estimate of that monthly income as well. Use past tax returns, 1099 MISC, or 1099 NEC to help. Make a note of employee benefits and their value at this time.
List all of your assets and their current value. This may include your home, vehicles, bank and brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance, jewelry, and more. (Note: This is also an excellent time to review the insurance coverage you have for these assets and make adjustments as necessary.)
Write down all of your debts (liabilities). Include the interest rate, balance of the account, and terms. This may include student loans, mortgages, auto loans, credit card debt, and other types of revolving debt. (Hint: You’ll find these accounts on your credit report, which you can access for free at www.annualcreditreport.com. Also, make a note of your current credit score. It’s not on your credit report. But the lender associated with your credit card may offer it to you as a benefit of that account, or you can also use a service like Credit Karma.)
Record your monthly or recurring payments. This may include health share payments, auto, and other insurance payments, utility payments, food, gas, or public transportation costs, entertainment, household supplies, clothing, gifts, donations, tithing, vehicle and home maintenance, and more. (Hint: Use credit card statements and your checking account register to help determine your monthly spending categories. You may not find everything, but you’ll be off to a good start.)
Calculate your net worth. To calculate your net worth, you total up your assets and subtract your liabilities. This may be a negative value if you carry large loans and are working to grow your income. But as the gap builds between “what you own and what you owe,” your net worth will rise, and you’ll see wealth build for your future.
Evaluating your current situation can be an eye-opening experience for couples. You may find you’re doing better than you’ve been giving yourself credit for. Or, you may realize how little you know about your financial status. Either way, you’ll be arming yourself with information to move forward.
2. Track your expenses.
You listed your monthly expenses above, but there’s a good chance you are missing some of your spending. And those extra costs each month could keep you from reaching your goals. Like dieting and not measuring your food or tracking calories, it’s easy to underestimate or forget to include every payment you make. Strive to track your expenses for at least a few months. You may find that tracking your expenses closely helps you stay more aware of spending and pay down debt faster. Less debt means money to save and invest for the future.
It may seem like an overwhelming task, but plenty of apps are available now to help, such as Wally, Mint, Tiller, and Personal Capital. And you may find that grabbing a pen and notebook is more straightforward and more helpful to you. Use whatever system works for you!
Then, use that information to build a realistic budget. Make adjustments as necessary, and do your best to stick to it. You can start building a budget without knowing all of your expenses and then tweak it along the way. But the more information you have about your spending, the easier it will be to trim away unnecessary costs. Focus on budget categories and spending that aligns with your values.
You can create a budget on paper or use the same expense tracking apps with budgeting features, including Wally and Mint. Other popular online budget tools that are free to use include Every Dollar and Pocket Guard. You may decide paying for a proven program such as You Need a Budget (YNAB) is worth the small monthly fee. The features (such as real-time financial information you can share with your spouse) and the support they provide are what some couples need.3. Work together to create a financial mission statement.
Many couples find the motivation to continue developing a healthier relationship with money by watching the balances on their debt decline or their savings and investment accounts grow. But staying the course may require significant lifestyle changes for others. It may be hard to stay motivated on goals that you won’t accomplish for decades in the future.
One tool that may help to keep a couple on track is a financial mission statement. Your financial mission statement explains what your household wants to achieve financially in the future. It describes the path you’ll follow to get there. It helps everyone visualize and remember the financial goals you’ve determined are best for your present and future.
Here’s an example:
Our family’s financial mission is to eliminate the debt negatively impacting our health and holding us back from improving our financial net worth. We will continue to tithe and gift to local charities while not increasing our debt load and aggressively paying down our current liabilities. We also want to teach our children about personal finances and how the economy works so they don’t end up in debt as we did. Once our debt is destroyed, we’ll increase our savings and investments so we may retire by age 60 to travel and do volunteer activities that we love and enjoy.
You can learn more about financial mission statements and how to write one in the following article. Download the free template and get started!
Planning Together to Build Wealth for a Fantastic Future
Doing the work above will put you on the path to a brighter financial future. It’s so beneficial to understand your money “history” and why managing money (especially as a couple) may have been a challenging experience up to this point. Knowing where you stand financially prepares you to plan together to build wealth.
Consider each of the following as crucial building blocks to securing your future.
Emergency fund. If you don’t have at least 6-9 months of expenses saved up, put this at the top of your priority list. You want to avoid going into debt in the event of a job loss, medical event, or other unfortunate situation. If you’re risk-averse, self-employed, or work in an industry prone to layoffs, you may sleep better at night with a year’s worth of expenses set aside. You’ll earn more interest on your savings if you skip traditional lenders and choose a high-yield online savings or money market account.
Retirement accounts. While it’s challenging to balance paying off debt and investing for your future, it’s crucial to start investing early. This allows the magic of compound interest to occur over decades before you stop working. Your goal should be to invest at least 10-15% of your earnings - or more. Start by investing enough to earn any employer match of your contributions, if offered. Then increase your contributions regularly to catch-up for lost time. If your spouse isn’t in the workforce, consider a spousal IRA for their protection too.
Life, disability, and long-term care (LTC) insurance. Term life insurance is the most affordable option. It can replace your income and support your family if something terrible happens. While many people have life insurance, you’re far more likely to have a disability than dying prematurely. Consider policies with coverage that would replace your income if an injury or illness prevents you from working for an extended period, such as Medi-Share’s Manna Disability Sharing Program.
LTC insurance is designed to cover situations such as nursing home and assisted living stays, in-home care, hospice and respite care, and a variety of therapies. But each policy is different and defines the type, duration, and costs of care you can receive. The terms of the policies also vary widely between insurers. Carefully research LTC insurance before purchasing it. It’s costly, but it may be a wise move for some people.
College savings plans for children. When you’re already saving enough for a comfortable retirement and have insurance in place to safeguard your income, consider opening an account to save for your child’s college expenses. But don’t make saving for college a priority over your retirement. This is an example of the “oxygen mask” analogy. You have to put yourself first - (even if that’s counterintuitive as a parent!) to make sure your children won’t have to support you financially as you age.
Popular 529 accounts allow your college savings to grow tax-free, and withdrawals are tax-free as long as they’re used for qualified educational expenses. Some states also allow income tax deductions for these accounts, but the usage of money in a 529 account is restricted.
Other college savings options include (Coverdell) Education Savings Account or ESA, Uniform Transfer to Minors Accounts (UTMA), and Roth IRA’s.
Estate planning. Some people think they need to have seven-figure investment accounts or be preparing for retirement to start estate planning. But if you have any assets of value or anyone to protect, you need to begin an estate plan. Your estate planning documents also cover you if you become incapacitated and can’t make your own medical or financial decisions.
Most couples should have advance health care directives, financial powers of attorney, and last will and testament documents in place. As your wealth grows, you may decide that a living trust is needed to protect your assets and loved ones.
You can learn more about each of these essential estate planning documents and get started in 10 Steps to An Estate Plan.
Closing Thoughts on Improving Your Financial Health as a Couple
Eventually, you may decide that one of you will take over managing your life’s day-to-day financial aspects. But it’s imperative you both take part in the steps above and build in time to “check-in” with your family finances regularly. Call it a “money-date” or “planning time” you use to connect about your future.
Investing time to tackle your finances together is an investment in your relationship. Couples who learn about each other’s money stories and personalities are more engaged in conversations about their finances and more empathetic when addressing concerns. They’re also better at expressing their needs and wants and compromising when it comes to developing a plan to manage money as a couple.
It may take a great deal of effort to find common financial ground with your spouse. But it’s very much worth committing the time and energy to improve your financial health and relationship.
Over the years, accomplishing the goals you set will lead to a brighter financial future and strengthen your unity along the way, too.
Vicki Cook and Amy Blacklock are the co-founders of the award-winning personal finance website Women Who Money. Vicki, a 30-year educator, and Amy, an administrative professional and entrepreneur, joined forces in early 2018 to pursue passion projects in the personal finance and health & wellness spaces. Together they've launched two new websites and are currently plotting numbers 3 and 4.