While money conversations aren’t necessarily easy or fun, it’s important to discuss financial issues with your partner, especially if you’re planning on getting married. After all, money arguments are the top predictor of divorce.
Something as basic as your credit score really matters. Besides affecting your ability to borrow money for bigger purchases like a home or car, it can make or break your relationship .
Research by the Federal Reserve Board found that the higher your credit score is when a committed relationship starts, the less likely you are to break up after the first few years. Perhaps that’s why 52 percent of Americans would not marry someone with bad credit, according to a new WalletHub survey, which also found that 36 percent of people would not even date someone with bad credit.
CNBC Make It spoke to Nick Holeman, certified financial planner at Betterment, about what money topics you should cover before saying “I do.” There are two stages of conversations you should be prepared to have, he says: Big picture conversations before getting engaged and logistical conversations once you decide to take the leap.
So, in addition to “How’s your credit?,” here are some of the key questions to ask.
BIG PICTURE QUESTIONS
What are your financial goals?
Whether it’s owning a vacation home or spending time and money traveling, your values won’t always match up.
“Some people have very different thoughts on retirement, funding for college, and even what your lifestyle looks like in retirement,” says Holeman. “Make sure you’re on the same page with your big financial goals.”
Once you’re married, you can revisit these goals, make them more specific, and create a plan for how you’re going to reach them — but for now, get a general idea of your partner’s wants and needs to avoid potential conflicts before they come up.
What are your financial fears?
“Money is a very emotional subject and certain people have different fears about money, depending on their upbringing,” says Holeman.
A good start is to understand your partner’s financial background and philosophy, by asking questions such as: How do you approach money? What did your parents teach you about spending and saving?
While these conversations are not always easy or fun, “you need to get on the same page,” Holeman says. “The quicker you can figure out what your fears and differences are, and find ways to reconcile those, the better.
What are your non-negotiable items?
“Everyone has ‘off-limit items’ — certain things or behaviors that are ingrained in our heads,” says Holeman.
“With me, I tend to pay my credit card off very frequently. I get anxious when the balance gets high, and even though the bill may not be due until the end of the month, I like to pay it off right away. With my fiancee, she has to have a nice hotel whenever we travel. It’s one of her things and there’s no negotiating to be had in that subject.”
Whether these non-negotiables are rational or not, they’re often not worth bringing up, says Holeman: “You have to be upfront and honest about your off-limit items, and you have to find ways to work around them.”
How will you blend your finances?
“Once you’re engaged, there are more logistical questions to tackle,” Holeman tells CNBC Make It. “Do you want to have a joint bank account , or do you want to keep them separate? How are we going to save for each other’s goals if our incomes are different? How do we actually reach those goals?”
In terms of merging bank accounts, if you both work and have similar incomes, Holeman says the need for having a joint account isn’t as high: “You’re probably both used to managing your finances separately and you each have money flowing in and out of your account. Plus, technology has made it a lot easier to maintain separate accounts, but still work together as a team — apps like Venmo and tools like Mint.com allow you to aggregate your accounts and see everything.”
A joint account makes more sense when only one spouse works, Holeman says, since there isn’t a steady flow of money into the other’s checking account.
Other questions you’ll want to discuss when it comes to merging your finances include: How much do we want to spend on the wedding? Can we afford a home ? If so, how much home can we afford?
Finally, you’ll want to cover your assets and liabilities: What savings accounts, such as a 401(k) or Roth IRA, are in your name? Do you have any debt ? How much and how are you going to attack it?
How will you spend and save?
Figuring out how much you want to set aside each month will help you achieve your big picture financial goals. However, Holeman doesn’t recommend creating a highly-detailed budget with your partner: “Often, couples will sit down and try to work out a budget, and they’ll start to argue about each little piece of the budget, like clothes or food or vacations. Different people have difference preferences.”
As a solution, he endorses backwards budgeting : Set your goals, make sure that you’re saving enough to reach them, and don’t worry about the day-to-day expenses. “As long as you know how much you need to be saving and you’re saving enough each month, who really cares where the rest of the money goes?” says Holeman.
He also recommends using goals-based rewards: “Break your savings up into smaller chunks — specific goals, like an emergency fund. Set a target number and then figure how much you need to set aside each month to reach that target. Once you hit your goal, take the next month and instead of saving that certain amount of money, do something fun with it. It keeps you motivated, it’s a good way to work together as a team, and it keeps it fresh.”