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When Alli Williams married her husband in 2019, she knew she would be marrying into about $150,000 of student loan debt.
Now, a few years later, she and her husband have gotten on the same financial page with their budgets and bank accounts, and they’ve paid off not only his student loans but also their credit cards and their truck. Williams had become debt-free individually when she was 25, and now, at 30, the couple are debt-free together.
"Paying off debt isn’t the hard part," Williams says. "Managing your money is the harder part."
Williams, a South Carolina-based money coach and owner of FinanciALLI Focused, says that when she and her husband got engaged in 2018, that was the first time they created a combined budget. They keep their spending low and benefit from living in a low-cost area, and they’ve been strategic about using percentages of windfalls to pay off debt and to save. But the real key, she says? Frequent communication and check-ins about money.
Money can be a very personal and — at times — stressful component of a romantic partnership. Handling debts, bank accounts, credit cards and bills together isn't only a logistical challenge, it’s also a new avenue for potential conflict. If one half of a couple likes to save money while the other person is a compulsive spender, that pair will likely need to have some difficult conversations to avoid resentment in the long run. For those conversations, there are professionals who can provide guidance and insight.
Benefits of a financial advisor for couples
Similar to a therapist, a financial advisor or money coach can create a safe space for couples to discuss issues and plan for their futures together.
Liz and Dan Carroll, an Oregon-based couple and owners of Mindful Money Coaches, have been married for 31 years. They use their personal success with money management to provide actionable advice to their clients, such as teaching them how to create long-term money plans together.
"Everyone is a good candidate for at least an annual check-in with a money coach," Liz says. "And just like with the compound interest you get with investing, the earlier you start the better."
If you and your partner decide to work with a certified financial advisor instead of a money coach, make sure to choose one that operates as a fiduciary, which means they’re obligated to put your interests ahead of profit. Nonfiduciary financial advisors make commissions from products they sell to their clients, so they could pressure clients to buy or invest in products that aren’t necessarily helpful.
What options do couples have for managing their money together?
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to managing your finances, especially if you’re part of a couple. Some couples prefer to have all of their money combined, others like to keep their finances completely separate, and some prefer a hybrid of the two. No matter the strategy, couples can use joint accounts to manage shared expenses and save for special goals.
The Carrolls don’t recommend that married couples separate their finances, however. Even if one partner has debt or a low credit score, they advise that both partners take on the responsibility of working through financial stumbling blocks as a team.
"Putting it together creates overall accountability," Liz says.
"Couples always bring their own burdens and strengths into a marriage," Dan adds. "So if you’re going into a partnership, you have to accept that you’re going to take the good with the bad."
A tip from the pros: Create a budget just for ‘fun money’
Joint finances don’t necessarily mean that you have to lose your autonomy. Williams and the Carrolls use a system in their relationships that they say creates a sense of independence while staying aligned on their finances: budgeting "fun money" into individual accounts for each person.
"It’s like our 'no questions asked' money," Williams says. "It’s money where we don’t have to check in with each other before we spend it, like my husband spending $10 at Chick-fil-A, or me spending money at Amazon or Target. We use Ally Bank’s buckets feature for our individual accounts, and we technically each have access to both, but we don’t need to check it."
The Carrolls use a similar approach for their fun money.
"It’s still a line item on the budget where everything comes into one bucket, and then some goes out into the fun spending accounts," Dan says. "We highly recommend that each partner gets an equal amount, and then they can do whatever they want with it. It creates freedom for both individuals."
Money management and communication are foundational skills for any committed romantic partnership, and, as Dan Carroll can attest, those skills spill over into other areas.
"It's unanimous from the feedback we get from our clients that talking through money helps the whole relationship."