Marriage and Money: 5 Truths to Tell Before You Tie the Knot

Many Americans are keeping financial secrets from their significant others, a new survey finds. Before you get married, it's a good idea to open up about your finances.
Erin El Issa
By Erin El Issa 
Edited by Paul Soucy

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Wedding bells are ringing, and if you’re heading off to get hitched, it’s time to talk money with your spouse-to-be.

A new NerdWallet survey on financial infidelity found that more than 2 in 5 Americans who have a significant other (43%) say they have withheld or lied about financial information in discussions with their partner. Start your marriage off on the right foot with these five financial conversations before saying “I do.”

1. Money lessons you grew up with

No one wants to feel judgmental of their significant other, but if you’re side-eyeing the way your partner spends money, it’s worth sitting down and talking about the financial lessons you each learned growing up. Even if you come from a family that never discussed money, you may have witnessed money habits that helped define your financial worldview.

Ask your partner how their parents spent money, what the narrative about debt was in their home, and whether money was treated as abundant or scarce. If your partner comes from a different culture or socioeconomic background than you, this is especially important because it’s likely you grew up with different money norms.

After this conversation, you still might not agree with how they save and spend, but you might better understand how their money psychology was formed — in other words, why they save and spend the way they do.

2. Outstanding debt

Among Americans with a significant other — whom we'll refer to as “partnered Americans” — about 1 in 12 (8%) — say they’ve lied to or withheld information from their partner about how much debt they have.

A spouse typically isn’t legally responsible for debt their partner accumulated prior to marriage, but that debt can still have a profound effect on the couple’s finances. If you’re combining your money or just working toward shared goals, your debt payments influence how you can save and spend.

Each partner should write down their debt balances, interest rates and payment terms. Then, as a couple, you can decide how to pay the debt off. Two popular debt payoff strategies are the debt snowball and the debt avalanche. With the snowball method, you focus on paying off debts from the smallest balance to the largest. The idea is that knocking out small balances quickly provides motivation. With the avalanche, you focus on paying off your debts from the highest interest rate to the lowest, which is more cost-effective.

The best debt payoff method is the one you'll stick to, so discuss your options with your partner so you can start working together to attack the debt.

3. Income and spending

The survey found that 14% of partnered Americans have lied to or withheld information from their partner about their income. And nearly a quarter of partnered Americans (23%) have lied to or withheld information from their partners about how much they spent on a purchase. Your earning and your spending affect how much money is available for you and your spouse to build your life together. Lay out your current income and expenses and ask your partner to do the same so you can decide together whether there’s enough money to go around and, if not, what to do about it.

Not all couples agree on discretionary expenses. A good way to remedy this is by allotting each partner an equal amount of personal spending money per month. So even if a particular purchase isn’t to your taste, the amount of spending is agreed on by both parties.

4. Credit scores

According to the survey, 12% of partnered Americans have lied to or withheld information from their partners about their credit scores. Credit scoring doesn’t take marital status into account, and spouses’ scores aren’t linked or combined in scoring formulas. But your scores can still affect each other. For example, if you decide to buy a home, both of your credit scores will likely be taken into account for a mortgage. If your credit isn’t good, it could mean a higher interest rate — if not outright rejection — and if you lied about it, your spouse may be resentful.

Each of you should check your credit scores to see what your starting point is. If one or both of you have scores that need help, make a plan together to start building credit. This might mean paying down debt, setting up automatic payments to make sure every bill is being paid on time, or requesting your credit reports and disputing any errors.

5. Financial goals

Money can be stressful when there’s not enough of it, but it can also be really fun to make future plans with your money. Maybe as a couple, you want to buy a home (median price in 2023: $342,000, according to Zillow), take a dream vacation or open a business. Talk about everything you’d each like to do in the future that will cost money. It might not be realistic to do everything on both of your lists, but try not to shoot down any ideas just yet. Pick a goal or two and come up with a tangible first step to start achieving your financial dreams together.

The most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau say that nearly 60% of American adults live with a spouse or partner. Honesty and openness about finances — even if it's a little uncomfortable — can help build a firm foundation for those households.

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