Spreadsheets and savings goals aren’t sexy. That’s probably why great love stories, when retold, don’t delve into household finances. But money is a central part of any relationship. And how you deal with it (or don’t) can determine whether your own tale is a short story or a novel.
Consider this: 44% of Americans say it’s important for couples to discuss their credit scores with each other before moving in together, according to a recent survey commissioned by NerdWallet and conducted online by The Harris Poll among over 2,000 U.S. adults. But about 1 in 5 Americans (19%) say they have lied to a significant other about having credit card debt or the amount of credit card debt they had.
Millennials (ages 24-39) and Gen Xers (ages 40-55) are particularly bad offenders, with nearly 3 in 10 millennials (29%) and one quarter (25%) of Gen Xers saying they’ve fibbed about their credit card debt, compared with 14% of those in Generation Z (ages 18-23) and just 9% of baby boomers (ages 56-74), the survey found.
Disclosing your financial skeletons can be intimidating, for sure, but being honest about money can help build trust and security in your relationship, says Marie O’Keefe, a financial advisor at Northwestern Mutual.
“Getting on the same page financially is crucial to being happy and having a long-lasting marriage,” O’Keefe says.
That’s not just lip service. A whopping 82% of engaged and newly married couples say they feel closer to their mate when they’re in agreement about money, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual and The Knot. If that sounds like you and your partner, it’s time to schedule a money summit.
“I’m a huge proponent of financial summits … especially when you’re moving in with each other or getting engaged, because that’s when your lives begin to merge,” O’Keefe says.
If you’re combining households, you need to tackle day-to-day tasks like making a budget and divvying up financial responsibilities. You also need to hit the big-picture stuff, namely debt and financial goals, like saving for a house, retirement, vacation, a baby or all of the above.
That first meeting might be a doozy — you have a lot of ground to cover and potentially some financial baggage to unpack — but once you get into a groove, your summits will get easier. These guidelines can keep your talk on track, even when things get uncomfortable.
1. Put it on the calendar
Don’t spring a major financial conversation on your partner. Instead, schedule it so you both can come to the table prepared mentally and emotionally.
Not every summit needs an hour or even 30 minutes — Marla Mattenson, a relationship expert, has a 15-minute check-in every Friday with her partner — but some topics warrant more time and attention.
If you’re butting heads on a financial goal, for example, or need to make major adjustments to your budget, debt or retirement plan, give yourselves enough time to unpack those issues.
Mattenson suggests building in some buffer time, so you’re not going straight from your summit into dinner with friends.
“You might have emotions you need to deal with after the meeting,” she says. “Have some ‘me’ time or some ‘us’ time built into the after-meeting time.”
2. Have an agenda
Giving your summit some structure will make it easier to stay on task. Mattenson likes the “rose, bud, thorn, earth” approach.
- Rose: Start with the stuff that’s going well. Did you stick to your budget or hit a savings goal? Celebrate that!
- Bud: Next, move onto new things to consider. Do you want to get a puppy? Need a new car? Did you just get hit with a big medical bill? Now’s the time to figure out how that fits into your financial plan.
- Thorn: Talk openly and honestly about any challenges getting in the way of your goals.
- Earth: This is the big-picture stuff — your goals and visions for the future, and any steps you need to take to achieve them.
Stick to your time, even if you don’t get to everything on your agenda. Better to carry things over than to carry on for hours, getting tired and frustrated as the meeting drags on.
“You’re not going to solve everything in the first meeting, or the third, or maybe even the 10th,” O’Keefe says. “Write down the things you still need to talk about and come away from each meeting with an action plan.”
3. Set the mood
Turn off your phones. Turn off the TV. Turn on some music. Pour yourselves a drink — wine, beer, White Claw, you pick. Sit down next to each other and talk.
“You want to get into the good vibes of your relationship unit,” Mattenson says. “Sitting next to each other, it’s like the two of you working together on an issue, rather than against each other.”
Agree to be honest, kind and judgment-free. And be attentive to any tension bubbling up. If you’re getting tense or your partner is getting defensive, call a timeout. Acknowledge the tension, defuse it (a hug does wonders, Mattenson says) and get back to your agenda.
“If you get into negative talk, pause and go back to kind words,” Mattenson says. “Remind yourselves that the most important thing is the relationship and that you’re in it together.”
This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet from Jan. 21-23, 2020, among 2,015 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact Brittany Benson at [email protected].
A previous version of this NerdWallet article was published by The Associated Press. It has been updated to include data from a survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of NerdWallet.