First comes love, then comes marriage ... but somewhere in between comes real, honest conversations about finances. We know, talking about debt, budgets and retirement isn’t exactly an aphrodisiac, but doing so early in a relationship can help prevent miscommunications and arguments as your money becomes more intertwined.
After all, 68% of couples surveyed in our 2016 Money Habits & Confessions Survey cited their finances as a greater source of tension than their sex lives, and one in five had never had a serious money conversation with their partner. Well, you can’t work through a problem if you never talk about it.
These three couples had that awkward money conversation — and survived. Here’s how.
They Had Monthly Budget Meetings
When Javier and Taylor Gutierrez began dating at 19, one of the first things they talked about was their debt: Javier had $15,000 in student loans and Taylor a $19,000 car loan.
Neither had financial support from their families, so when they married at 22, the Austin, Texas, couple opted for a $75 courthouse ceremony.
“Money was always real for us,” says Taylor. “Every couple has a moment where they realize money is real and they have to decide what’s important here. Starting out in reality and staying there set us on this path.”
Two months after their frugal wedding, the Gutierrezes began paying down their debt using the income from Javier’s teaching job and Taylor’s non-profit work. They set up monthly budget meetings to help them stay on track, and three years later, they’re now debt-free.
“Paying our $34,000 in debt helped us get closer, and our budget meetings helped us communicate better,” says Javier, who founded the personal finance blog Dreamer Money. Their regular meetings also gave them the opportunity to discuss their future plans, as well as their financial pasts.
“Neither of us were shy about talking about those topics,” Javier says.
“You can’t walk into marriage thinking that’s the beginning of your conversation about money,” says Taylor. “You need to have real conversations while you’re dating and while you’re engaged.”
They Tackled Their Debt Before Marriage
Even before Jessica and Victor Kay began dating, they knew that they had very different approaches to money. The San Diego couple worked together in marketing, and Victor saw first-hand some of Jessica’s frivolous spending. About four months after they started dating, the couple had a blunt and honest conversation about their financial situations, and in particular Jessica’s credit card debt.
“We really looked into my finances, with Victor being very patient and me being completely vulnerable,” says Jessica, 33. “I had credit card debt and no savings, so I was exposing all the skeletons.”
Victor, a fastidious planner and saver, helped Jessica craft a strategy for paying down her debt. The awkward discussion strained their relationship initially, but eventually had a big impact.
“Those initial conversations helped transition into the more important conversations we had later on,” says Victor, 32.
The Kays set a goal to be debt-free before they got married. Once they moved in together, they split the rent equally, but Victor covered most other expenses so that Jessica could focus on eliminating the $7,000 she owed. By the time they wed last year, they were debt-free and able to pay cash for half of their $80,000 wedding (Jessica’s dad covered the rest).
“More important than both people having good financial habits — however you define that — is having the same financial habits,” says Victor. “Getting on the same page, whatever page that is, is the most important.”
They’re Recovering From Divorces — Together
When Maya and Henry Stone* got married last year, they were both recovering from the breakdown of previous long-term relationships. The fallout wasn’t just emotional, but financial too: Each had lost a home and gained debt.
“Times were tight, and they still are,” says Maya, 47. “We do feel a little more stable regardless. Even if we stress over bills, we're working together to try to reduce that, and we make a point of reminding each other that we are working together.”
Maya, who works in software, and Henry, 48, who works in healthcare, had a lot of financial baggage around money.
“It was very difficult for us to talk about, because trust in our former partners played into the problems [in those relationships],” Maya says. “We decided on full disclosure, even though it was painful for each of us.”
When the Stones got married, they combined households, including three kids, and their finances. As a queer couple, their gender identities and sexual orientations have impacted their finances, particularly for Henry, who is transgender and deals with workplace discrimination. And because the Stones are older parents, they’re balancing retirement planning with the expenses of young kids.
In the long-term, the Stones say they feel more secure knowing they’re facing those financial challenges together.
“We were lucky in that we seem to balance each other out with the negative and positive aspects of each other's financial pictures,” Maya says. “That balances our forecast a bit, too.”
*Names have been changed.