You talk about your job, your dysfunctional family, the dream home you want to live in someday—but your finances? Ugh. If you’re like most couples, money is right up there with exes on the list of topics you avoid like the plague.
In fact, a whopping 43% of people don’t even know how much money their partner makes, according to a Fidelity study. “I think there’s still a taboo surrounding finances today. It’s not a topic that you typically share with your family members or loved ones,” says Alison Norris, a Certified Financial Planner at SoFi.
That’s probably because talking about finances can be, well, tough. After all, when you talk about money—and I mean really talk about it—you end up discussing much more than just dollars and cents. Having a meaningful discussion means chatting about your biggest dreams and deepest fears, and that can be straight-up terrifying.
But as you start to get more serious with someone, talking about money isn’t only a logistical reality, it’s a crucial step in making sure you plan and live the life you’ve both dreamed of.
The good news? If you approach the conversation the right way, it can actually bring you closer. Here’s how to take the plunge.
1. Take a Moment to Reflect by Yourselves
Before you even begin to talk to your partner about finances, you need to do something a little touchy-feely on your own. Bear with me, though—it’s worth it.
Ready? Put your phone down for a few minutes, channel your inner Freud, and take a deep look at both your past and your future. Ask yourself questions like:
• What did my parents teach me about money?
• When I think about money, which feelings come to mind?
• What are some good money habits and some bad money habits that I’ve developed over time?
• What goals do I want to reach in the next 5, 10, or 20 years—get married, buy a house, explore Australia, become a CEO, have two kids, get a puppy, purchase a sports car, give a certain amount to charity?
• What will retirement look like for me—where will I live and how will I spend my time? Are you on track for retirement? Consult SoFi’s retirement calculator to see where you stand.
Those answers will help you steer when you’re making financial decisions. “Money is a tool and it’s about looking at how you can really use that tool for things that bring you happiness,” says Norris.
For instance, maybe this exercise will shed light on the fact that you’re an impulsive spender, and it’s putting you deeper into debt. Or perhaps it’ll teach you that you’ve been buying a lot of clothes, even though travel is what truly excites you. Or maybe you’ll realize that since your parents barely made ends meet when you were a kid, you carry around a lot of anxiety, and that’s why it’s so difficult for you to have conversations about finances without wanting to curl up into the fetal position.
Spoiler alert: You may not like your answers, and that’s OK. The only thing that matters is being honest. Remember: You can’t figure out how to make changes and move forward until you know where you’ve been and how you got there.
The next step, says Norris, is to define your personal values. Take a look at the list below, and circle the three that are most important to you. Or, feel free to add your own!
Values: Adventure, Balance, Change, Community, Education, Experience, Faith, Family, Fun, Generosity, Harmony, Inner Peace, Lifelong Learning, Mobility, Opportunity, Personal Growth, Pleasure, Presence, Prestige, Prosperity/Wealth, Reliability, Respect, Security, Simplicity, Travel, Variety, Well-being
This second exercise is similar in that it forces you each to think about your priorities, which should inform how you spend your money going forward.
Now, ask your partner to do the same (alone), and then…
2. Come Together to Talk about What You Learned
Once you’ve had your separate me-time, go over what you discovered about yourselves. (Here’s a fun bonus exercise: Try guessing each other’s values before they’re revealed to see how well you know each other.)
You may find that you’re very much in sync in terms of what you want out of life, or you could learn that you’re total opposites. Whatever the case may be, you can still be compatible, according to Norris. “Most of the time, couples can agree on at least one value or aspect of their life that’s important,” she says. “Talk about why those values matter to you and share stories with your partner.”
One of the benefits of doing this is that it gives you a frame of reference and helps you understand where the other person is coming from. For example, you might be more likely to agree to an expensive home alarm system if you find out that your partner’s family home was burglarized.
Or maybe your partner will stop asking why you splurge on a pricey gym membership when you tell him about how you’ve struggled with your weight for years. Admitting these things involves making yourself vulnerable, which isn’t easy, but it’s bound to lower the friction in your relationship—both financial and otherwise.
3. Look at Your Net worth and Cash Flow
After you’ve done the hard work of opening yourselves up to each other, get down to the nitty-gritty numbers. Schedule a financial date one evening (feel free to include wine), sit down at a table with your laptops, log into all your investment and cash management accounts, and get cracking.
If you don’t have a joint account yet, consider SoFi Money®. Once you open up a SoFi Money account, it’s easy for you and your +1 to merge your finances with a joint account.
First, Norris advises calculating your net worth and showing it to your partner. Your net worth is everything you own (your assets) minus everything you owe (your debts). Then ask your partner to do the same, and write these figures down in a shared Google document with the date.
This process forces you to talk about things that might be a little embarrassing. For instance, if your partner has $30,000 of student loan or credit card debt, you don’t necessarily have to help pay it off, but you do need to know about it, because that may affect how soon you’ll be able to reach certain financial goals.
Next, analyze your cash flow from the last month by focusing on how much money you earned (your income), how much money you spent, what you spent it on, how much you saved, and what you’re saving it for. A website like Mint.com can put all of your financial information in one place and do the math for you for free.
Yes, this means revealing your salary, as well as any habits that you may have been trying to hide, which can be tough. But the more honest you can be, the better. “People have a tendency to overstate what they make and understate their debt. I’m not sure that there’s malice involved—it’s more tied to insecurity and worrying that you won’t measure up in your partner’s eyes,” says Norris.
That’s why it’s so important to be intentional and look at the actual figures together. Making yourself have “the talk” will keep you one step ahead and give you a more realistic sense of what you’re doing well and what you can do better.
4. Figure out How Your Resources Will Be Spent
The final step involves making joint decisions based on the knowledge and insights that you’ve just gained.
Discuss how you have been paying for “couples” stuff in the past and how you’d like to pay for it going forward. These types of expenses might include dinners at restaurants, concerts, or weekend getaways. If you’re already living together, it could include bigger-ticket items like rent and utility bills. And if you’re engaged, it may include wedding and honeymoon costs.
Do you split everything exactly down the middle? Or does the person with the higher net worth pay a larger percentage? Or is it less precise: One person handles rent and the other handles everything else? It doesn’t matter what you decide—only that you come to an agreement that feels fair to both sides so there’s clarity and no resentment, says Norris.
Keep in mind that the solution that you choose doesn’t have to be permanent. You can experiment from month to month to see which strategy works best, and your financial circumstances may change over time. One of you might lose a job, get a promotion, or receive a large sum of money through a bonus or inheritance, which could prompt an adjustment.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or confused, or if you find you’re butting heads and could use some gentle conflict resolution from a neutral third party, arranging a joint meeting with a financial advisor can help you come up with a monetary game plan that’ll help you work toward your goals and feel less stressed.
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