Combining Finances: Personal Finance Management for Couples

Combining Finances: Personal Finance Management for Couples

Tracy M. Van Brunt, Member Engagement Officer

It’s almost Valentine’s Day, and if you’re in a relationship, you may be taking stock of where you are on your romantic journey with your partner. If you’re committed to someone, you might also be thinking about a touchy issue when taking the next step in your relationship: personal finance. At some point, many couples take steps to merge their finances into a single account, sharing ownership of funds, responsibilities and decision-making. It’s often difficult to reconcile two different systems for budgeting and managing finances, let alone bridging gaps that may exist between two people’s financial goals. But it can be done, provided you understand the areas that will need to be addressed.

couple holding hands

Managing a Joint Account
Before we delve into the bigger picture issues of merging finances with a partner, first we need to look at basic financial housekeeping. People have different ways of managing their accounts. Some only use mobile apps, while others use a traditional register to keep track of their balances. Many people still write checks when making payments, while others prefer to pay bills online. These are all differences that need to be ironed out so that you have a clear and agreed upon method for banking. Of course, one person in a couple may continue to prefer writing checks over online and mobile banking, but that will involve determining who pays what bills in their own way. Whether you go down the route of adopting one person’s system or you allow for differences, you need to start by having the conversation and learning your partner’s money management style so you can determine how you’ll manage it together.

Aligning on Budgeting and Savings Goals
Now that you’ve worked out the mechanics of shared personal finances, you need to look at the broader issues. It’s rare two people will have the exact same financial goals in life, as they’re generally shaped by entirely different experiences. But to successfully commit to joining finances, couples need to at least have some alignment on what they’re working toward and how they’re getting there.

Let’s start with the how – budgeting. A couple might have differences in levels of thriftiness, and they’ll have to work out when deciding to make (or not make) purchases. Beyond this, couples might have different priorities in their daily spending routines (as opposed to long-term goals, which we’ll get to in a moment). Do you prefer budgeting to go see a movie a couple times a month or paying for Netflix or Hulu? Is it more important to dine out every once in a while or buy new clothes? There are no right or wrong answers here, but these different preferences can cause strains in relationships when finances are shared. Talk them out and try your best to make sure both partners are happy with these budgeting styles and priorities.

When it comes to saving money for the future, disagreements can be more damaging. That’s why couples should discuss, early on, what they each see as long-term priorities for the future. One may see buying a house as the ultimate goal, while the other wants to save up to open their own business. As with the daily budgeting goals, neither of these is wrong. But some kind of agreement and understanding is essential to ensure harmony.

Dealing with Debt
Perhaps the most highly charged issue when merging your finances with someone else is the topic of debt. The student loan debt crisis1, combined with debt that is increasingly necessary to finance even essentials like cars and daily purchases via credit cards, means that even young couples just starting out tend to already have sizable debt. If two people are fortunate enough to have little to no debt between them, this may not be a big issue. If two people each have a lot of debt, the focus will be on budgeting and saving appropriately to reduce and pay it off. But an even bigger problem arises when you find out your partner has a lot more debt than you, or vice versa. It’s important for both partners to be totally transparent about debt and credit issues to avoid the perception that anyone is being misled.

Understanding your partner’s credit is critical because it can have a negative impact on your individual credit if you apply for joint loans. If you uncover your partner has credit issues, it would be best to hold off applying for joint loans, until their credit is repaired. Some suggestions to help improve credit include talking to a credit counselor, converting revolving debt into installment loans, and creating a budget plan to better manage the debt.

Finally, tackling excessive debt can be made easier by financial products like debt consolidation loans, which can fold different debts into a single one, to streamline payments and possibly reduce interest rates. A partner who has a lot of student loan debt can also look into student loan consolidation, which can make monthly payments more bearable and cause minimal problems for a partner who may have a lot less debt. But the starting point is being honest, open and proactive in finding solutions.

Love Conquers All – But You Still Need a Plan
If you’re really meant to be with your partner, resolving personal finance issues should come in due time, no matter what temporary strains exist. But that doesn’t mean you can ignore these questions. If you’re at the stage where you’re ready to merge finances, now may be a good time to think about your financial goals and game plan together.

                                                   

This information is for informational purposes only and is intended to provide general guidance and does not constitute legal, tax, or financial advice. Each person’s circumstances are different and may not apply to the specific information provided. You should seek the advice of a financial professional, tax consultant, and/or legal counsel to discuss your specific needs before making any financial or other commitments regarding the matters related to your condition are made.  

1 Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/09/what-will-it-take-to-solve-the-student-loan-crisis