This year, after cozying up with your Valentine over a candlelit dinner and a glass of something special, it may be a good time to talk about your relationship.
With your money. Make a date for a heart-felt conversation about your financial habits.
“Transparency regarding finances is essential in any long-term partnership,” said Kimberly Bridges, director of financial planning at BOK Financial.
So, along with admiring the bouquet of flowers and nibbling at the candies that Valentine’s Day brings, consider committing to an open and honest approach to your household’s finances.
“If you really love someone, you don’t want to leave them in the lurch if you get sick, disabled or, heaven forbid, die,” Bridges said. “I know it’s very difficult to think about, but you need to consider how much the household is relying on you and your income to pay the bills, maintain your lifestyle and meet future needs.”
It takes two
Financial issues are a common source of disagreement in many partnerships.
According a recent poll by the American Institute of CPAs, 69% of couples married or living together had a disagreement about money in the previous 12 months, and 73% said financial matters are a source of stress.
Bad financial habits can even affect your options, too. A WalletHub survey found that 47% of those polled said bad credit would prompt a “no” to a marriage proposal and 47% would view irresponsible spending as a reason to leave a relationship.
Additionally, 44% of those surveyed said that “irresponsible spending is a bigger turnoff than bad breath.”
The choice of a breath freshener is easy, but building up healthy financial habits takes some work. Bridges offers six tips:
Open up. “I believe in going ‘open book’ from a financial perspective before entering into marriage,” Bridges said. Everything should be on the table, from checking and savings accounts to investments and credit reports.
“I hear way too often of couples hiding financial behaviors from each other. Openness and honesty should be the foundation of your financial life as a couple,” she added.
Share the load. “Nobody gets a free ride,” Bridges said. Even if one of you is better at numbers, you both need to have a handle on all aspects of the household, so pay bills, balance the books and discuss financial decisions together.
“Think of your financial fitness like your physical fitness,” Bridges said. “Having a fit partner doesn’t make you fit. You each need to own responsibility for your own physical and financial fitness.”
Play the long game. Long-term goals and plans to achieve those targets are just as important as day-to-day matters.
“You may be handling your cash flow and paying your bills every month, but if you’re not making progress toward long-term goals, too, you’re just treading water,” Bridges said.
Allow for the bumps in the road. Life happens, circumstances change and plans must be altered. Address challenges as they arise and be realistic in how you respond.
The loss of a job or a forced early retirement can, and will, impact your long-term goals. It’s best to determine how much and make a course correction as early as possible.
Allow for individuality. Healthy finances for a couple may include separate spending accounts and retirement savings.“It’s not about hiding something, it’s about ‘I have my stuff, you have your stuff and we have our stuff together,’” Bridges said.
Accountability, accountability, accountability. Periodic check-ins allow a couple to ensure they’re still on track with income, spending and savings.
In addition, it reinforces the transparency so either of you can see if something’s going awry and make adjustments.
Tale of two relationships
Of course, finances are merely one aspect of many that go into a successful relationship, but they can help smooth the edges on other fronts as well.
Consider one of Bridges’ acquaintances who was in her mid-30s when her husband died suddenly. Because the couple had talked through their circumstances and addressed life insurance needs eight years earlier, the young widow knew that her immediate expenses and their daughter’s education needs were covered.
“The stress of figuring out what to do next while paying the bills, providing for their daughter’s education and keeping a roof over their heads was removed,” Bridges said.
Conversely, Bridges was once approached by a woman who, in the course of her divorce proceedings, discovered that her husband had gambled away all but her retirement savings and run up considerable debt. Because he was an accountant, he’d always managed the family books, which allowed him to hide his addiction—and its impact on their finances—for years.
“Given his expertise, she trusted him, but it turns out he had committed financial infidelity as he hid and lied about the reality of their financial situation,” Bridges said.
Never too early to start
To give your relationship a solid financial foundation, start the discussions early. Bridges suggested that you dig into the matter once you sense the relationship is getting serious.
“If you discover signs of irresponsible behavior such as a poor credit profile, a lot of debt, or an abundance of credit card debt, it may impact whether you want to tie the knot now, wait until they get their financial life in order, or even walk away,” she said.
And don’t be afraid to pull in a third party such as a relationship counselor, financial counselor or financial advisor. The objective viewpoint can help each of you unpack your unique perspectives on finances, Bridges said, as well as build the foundation for the future.