The rules of relationships have changed — gone are the days of men-as-the-only-breadwinners and here are the days of “it’s complicated” and cohabitation. But no matter what type of relationship you’re in, talking about money, early and often, is critical to your long-term success as partners.
The truth is, talking about those finances can be hard, specially if your finances aren’t as great or as straight-forward as you’d like them to be. But relationships signal commitment, and with commitment comes great responsibility.
The most common question we hear from couples is about how to merge finances. Should you go all in or keep things totally separate? Should you plan for the best case scenario or the worst? How do other people do it?
After founding Zeta as a tool focused on helping couples navigate their finances together, we’ve spent a lot of time talking to couples and financial advisors about what works and doesn’t work. Based on our research, we’ve developed the Spark Program to help you and your significant other navigate money together. We’ve also created this handy worksheet for you to customize as you work through the guide.
WHO THIS IS FOR:
This guide is targeted at couples who are just moved-in together or are recently engaged. That said, we’ve heard many married couples ask similar questions and might also benefit from this exercise.
GUIDE TO MERGING FINANCES AS A COUPLE:
STEP 1: Understand your money personalities.
Your money personality is exactly what it sounds like — an analysis on your relationship with money. What’s most interesting is comparing your personality with your partner so you can better under the differences in your approach. It’s inevitable that you’ll have different personalities, and thus approaches, when dealing with money. Interestingly, couples with similar money personalities when they first start dating will actually change their personalities so that they’re less similar. One of the best money personality tools I’ve seen out there is Olivia Mellan’s Money Harmony quiz. It’s short, it’s free and she has a book you can buy if you want to dig into your personalities further. We’ve included some discussion questions in the worksheet to talk through once you’ve gone through the quiz.
STEP 2: Discuss what’s working well and what’s not working well.
Once you better understand you/your partner’s relationship with money, it’s much easier to have a conversation about what’s working or not working. Take a moment to talk through the questions listed in the worksheet. Now write down what’s working or not for each of you. These will give you the areas you need to focus on when selecting the right model for yourselves later in the guide.
STEP 3: Disclose your financial state to your partner.
A big step to merging your finances is being clear with your partner on what your finances are. This can be a tough conversation as one of you might be in a totally different place than the other. But the fact is, this is an important step in bringing your finances closer together, even if you’re not married. According to an Experian’s report, 59% of divorced adults attribute their divorce (in some part) to financial issues so the consequences of not doing so are very real. We suggest starting with calculating and then sharing your net worth which looks at your assets (everything you own) and your liabilities (everything you owe). Once you’ve got this high level view of finances, you should also cover your overall income and even your credit score. These three financial indicators will give both people a good understanding of the financial footing you’re on. Our worksheet gives you space to plug-in these numbers and provides some guiding questions to cover once you’ve done so.
STEP 4: Explore potential models for merging your finances.
Consider all the previous steps in this guide as research — learning about each of your personalities and finances so you can make an informed decision about which merging model to use. Now, you’re ready to dig into three main ways couples’ might manage their money. Interestingly, our generation (millennials) is much less likely to merge our finances fully, a stark departure from that of our parents’ generation. To help you consider each model carefully, I’ve listed them out here along with a practical steps on how to implement each model.
STEP 5: Consider what happens if you earn different incomes.
If you have very different incomes levels, it can create really some tough dynamics in your relationship. The antidote is to talk through your differences and co-select the model that you each think is fair. If you’re curious, I’ve outlined 3 approaches for dealing with varied incomes here.
STEP 6: Decide which merging model works for you today and determine 3 steps to move towards that model.
The good news is that you’ve done the leg work to inform your decision, now it’s just a matter of choosing which model to begin with! A note to keep in mind — the model you select for your finances might change as your relationship evolves. Don’t stress too much about making the right decision now. Rather, start with something that brings you closer to each of your ideals; you can adapt your model as your life circumstances change. If it’s helpful, you can also work with a Certified Financial Planner at Zeta to help you navigate this decision. Our handy worksheet has a tab that helps you calculate your total monthly contributions based on the model you’ve chosen.
STEP 7: EXTRA CREDIT: Define your short, medium and long-term goals together.
Merging your finances is really a means to an end, the end being the goals and aspirations you have as individuals and as a couple. Book-marking your conversation with a broader exercise defining and sharing your goals can really put things into perspective! For example, my husband and I choose not to fully integrate our finances as we each have very different risk appetites. When I shared some of the investment goals I have for the near-future, it made it clear to us that keeping our money separate would give me the financial freedom to pursue those goals without making him feel like he’d have to come along for the ride. Here are some example goals for a fictional couple, Mike & Maya, that you can check out for inspiration.
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