Whether you’re married or in a committed relationship, the time always comes when you must discuss the ‘D’ word or the debts that one of you has brought to the relationship. These are never fun discussions and easy ones for you to put off – especially if you’re the one who came to the marriage carrying a lot of debt. In fact, money and debt are two of the most common things that stress relationships. There are statistics showing that couples that have regular fights about their finances are 30% more likely to end up divorced. However, if you’re honest with one another and plan ahead you can alleviate the stress of having to share a budget. And here are some tips that can start the conversation, help you create a plan and work towards becoming a debt-free couple.
1. Be upfront right from the beginning
Sitting down to talk about money can be very stressful but it’s crucial that you have a realistic expectation of each other’s finances. Talk about all those things you’d rather not discuss– your outstanding loans, your income and whether you’re in a position to make progress towards paying off your debt. Of course, talk is the easy part. You’ll then have to make a budget. If you’re planning on sharing a balance sheet you’ll have to factor in things such as your debt payments, where you want to go on vacation and how often you’ll go out to dinner. In other words, get everything in order today before you begin planning for the future.
2. Understand the law in your state
In general, the two of you won’t be responsible for debts incurred before your marriage but there are instances where you may be liable for your partner’s debts. The simplest explanation of this is that if your name is on the form, you are liable for the debt. As an example of this, you’re fully on the hook, whether or not you’re married, if you cosigned any loans with your partner. If you did cosign a loan, you might try to split the payments down the middle. However, if you find your partner can repay only 25%, you’ll have to be responsible for the other 75%.
You should also understand that there is a difference between communal property states and equitable division states. If you live in a communal property state, you will jointly be liable for all debts that were incurred after you married. On the other hand, if you live in an equitable division state and get a divorce, either you and your spouse will have to decide how to handle your joint debts or a judge will do it for you.
3. Have both joint and separate bank accounts
No couple wants to think about this but it never hurts to prepare for the fact that you may eventually need to separate your finances. This makes it a good idea to have both separate bank accounts as well as joint ones – just in case.
4. Make sure your plans include your debts
When the two of you are planning for your future together, don’t forget to include paying off any debts. If you have a heavy debt load, this can actually affect your ability to get a mortgage as well as where you can afford to live and even how you’ll pay for your children’s college.
5. Reduce the amount you pay on your debts.
This may sound very simplistic but it’s important that you do what you can to reduce the amount you actually pay on your debts. You might be able to do this via a balance transfer on your credit card debt, by looking into a student loan consolidation (if appropriate) or refinancing your mortgage. However, be careful because some of these options can end up costing you more than they save. As an example of this, a lower mortgage rate may come with fees and higher property taxes. And debt consolidation can be a good option for some people but it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution.
6. Remember that you’re in it together
Never forget that you are in this together. Don’t let money issues come between you and your partner. You are still together regardless of how much debt you have and how you plan to pay it off. Be supportive and kind even if your partner’s finances are in worse shape. In the event that you’re the one that’s bringing debt to the relationship or marriage, remember that you still have much you can contribute. With some focus and good planning, the two of you should be able to weather any debt storm.
Seven more helpful financial tips for couples
1. Have common financial goals
You should have shared goals when it comes to building a life together. This needs to include everything from buying a home to having children and from their college education to how you will handle each other’s healthcare and retirement. Sitting down to discuss finances may not be very romantic but it’s important to have the same goals. Also, understand that a financial plan is just a beginning point. Life happens, things change and you will need to make adjustments. But a good financial plan will help you remember what your big goals are and how you intend to reach them.
2. Share the costs
Whether it’s buying a home or shopping for food you should be able to earn efficiencies by combining the costs. If you combine your savings, you will probably qualify for lower fees on bank transactions and retirement accounts. Personal loan fees and checking account fees can also be combined and should provide significant savings.
3. Take advantage of tax benefits
If you go from filing single to filing married, you may pay a bit more in income tax but you should enjoy some overall tax savings. For example, in the case of the estate tax, the two of you should be able to transfer up to $5 million to each other tax-free. It’s really important to have the ability to transfer assets to each other.
4. Respect your partner’s money skills.
The two of you probably don’t have the same financial expertise and it’s not always the man who has more. The important thing is to let the spouse who has the best money skills lead. For example, one of you might focus on bill paying while the other focuses on investing. Of course, the both of you need to be involved in all major decisions or one of you could end up feeling bitter.
5. Share your goals and diversify assets
If you have money you can invest, the more you can invest together, the more creative you can be in your asset mix. For example, if you combine assets you could diversify more to protect against risk. In fact, to get the most out of your investments, you should pool both spouses’ holdings together into one account. When you have a bigger pool of money, you will have more freedom to add a few growth stocks with upside that you might not be able to put in a smaller account.
6. Support one another through the bitter and the sweet
There are a number of things you can do to take the pressure off one another. In terms of income, women have gotten closer to equality with men. One Wells Fargo survey revealed that 25% of women earned more than their male spouses. If one of you loses your job or becomes underemployed, it’s important that the other be supportive. After all, in a few years the shoe may be on the other foot.
7. Do regular financial checkups
Couples rarely just want to go off and each do their own thing financially. Most couples are more interested in finding a financial path and then staying on it. But this requires ongoing communication between the spouses, creating a sound financial plan and updating it when things change. Although this may sound basic, it’s important that the two of you sit down regularly and perform financial checkups.