It’s a fairly well-known fact that money can be one of the biggest sources of strife in a relationship.
In fact, according to a survey of professional certified divorce financial analysts, it’s the third leading cause of divorce in North America (behind basic incompatibility and infidelity, respectively).
February is among the most popular months to get engaged, so there’s no better time to review some of the ways new couples can lay the groundwork for a successful financial union. Because in addition to planning for your emotional partnership, and all the fun your new life together will include, it’s equally important to be sure you’re on the same page (or at least somewhat close) on financial matters.
Relationships have a romantic side, which must be tended to regularly. But once you’re married, the stakes go up and you must also tend to the business side of your partnership, suggests George Krueger, co-founder of BIGG Success, a website devoted to helping people create personal, professional and financial success.
“This creates angst for many couples, but trouble awaits if you ignore it,” says Krueger. “It’s essential that you agree to the roles each of you will fill – from little things to major purchases. Who will take out the garbage? Who will pay the bills? How will you decide on major purchases? Lay the ground rules for the business side of your relationship.”
In addition to defining your roles, it’s a good idea to define how money will be handled, says Leslie Doares, a marriage coach and relationship expert who hosts the radio program “Happily Ever After Is Just the Beginning.”
“You can put it all in one big pot. You can have one joint account for household expenses and two individual ones for the rest. You can have a main account and individual ones for small, personal expenses like gifts or hobbies,” says Doares, who devoted a chapter in her book, “Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage,” to the topic of managing personal finances. “Whatever you choose, be clear as to why it’s set up that way.”
Know What’s Important to Both of You
Ideally you and your significant other have shared values and under the best of circumstances, this also applies to the way you handle money and financial goals.
“Try to start a conversation by determining what your shared values are,” says Misty Lynch, a behavioral financial advisor and certified financial planner at Twine. “If you both agree family and education are important to you, it will be easier to spend in those areas. On the flip side, if one of you values travel and the other prefers home improvement, it may seem like money is the obstacle to compromise. But really your values are misaligned.”
As part of identifying what’s important to each of you, it’s a good idea to openly establish the big picture financial goals for the marriage. Where do you want to be next year at this time? Or five years from now and 10 years from now?
“Setting financial goals will help you achieve those goals and they help to ensure that everyone knows the plan,” says Denise Myhand, a personal finance advocate and co-founder of The Wealth Culture. “Create short, mid- and long-term goals.”
Put All Your Cards on the Table
As you embark on your new life together, there should be no secrets, and this applies to financial matters. “Share your current financial situation and your financial history,” says Myhand.
This effort includes revealing such things as your debt, credit score, salary and investments. It’s important to know what you have or don’t have in order to properly plan for the future.
“Also, any attitudes, reservations or fears about money you may have should also be discussed,” said Myhand.
Indeed, Tiffany Welka, wealth management advisor and vice president at VFG Associates, says getting to know why you each feel the way you do about money is very important.
“Understand why your future spouse may be a spender,” says Welka, who works with couples to guide them to a life of financial happiness prior to and during marriage. “Did they have parents who lived paycheck-to-paycheck? Are they savvy investors because they learned from their grandparents? Are they afraid of taking financial risk because of something that happened in their past? Knowing about your partner’s financial past will allow you to be more understanding and communicative when making financial decisions together in the future.”
Doares refers to this process as learning about each other’s money story. Before you can successfully deal with money, you have to know what it means to each of you, she says.
“Is it love, security, freedom, status? What role did money play in your family when you were growing up?” explains Doares. “Money is never just about the dollars and cents. Your money story influences how you deal with finances.”
Read more: Married Millennials Merging Money: How and Why We’re Sharing Our Finances
Talk Early and Talk Often
Many people hate talking about money. And that’s where the trouble begins.
“Most money conversations don’t happen until there’s a problem. And then it’s a big problem,” said Krueger. “The best time to talk about money is when everyone is happy. That’s why the earlier you start talking about money with your mate-to-be, the more productive the conversations are likely to be.”
Set a regular day and time to talk about money, suggests Krueger, and use the time to review how you’re doing and determine what adjustments may need to be made before the next meeting.
Read more: Save Your Finances (and Maybe Your Relationship): Invite Your Partner on a Money Date
Lynch agrees when it comes to the importance of communication, noting that money can be an emotional topic in a relationship. Having a way to manage your finances together can help, she says.
“The good news is that technology has made managing money, and talking about it, easier than ever,” said Lynch.
There are countless collaborative saving and investing apps available that not only help couples define shared goals when it comes to their finances, but also help them stay on track to meet those goals.
Honeydue, for instance, is designed to help couples track shared bills, review accounts in one place, comment on transactions and add big-picture goals. Betterhaves is another popular app for couples. It allows for syncing with your partner on spending, quickly tracking expenses via the popular “envelope” method and also setting money aside for joint savings.
Twine also offers its own collaborative saving and investing that helps couples define a shared goal when it comes to their finances and stay on track to meet those goals.
Ultimately, you want to talk about money regularly enough that you get very comfortable discussing it. Regular discussions help eliminate the fear and taboo associated with the subject. To lighten the discussions even further, take your financial conversations on the road, says Myhand.
“Go for a walk or grab a coffee,” she says. “Having a relaxed atmosphere also can be very helpful.”
Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. She has worked for some of the nation’s best-known news organizations, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Diego Union-Tribune.