6 Important Finance Questions You Need to Ask BEFORE the Wedding Do you know how much your partner actually makes? by Lana Axelrod Talking about money basics (income, assets, and debt) before you get married is basically required, right? Well, maybe not. According to this survey, a whopping 43 percent of people don’t know the salary range of their spouse. We’re not talking about the specific dollar amount—just the range. That’s a whole lot of people who are way, way out of the loop (and probably haven’t asked the really hard questions). To save you from a lot of post-wedding tears and fights, we put together six important finance questions that partners should always cover before getting married. (Though, now is always a good time to tackle these questions. So if you’ve already gotten hitched and haven’t discussed them yet, maybe it’s time to make a wine-and-chat date.) Conversations can get emotional and escalate quickly, and figuring out how to broach these topics in a way that’s healthy and helpful can be a little tough. With that in mind, we’ve put together a collection of topics you should be discussing (and the questions that will help you get there). The goal is for you to be able to walk away from these conversations feeling happy, instead of beaten down and exhausted (and like you still don’t know anything). 1. Money Management Habits Your intentions: You’ve observed that your partner manages money differently from you. You want to understand each other’s habits and what you each enjoy about money management. You may be someone who keeps very close track of your finances—you have a spreadsheet projecting out your monthly budget for the next twelve months, and constantly monitor your net worth. Your partner may be the complete opposite—they don’t track their spending categories or savings rate, and never think about their net worth. However, this doesn’t mean they’re “bad” with money. How NOT to ask: “Are you on top of your money or a hot mess?” “I don’t enjoy managing money. Can you do everything, please?” Solution: Have a conversation about your habits: how do you keep track of your budget, or why don’t you keep track of your savings? Find out what each of you likes and dislikes about day-to-day money management. Tell each other about what you’ve found works well for you. Questions to ask: “How do you keep track of how much you spend and save, and also how your accounts fluctuate over time?” “How often do you check your accounts?” “Do you keep a budget? Why or why not?” “Are there certain things that you like or dislike doing when it comes to money management?” 2. Financial Upbringing Your intentions: You know you and your partner were raised differently. You’re worried that you come from different worlds but need to find a common language. Maybe one family was well-off and the other struggled financially. Or maybe your parents taught you that talking about money is impolite, but your partner’s family talks about it all the time and it makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps your parents taught you how money works by paying you to mow the lawn, while your partner didn’t get any financial education from their parents. How NOT to ask: “Did growing up poor/rich mess you up?” “Were you raised by wolves and that’s why you don’t know anything about managing money?” “Why do you sound like your mother/father every time we argue about money?” Solution: Find out where your partner is coming from so you can truly understand their actions. Our financial upbringing has a big impact on how we function with money as adults. Questions to ask: “How did your parents manage money when you were growing up? For example, did they split responsibilities, keep track of expenses, have monthly meetings to discuss their money, or use a financial adviser?” “Do you remember if your parents ever argued about money?” “How did you feel about your family’s financial situation when you were growing up?” “What did you learn from your parents about money?” 3. Life Goals Relating to Money Your intentions: You have a vision for your life, dreams, and goals. Perhaps you want to start a business, retire at fifty, and buy a farm. You thought your partner wanted the same things, but the way they’re spending their time is not helping to reach those goals financially. You may be worried about where things are headed, leading you to lash out and pick fights. How NOT to ask: “The business you started after quitting your job isn’t earning any money—what are you doing to me?” “I don’t want to live in a small apartment for our entire lives, so why aren’t you helping me save more for a house?” Solution: Being emotional or worrying doesn’t solve anything. Talk about what you both want out of life: What are your big goals? Then work backward and define the concrete steps you need to take over the coming months and years in order to achieve those goals, with a specific focus on your finances. For example, if you want to retire at fifty, how much money will you need? And what does that say about how much you need to start saving and investing today in order to get there? If you want to have your own business, are you going to quit your job and start working on your idea, or will you work on your idea nights and weekends until you’ve reached enough success to quit your day job? Life goals are intrinsically tied to how you manage your money. You want to have a plan, and to have a plan, you need to be on the same page about your life vision. Questions to ask: “What are your life dreams and goals?” (Make these specific by naming dollar amounts, the age you want to be when you reach the goal, or any other concrete metric.) “How much is enough for us to make per year to have our dream lifestyle?” “What do we need to do today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year to achieve these goals?” (Again, be specific with concrete steps, dollar amounts, timelines, and metrics.) 4. Merging Finances Your intentions: You’re not sure if combining your money, keeping it separate, or a combination of both is the right approach for you and your partner. Maybe you’re trying to be realistic; divorce rates are high and you never know what could happen. You’ve heard stories of crazy people who skip town with their spouse’s cash. Maybe you don’t feel right about merging your hard-earned savings with the relatively low savings of your partner. How NOT to ask: “If we combine our money into a joint account, am I going to regret it one day?” “Why should we combine our money when I’ve saved five times as much as you?” “How can you possibly think that having separate accounts is healthy in a marriage?” Solution: It’s not advisable to merge checking, savings, and investment accounts until you’ve built a significant level of trust in the relationship. Hopefully, by the time you’re engaged or about to get married, you’re at that trust level. Many successfully married couples can’t imagine having separate accounts—they join all their assets and never think about yours, mine, or ours. Other couples keep their money separate, and each contribute a certain share to the household. Meanwhile, many happy couples have a hybrid system in which they have one or more joint accounts they use to pay their household expenses, but they also keep their own “fun money” accounts for gifts for each other and treats for themselves. Questions to ask: “Did your parents combine their money or keep it separate? Did it work for them?” “Which arrangement—joint, separate, or hybrid—makes you most comfortable, and why?” “Can we try the separate or hybrid approach on a trial basis and then make a decision about whether we want to join everything?” 5. Respectful Spending Your intentions: You notice that one or both of you makes significant purchases without consulting the other, which can lead to hurt feelings and arguments. You want to figure out a way to make both of you happy. Meanwhile, things aren’t so straightforward; for example, your partner makes a lot more than you and you feel uncomfortable asking them to curb their spending when you’re contributing much less to the household. How NOT to ask: “Why did you buy that expensive drone without talking to me first?” “Why do you always get annoyed when I spend money that I work hard to earn on things that make me happy?” Solution: Agree on your spend threshold number—this number is literally the dollar amount at which you want your partner to check in with you before they make a purchase. Is it $200? $100? $50? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer does not depend on your income or savings. Another alternative is to have separate accounts for your separate spending money. That way you get what you want, your partner gets what they want, and you can each save for that bigger TV or the illustrated Harry Potters without feeling guilty. Questions to ask: “What’s your spend threshold number?” (You should both say your number at the same time.) “Our numbers are different, so do you want to meet in the middle, or agree to respect each other’s numbers?” 6. Kids and BreadWinner Status Your intentions: You come into a relationship with certain preconceived notions, and so does your partner. When you don’t see eye to eye, or don’t discuss it, you can fall into arguments driven by your underlying concerns. Perhaps you’ve always imagined that you would have a dual-income household, or maybe you expect one of you to stay home to raise the kids, or to work part-time when the kids are young. How NOT to ask: “You honestly expect me to stay home with our future kids even though I have a master’s degree?” “Do you think you have more say in our financial decisions just because you make more than me?” Solution: Okay, so “breadwinner” is kind of an old-fashioned term, but it can still be relevant in the twenty-first century. Many people find a career to be very fulfilling, and they want to put their higher education to good use. Other people are happy to take on the responsibilities of a stay-at-home parent on a part-time or full-time basis while their partner takes on the responsibilities of earning the majority of the household income. Some couples prioritize both partners’ careers and carve out money for day care or a nanny. If one of you stays home, it’s important to remember that you are still equals even though you contribute differently to the household. Questions to ask: “When you imagine our future with kids, do you expect one of us to stay home?” “How do you feel about one of us making all the money, or a lot more money than the other?” “If we both want to work full-time, how much will child care cost and how much do we need to start saving for it now?” Did you and your partner talk finances before you got married? What did you ask—and what did you leave out? Lana Axelrod Lana Axelrod is the founder of SageCouple, which provides practical financial advice and money boot camps to engaged and newlywed couples. Lana has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BS in finance and accounting from NYU’s Stern School of Business. Over the last decade, she has worked at American Express, Credit Suisse, and Goldman Sachs. Lana currently lives in NYC with her husband and adorable dog.