How You Can Solve Your Marriage’s Most Important Money Questions

You can do this

pig bank

Chances are, at some point, most of us probably got a bare-bones financial education, or else we wouldn’t know how to write a check. But otherwise? As a country we’re pretty financially illiterate—only 37 percent of Americans can pass this basic financial literacy quiz. When that news broke, I asked the APW staff if they were willing to take it. We have a team full of really smart ladies, and they all scored well on the quiz. But after they took it, they pointed out that the quiz really just covered basic math concepts. (Q: How fast does what you owe grow if your interest rate is 20 percent? A: Really fucking fast.) And beyond basic math concepts, most of them were pretty lost.

Which is to say, this problem isn’t abstract—and it’s causing a lot of stress in a lot of millennial marriages. How do I know? Because I’ve spent years working to self-educate about money, and I’ve ended up fielding a lot of my very smart friends’ very stressed questions.

When I was in my early twenties and really broke (aka living in New York City on $18k to $27k a year), I decided I needed to learn the basics of managing money. That meant that I ordered a ton of “finance for young dummies” books online, and started a savings account. While I was able to eventually save up to have a month’s pay in the bank, by saving in $100/month increments (high fives!), I now realize that the real prize was that I taught myself the basics of how to save money. And that meant that while money was always tight in my twenties, I emerged from that decade married, and with an emergency fund (all saved by me, and none by my then-in-law-school husband, HEY LADIES).

In recent years, I’ve shifted my focus from the basics of how to manage money to deeper emotional questions around cash. Because it turns out that all of the financial education in the world won’t save me from the fact that my deepest money memories are rooted in my mom crying over bills, or panicking as black smoke poured from a car we couldn’t afford to fix. To work on my mental relationship with money, I’ve read a ton of books—some more mystical, some more practical. They were all helpful in some way (money always seems a little magical to me, so I’m open to all sorts of metaphors for thinking about it). But through work with my coach, I realized that to heal my relationship with money, I had to work on reprogramming my money scripts (basic cognitive behavioral therapy stuff). All of this lead me to the book Mind over Money, which is written by two financial psychologists—real-life psychologists who focus on behavioral finance, money disorders, and financial health. To quote:

Chronic self-defeating and self-destructive financial behaviors aren’t driven by our rational, thinking minds. The truth is, they stem from psychological forces that lie well outside our conscious awareness, and their roots run deep, deep into our past.

And all that explains how I’m surrounded by such smart women who are so terrified by money that they remain uninformed (but can talk to me in detail about systemic cultural oppression).

Which brings us to this: basic financial literacy for women who are one part of a couple. Or, figuring out what you even need to know, how to start getting right with money, and how to talk to your partner about all this.

should we have a joint bank account?

I am, and have always been, the number one proponent for joint accounts for married couples. When I started writing about married life, lo… seven years ago (whoa), I assumed that all married couples had joint finances; they just handled them in slightly different ways.

False.

What I’ve learned over the years is that huge numbers of millennial couples are trying to keep their accounts separate. The reasons vary—from trying to protect yourself from a possible divorce, to a feeling that feminists do it on their own. But the reality is this: Unless you have an ironclad prenup, your finances are legally merged in some way anyway. (Laws vary state by state, so check if you’re in a Community Property state or Equitable Distribution state.) Keeping your finances separate is a legal fiction that will collapse in the event of divorce, if not before. Because on a most basic level, committing to marriage is committing to a partnership and a life together, and like it or not, money is the tool that you’ll use to build that life together. If you buy a house, you’ll buy it together. If you raise kids, you’ll raise them together. If you get sick, you’ll manage it together. You might as well face that reality now, by putting your money together. (Tips from me on how to do that right here.)

How do I create a budget?

I’m perpetually shocked at how many folks I know are wandering through life without a budget, hoping things will just generally sort of work out by the end of the month. I wander through life with a budget, and I still struggle to get things worked out by the end of the month, so I can’t imagine how anyone copes without. Plus, once you’re part of a couple, and there are two sets of spending habits, and if you don’t have some lines to color in… you might be surprised by your partner’s brand-new motorcycle, bought with money you thought you were saving for a house.

We’ve written at length about the tool You Need a Budget. Maddie and many of our commenters swear by it. If you are in the process of learning how to keep on a budget, or trying to get out of debt, You Need a Budget is the absolute best. However, I tried it, and… it didn’t work for me. I’ve always kept a budget, and at this point in my life (and savings), I want to be rewarded with a little bit of flexibility with what I spend. I don’t need to feel punished when red for that month, because I have quite a bit of green socked away (and I get paid in various lump sums over the course of the year to boot). So after some experimentation, I started using Mint. It’s a great way to look at all of our finances in one place (when I log in, it auto-updates and shows me our net worth, from savings accounts to home equity, minus debt). But their budgeting tool also auto-imports transactions (and lets you hide expenses that you don’t want to track that month—if, say, you’ve previously saved up for them). I have the app on my phone, and I try to go in and classify transactions every day or so, so I have a sense of where we are with our monthly budget. Not flying blind really reduces my stress.

what do you use to automate your banking?

The book that totally revolutionized our financial lives was I Will Teach You to Be Rich by Ramit Sethi. (Apologies in advance for any of you who, like me, have an aversion to the word “rich.” The books and resources here are generally great; the titles will give you hives.) Sethi runs a website by the same name that has a ton of free resources. It’s supposed to be really solid, but full disclosure, I’ve never used it—however, his book totally changed things for us financially. The basic premise of the book is that you should automate as much as possible in your finances. Bills should auto-pay; savings should auto-transfer. That frees you up to be more intentional about what you spend, and how you spend it. Turns out I’m more than willing to pack a lunch, but buying a nice lipstick feels luxurious to me. So we’ve built an automated system that helps make that happen.

The book also lays out the basics of what good investing looks like, so you can get started even if you don’t have oodles of money. Which brings us to…

how can I learn about basic investing?

Here is the thing. Investing is… not very hard. In fact, it’s so not hard that the basics of what you need to know have been boiled down to an index card. And that card was turned into a book, fittingly called The Index Card. (If you’re just starting on this journey, you should probably get it.) For something so simple, investing causes people a terrific amount of fear. But you guys, you need to get on this, because when you get older, having money saved is quite literally a life-or-death situation. And doing it on training wheels is way better than not doing it at all.

Here’s the TL;DR of investing: The basic idea is that you put some amount of money away each month ($10 or $10,000—it really doesn’t matter for purposes of this discussion). You put it in appropriate mutual funds (Vanguard is great, because it’s low-fee and an industry leader), and then you forget about it. Automate it, and more or less ignore it for the next thirty years. Plus, many people just flat-out don’t do it because they think they can do it later… or they should have done it sooner. This is all nonsense. You should start saving and doing basic investing now.

Also, if you’re reading this and you and your partner don’t both have Roth IRAs, you should probably contact your financial institution (or hell, Google it) and open one this week. I’ll let an expert tell you why.

Note: When I was researching this article, I asked people what investment resources they used, and a lot of people sent me to sites that were not, in fact, educational resources, but robo-investors, or millennial-focused financial institutions (Betterment, Wealthfront, SoFi, etc.) Using these services is fine, though the jury is out on whether robo-advisors are any better than target date funds, and it’s hard to beat the super low rate of Vanguard’s funds, TBH. That said, it’s important to realize that all of these firms are trying to sell you something. To the extent that you can get useful financial info from their websites, great. But keep in mind that they are not unbiased.

what is the best way to use credit?

The New York Times recently ran an article about how millennials are steering clear of credit cards. (Understandable, given the wild amount of student loan debt most of us got saddled with.) But the basic truth of our credit system is that you have to have credit to get credit. That means, scary as they are, you should get a (hopefully low-interest) credit card, use it occasionally, and pay it off at the end of the month. That way if you ever need larger amounts of credit (say, for buying a house), the bank will be able to see that you’re a good bet.

how do I learn to not hate/Be Terrified Of money?

I grew up with the idea that money was the root of all evil. Combine that with the fact that there never seemed to be enough money to go around in our house, and there was always stress and tears when emergency expenses came up, and… well, I grew up with a serious aversion to money and an automatic dislike of “rich people.” In 2015 I wrote about how I hadn’t managed to get past my childhood experiences with money, and I was constantly afraid there would never be enough of it. In the years since, I decided that I needed to change my thinking and try to get healthy with money.

This has been a serious ongoing endeavor for me, one that involves uprooting every one of my beliefs about money, examining it, and seeing if it’s still serving me. (Hot tip: Most of them are not.) While the best book I’ve read on the subject is the above-mentioned Mind over Money by Brad Klontz and Ted Klontz, I’ve also enjoyed (and had various problems with, but still learned from): The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist, Get Rich, Lucky Bitch by Denise Duffield Thomas, and (not technically about money but all about growing into yourself and the best book ever), Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes.

I also wholeheartedly, wholeheartedly recommend the new podcast Bad with Money by Gabby Dunn. She has you follow along with her own (in-progress) story to get right with money, and get over shame and fear. Plus, I’m very hopeful that she’s tackling the complex intersection of the politics of money, and personal improvement with money… which so few people discuss. The personal is political, y’all.

but seriously: how do I get my shit together?

Literally, with GYST.com. Because you owe it to yourself (and your partner) to have things lined up in case of something going profoundly wrong. Founded by a woman whose father was seriously injured and had no wills or financial plans in place, GYST is set up to get you set up, for the “for worse.” These days, GYST has expanded to offer packages you can pay for, if you just want to line up your will, power of attorney, living will, and a full checklist of things to get done all in one fell swoop. But if you want to get it together on your own, that’s fine: They also offer comprehensive checklists, and guides to what you need to know. Print them out, put them on your fridge… and get your wills written, and buy some life insurance already. (Also, if you’re the practical type, GYST offers gift packages that you can ask your mama for at the holidays. She’ll probably be thrilled to help you make your new family safer.)

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