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How to Navigate Finances as a Couple

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Managing your own finances is no easy task. 

So when you add another person into the mix, things can get more complex. One quick example: Are you going to split expenses? Which ones? Is it going to be 50-50? Does it have to be 50-50?

And that’s just skimming the surface. There are dozens of other financial decisions and goals you’ll have to tackle together. 

While we're certainly not relationship experts, we do know a thing or two about finances. So, here are a few ideas and topics that can help you get started when you’re figuring out how to oversee money in a relationship.

Get real about finances

Let's start at the beginning – Have a discussion about money. Yes, we know it sounds super basic to even have to say it, but talking through your money goals and values can help you get on the same – or at least similar – page, financially. And once you’re aligned, you can move toward thinking about how you’ll want to tackle your goals.  

When you do sit down to talk, commit to being transparent about the good things (check out my investment accounts and salary!) and the maybe not-so-great things (check out my student debt).

There’s no right or wrong way to do things here. 

And for the good of your relationship, when we say transparent, we mean mention it all: A 2020 CreditCards.com survey of adults in relationships (legally married, in civil partnerships or living with their romantic partners) found that about a quarter of respondents considered financial infidelity worse than physically cheating, while 30% considered them equally unpleasant.

After you’ve laid it all out on the table, it’s time to move on to the next part: joining forces to tackle expenses.

Decide how you’ll share expenses

Now that you know where you both stand financially, it’s time to discuss shared expenses. These may include the following:

  • Rent or mortgage payments
  • Utilities
  • Groceries
  • Entertainment
  • Car payments and transportation 
  • Insurance: home, car, health… you name it

Your immediate reaction could be that you and your partner will split things down the middle. This may sound reasonable, but, if you don’t earn the same amount of money and have the same financial commitments, 50-50 may not be your solution.

What matters is discussing expenses and agreeing on how each of you will contribute.

If that’s the case, consider if you'd be comfortable for the higher earner to kick in more toward shared costs based on a number that makes sense for you both.

Or perhaps you work it out where one person covers housing, while the other foots the utilities and entertainment-related expenses. 

There’s no right or wrong way to do things here. Two sets of couples with similar financial situations may decide to do things differently – and that’s OK. What matters is discussing expenses and agreeing on how each of you will contribute.

Discuss if there’s “my money” and “our money”

Once you figure out expenses, another topic may be right behind it: How do you look at your financial resources as a whole? Do you only share expenses, or do you share incomes, too?

Similarly, it could be worth talking about if you need to run things by your partner before making a purchase. If the answer is yes, hammer out the criteria. Do you discuss a purchase based on price? And if the cost is significant, would you be comfortable with diverting funds from another goal (like contributing to a retirement account) to cover it?

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Bonus: Discuss whether “our” money includes emergency situations

Life can sometimes throw us a few financial curveballs. If you’ve experienced one (or two) you probably know that it’s no fun fumbling to come up with funds to cover the unexpected while things are hitting the fan. 

That’s why it doesn’t hurt to think about how you’ll handle out-of-the-blue expenses as a couple before they come up. How will you handle something sudden? Will you chip in for each other’s medical bills? Pay for a car to be repaired? Will you have a shared emergency fund account – and more broadly – what even qualifies as an emergency?

This topic can feel sticky, but knowing where you both stand can help you understand your financial resources and responsibilities, both as individuals and as a couple.

Clarify your long-term goals

Next, it's onto the bigger picture – the long term, and what you’re looking forward to in the future. Some quick topics that come to mind:

  • Do you want kids
  • If you don’t own a house, do you plan to one day?
  • Do you want to sell your house? When? What do you want to do with the money?
  • How much do you value travel?
  • When do you want to retire? Are you saving for retirement yet?

It's practical to come up with a realistic timeline and strategy for how you’ll work together to reach your shared goals.

Sure, some of these questions may stir up emotions. But airing them sooner rather than later can help you gain clarity on how you’d like your long-term financial goals to play out. The answers will determine how much both of you will need to save and where the money will come from.

It’s also helpful and practical to come up with a realistic timeline and strategy for how you’ll work together to reach your shared goals. Let’s say you want to buy a house in the next few years. If you want to bump up your savings fund for that goal, you may decide to cut back on dining out or decrease the amount you spend on luxury goods.

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Reaching your goal starts with saving for it

Rotate or share "Chief Financial Officer" responsibilities 

Sharing or alternating financial responsibilities can have a few benefits, one of which is that both of you will know your financial status and how things are progressing. 

One recommendation we’ve seen is to appoint a “family CFO” who keeps tabs on all things money, and updates the other person on where things stand on a regular basis.

Another solution could be to divide and conquer financial matters – for example, one person handles bills while the other keeps an eye on investments.

Keep talking – Set up a regular financial date night

Even if you’ve sorted out your bills and goals and emergency expenses, you’re not done yet! It’s a good idea to check in regularly to discuss progress on bills as well as any financial changes you’d like to make. This can also be a good time for the CFO to update the other partner on what’s going on.

We admit this might not sound as fun as Salsa dancing or cooking classes, but there are ways of making financial chats fun.

For example, if you decided saving is a goal, start a friendly competition of who can save more by the end of the month, and then schedule a financial date night check-in that includes a reward for the winner.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Articles on this site were commissioned and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs®, but may not reflect the institutional opinions of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions.