Discuss your views on a wide range of money issues. Make sure you understand each other's views about earning, spending, saving, investing, and borrowing. Does one of you like to save money, while the other prefers to spend it? Does one feel comfortable with high debt levels, while the other can't stand the thought of paying interest? Different money issues will be more important at one stage of your marriage than at another. You may find you have no money disagreements for many years, only to be faced with an issue you can't agree on.
What assets and liabilities do each of you bring to the marriage? Preparing a combined net worth statement will give you a starting point for determining how you can achieve your financial goals. If one or both of you have significant assets, you might want to consider a prenuptial agreement to spell out what happens to your assets in the event of death or divorce.
Set basic monetary goals, develop a written budget, prepare a financial plan. It can be helpful to step back and really think about what you are trying to accomplish financially as a couple. On a long-term basis, where do you want to be in 10, 20, or 30 years? This is the essence of a financial plan. What are your most important goals in life, and how can you accomplish them? The process of defining goals can help resolve differing views about money matters, forcing couples to compromise and make joint decisions about how money will be spent. On a shorter-term basis, develop a budget. What are your ongoing obligations? Where will you get the money to save and invest for your longer-term goals? While this might seem like a painful process, addressing these issues now can help prevent future misunderstandings.
Should you combine your finances or keep them separate? Some couples prefer pooling all funds, thinking it helps create a feeling of unity. Others, however, have difficulty losing their financial autonomy, especially if they have been on their own for many years. Keep in mind that this is not an either/or decision. You can set up a joint account for shared expenses, with each spouse contributing a predetermined amount to the account. For the remaining funds, separate accounts can be kept for discretionary spending.
Develop credit in each spouse's name. Each spouse should have separate credit cards to develop his or her own credit file. This can be especially important if one spouse dies or the couple divorces.
Split financial responsibilities. Decide who will handle financial tasks, such as paying bills, preparing tax returns, and making investment decisions. One person may be better suited for these tasks due to their background or time availability. However, the other spouse should not give up total control.
Discuss financial matters periodically. Set up a formal time, perhaps monthly, to go over financial matters. This keeps both spouses fully informed and provides a designated time to discuss spending or items of concern.
Money can be a source of continuing conflict or a means to help achieve your financial goals. How you handle financial issues together will go a long way in determining how this plays out in your marriage.
Roger Wohlner, CFP®, is a fee-only financial adviser at Asset Strategy Consultants based in Arlington Heights, Ill. where he provides advice to individual clients, retirement plan sponsors, foundations, and endowments. He recently cofounded Retirement Fiduciary Advisors to provide direct investment and retirement planning advice to 401(k) plan participants. Follow Roger on Twitter and LinkedIn.