Separate accounts also ensure that both members of the couple know how to manage money, says Candace Bahr, co-founder of the nonprofit Women's Institute for Financial Education and owner of an investment firm whose clients are predominantly divorced women. She points out that marriages don't last forever. "Even in the best marriages, one spouse is going to die. So it's still important to maintain your own identity," Bahr says. She recommends keeping assets, retirement accounts, and credit in one's own name. If one spouse is completely responsible for the finances, that leaves the other vulnerable in the case of death or divorce, she says.
Your long-term financial goals. Some people want to go on an exotic vacation once a year; others prefer to scrimp for a down payment. Talk about it ahead of time so you're on the same page.
Your spending styles. Don't be surprised if you're a spender and he's a saver. In fact, says Bonnie Eaker Weil, a New York-based relationship therapist and author of Financial Infidelity, that's probably why you're getting married. "People don't understand that if you pick a person who gives you the most trouble, that [it] will challenge you in the areas you need help with. It's very unusual for people to have the same money [attitude]," she says. If you discover that you and your betrothed are polar opposites when it comes to budgeting, try to turn that into a positive by using each other to find a happy medium, Weil suggests.
Who will do what? Do you like paying the bills, while she tends to lose them under a stack of paperwork? Is she the investing whiz, while you prefer to keep track of the checking account? A system of assigning tasks and making sure each spouse takes over some financial responsibilities tends to generate the best financial results, according to a study by the Hartford Financial Services Group and the MIT AgeLab. It found that couples who divide up financial tasks, where one spouse handles day-to-day bill paying and the other investment management, fare better than those who hand over the financial reins to one person while the other takes a back seat. The couples with the so-called divide-and-conquer approach were more likely to have more savings and develop a financial plan for the surviving spouse. Yet only 11 percent of respondents practiced this kind of shared division of labor.
How will you respond to needy family members? According to Fidelity, 10 percent of Generation X-ers provide financial support to their parents or in-laws, and the average amount is about $3,500 a year. Eric Cramer, a former financial consultant at Charles Schwab, says the financial crisis has turned family into "the lender of last resort." To ensure that a request from your sister doesn't blow up into World War III at home, talk in advance about whether you would feel comfortable—or not—helping out family members who find themselves in a pinch.
Updated 4/19/2012: Eric Cramer is now a former financial consultant at Charles Schwab.