The Newlyweds’ Guide to Money

Illustration of a married couple for article about marriage and money

Talking about money is just as uncomfortable as any discussion about religion or politics. We're raised to think it's not a topic for polite conversation. Unfortunately, some of us hold onto that belief even when the person on the other end of the conversation is someone we should trust — our future spouse.

Millions of Americans will tie the knot this year, but how many will have “the talk” — the one about marriage and money? According to a National Foundation for Credit Counseling survey, 68 percent of engaged couples don't like to talk about money. Five percent even said the discussion would cause them to call off the wedding.

We've all heard the familiar admonition that money is the leading cause of marital strife. And the reality is that if you aren't talking about money before you get married, the conversation isn't going to be any easier once you've tied the knot. So make it your goal now, before you decide between peonies and hydrangeas or pick out fine china, to have the money talk with your spouse.

Here's how to get things started…

Start Early

Marriage is more than romantic love; it's also a business contract. Would you sign any contract without first understanding all the terms and conditions? Unlikely.

Ideally, the money talk should happen before someone slips a ring on any finger; but if that wasn't the case, you can make the talk less stress-inducing by having the conversation on neutral ground. Go out to dinner or for an afternoon walk to have the discussion in a more relaxed setting. Chances are even if you disagree, you'll do it civilly because you're in public.

The conversation should cover everything from your individual credit scores and the debt you're bringing into the marriage to your salary, current financial obligations and spending habits. Be open, clear and honest with your partner.

Some couples also enlist the help of a financial planner (who's really a money mediator) to assist them with money management, investing and other financial issues that may be difficult to navigate. Whether you figure everything out yourself or use an adviser, just remember that the “money talk” isn't just one conversation. You'll have to keep it going before and during the marriage to ensure the financial health of your relationship.

Create a Budget

Merging households is one of the most challenging tasks newlyweds face. If you've lived separately, sit down with your spouse and create a budget. Itemize every monthly bill you have, including utilities, cable, credit card debt, student loans, car and mortgage payments and easy-to-overlook bills (like your Netflix account). Also consolidate some of your duplicate expenses for added cost savings (most cell phone and car insurance companies offer married couples a break) and include retirement savings and set aside savings for an emergency fund in your monthly budget.

One important discussion to have is whether any pre-existing debt will be paid for with joint income. If you have student loan payments, for example, is your spouse comfortable helping you pay down this debt? What about high-interest rate credit card debt or a personal loan that has been on your spouse's credit report for years before the marriage?

You and your spouse also should discuss how you'll split household expenses. If one person makes significantly more than the other, should he or she be responsible for paying more of the household bills or would you prefer to split everything down the middle? The reason many couples have trouble talking about money is because it wields a lot of power. Couples should look at their net monthly income, decide what's fair, what line items to include (or exclude) in the budget and account for every dollar you bring in and where it's going.

Better Together or Apart?

Here's another hotbutton issue that's a source of constant disagreement among married people: to join accounts or keep them separate. Some financial experts will tell you that in marriage two becomes one — and that applies to everything, including your money. Others will tell you that some separation can help spouses maintain a level of financial freedom and avoid arguments about money.

Related Content: Making separate finances work

This all comes down to how you and your spouse handle finances. In almost every relationship, someone is a spendthrift and the other is a miser. If your spouse loves to shop, then it might be best for each of you to maintain a personal account where you store your “fun money” for discretionary purchases and maintain a joint account for household expenses. You also could maintain your own personal accounts, assign certain bills to each person and then create a separate account for long-term goals like buying a home.

According to one Mint survey, 48 percent of young professional couples keep their expenses separate, compared to just 34 percent of the general population. Twenty-five percent also have their own checking account and 28 and 50 percent, respectively, have their own savings accounts and retirement accounts. Everyone is different, so decide what works for you.

Related Content: Are you behind on your retirement savings?

File Taxes Jointly or Separately?

Talk to your accountant about whether to file taxes jointly or separately. For the 2016 tax year, the standard deduction for married couples filing jointly is $12,600, while the deduction is $6,300 for married people who file separately. For most uncomplicated returns, filing jointly will be the way to go but each situation is unique. To learn more, see the IRS guide to filing status.

You shouldn't just weigh the deductions when you decide your filing status, you also should consider whether combining incomes will put you in a higher tax bracket — what's often referred to as the marriage penalty — and increase the amount you cough up to Uncle Sam. For example, if filing together will move you from the 25 percent to 28 percent tax bracket, you need to do the math with your accountant and find out how much you'll pay in taxes as individual filers, total that amount and compare it to your overall tax bill if you file jointly. The Tax Policy Center has a handy calculator to see if the so-called “marriage penalty” is affecting your returns.

Also keep in mind that filing separately can make you ineligible for certain deductions, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Another thing to consider? If you're self-employed, filing jointly may help to lower your tax burden because federal taxes taken from your spouse's income may offset some of your tax bill if you are the lower-earning spouse. Whether you file jointly or separately, also talk to an accountant about ways to lower your tax bill, including investing in a tax-deductible IRA and how to claim incentives like the Lifetime Learning Credit and the Retirement Savings Contribution Credit, which is beneficial for low-income earners.

Define Your Financial Priorities

Would you prefer all your money go to purchasing a dream home or would you prefer to travel the world? Every person has different priorities and when you enter into coupledom, sometimes these goals change and sometimes they don't.

If you like to travel, is your spouse willing to compromise and get a slightly smaller home so you can set aside enough money every year for an awesome vacation? If your spouse is a car fanatic and wants to upgrade vehicles every five years, are you comfortable eating out less so there's money left in the budget to do this? If you think it's important to tithe or have aging parents that are in need of financial help, is your spouse comfortable with this expense? Is your dream to retire at 65 and golf for the rest of your days? What about sending your kids to private school — is that non-negotiable? You need to know the answers to these questions before you get married.

Make Sure Your Beneficiary Designations are Current

No one likes to think about death, but it has financial implications for both you and your spouse.

Once you get married, make sure the beneficiaries on all your life insurance policies and retirement accounts are up to date (by federal law, the spouse is the automatic beneficiary on pensions and retirement accounts, but for clarity's sake still update them). Also visit an attorney to establish or update your power of attorney and health care proxy. Make sure you at least have a living will and that it clearly outlines how assets will be divided in the event of your death. Also create an advance directive that outlines your health care wishes in the event you're unable to make these decisions.

Marriage is life-changing in every way imaginable. You can prepare yourself for its financial changes by having an honest discussion with your spouse about your expectations and by being transparent about where you stand financially. Couples who don't talk about money before marriage are likely to have fights about it after they wed. You do yourself and your spouse a disservice when you delay this conversation or don't have it all. So, set a date to do this now — before the wedding bells ring.

Couples: How did your money discussion go? Join the conversation on the Get Rich Slowly Facebook community.

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