The business of marriage: Five things you should do before tying the knot

I'm at a friend's wedding this weekend, traveling with my own husband and kids. The wedding invitation labeled the event as a “triumph of hope over experience”. It is that, and I'm honored to be invited as a witness. But it's also a business arrangement, something I'm sure my friend (a respected economist) is well aware of. I haven't pried into the monetary details of their union, but I'm sure they've talked about it.

There are myriad good approaches to the business of marriage. J.D. often mentions that he and his wife, Kris, don't share finances. By contrast, my husband and I have completely merged our money: Both of our names are on every bank account, asset, and debt we have. We share every penny, and every decision about what to do with those pennies.

Whether you choose to go all in like we did or hold onto your independence, you live with your spouse's spending choices — for good or ill. If you have kids, they'll inherit the fruits of your shared financial life. And while research suggests money isn't as responsible for divorce as many experts believe, it can certainly sour goodwill in a relationship. Trust me on this one.

The really dangerous part is to pretend marriage that marriage has nothing to do with money.

Of course, that's exactly what nearly every aspect of our culture encourages us to do. I've never seen a romantic comedy about a happy couple who fall madly in love as their hands touch at the customer service counter and they realize they're cashing in the exact same rebate coupon. Lovers in literature don't stare deeply into one another's eyes and murmur sweet nothings about their checkbook balances.

In fact, we're taught to ignore the financial side of choosing a mate. Literature and popular culture are full of romantic tales of giving up the wealthy suitor for the poor beloved. Our language offers an array of derogatory terms like “gold-digger” to define someone who cares about their sweetheart's net worth.

But the bottom line is that we ignore the business side of marriage at our peril. The day my husband and I got married, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts legally merged our financial lives. Many states do this, assuming an equal sharing of assets and debts in a marriage.

You can create a prenuptial agreement that will define how assets are divided in the event of a divorce, but to do so you have to acknowledge both the financial side of saying “I do” and the reality that half of marriages end in divorce. Given how driven by romantic love most of our marriages are, it's perfectly understandable that most couples don't go to this extreme.

To set a good financial foundation for your future, here are five things you should do before you get married:

    • Know thyself. Before you share the details of your bank accounts with your lover, be sure you know them yourself. If you have debts, know the total amount you owe, and what interest rates you pay on it. Know where your assets are and what they're worth. Your intended should love you regardless of your net worth, but you'll both need to grapple with that number eventually. Better to be up front.
    • Know your partner. When you're both in a calm, happy place, sit down together and share your financial information. Try to be open and non-judgmental about your partner's financial history and your own. There's no need to feel guilty for being in debt, having more money in your savings account than your partner, or having a spotty credit history, but you do need to be honest. It might help if both of you can think of financial issues as just another challenge of a life together. You can embrace your partner's lousy credit and attempt to help him recover in the same way that you could support him in recovering from an illness.
    • Know your habits Even if you don't routinely track your spending, consider doing so together or separately for 3 months before you tie the knot. You'll get good information about your spending habits, and if you can share the information you'll both have a better idea of what you're in for and what challenges might lie ahead.
    • Know what you want. As J.D. so emphatically and elegantly says in Chapter 2 of Your Money: The Missing Manual, the path to wealth is paved with goals. You need to have some. Your marriage will be better if those goals are ones you and your partner create and pursue together. A lot of marriages suffer when couples discover several years in that their long-term visions don't line up. If you know your goals include homeschooling five kids, you'd better make that clear to your spouse. You don't want to find out his priority is staying child-free and sailing around the world in a hand-built sailboat after you've walked down the aisle.
    • Know how to get there. Even a single evening spent establishing financial goals can do you tremendous good as a couple. Better is to have a clear roadmap of how to achieve those goals. How much do you need to save to pay for that boat? How many years until one of you leaves the workforce to become a stay-at-home parent?

Of course, not all of life's big events arrive through careful planning. But laying out a path lets you live and spend with intention from your first days together. It also gives you more flexibility to handle emergencies and surprises as they come up.

For tips on how to keep communicating well throughout your years together, read my earlier article How To Talk With Your Spouse About Money. Starting off well will pay dividends in joy and wealth for your whole life together. That's a wonderful wedding gift for the person you love.

One little postscript on weddings: You'll be married for much longer than you'll be enjoying your wedding cake. If you can, sail off on your honeymoon with no wedding-related debt.

My husband and I eloped together over a long weekend in Vermont. I think the entire project set us back less than many couples spend on invitations. Seven years later, we're still happily married while we've watched couples who got hitched in more style split up.

Do you have any pre-wedding tips or additional ideas on what you need to share based on your own experiences? We'd love to hear them in the comments below!

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Andy Hough
Andy Hough
10 years ago

This is good advice. I will be getting married later this year. I’m sending this post to my GF.

Hannah
Hannah
10 years ago

“Whether you choose to go all in like we did or hold onto your independence”

“we’re still happily married while we’ve watched couples who got hitched in more style split up”

I’m getting tired of seeing these smug guest posts from Sierra Black. Nothing she writes is original or substantial. I wish she was actually able to examine a point of view other than her own, or come up with something to say that hasn’t been said before in other books and blogs.

Kathy B
Kathy B
10 years ago

I did all that. My mistake was to merge funds and my ex still conned me out of all that I had saved.

#2 Hannah – why don’t you write something substantial and post it.

Deborah M
Deborah M
10 years ago

Love the “running off to Vermont to elope” image! LOL.

Merged finances works for DH and me, and I can see how it has a slight edge on maintaining separate finances in that there’s more oversight built into the model.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

I’ve been happily married for 22+ years. I clearly remember what attracted me to my lovely future bride. She was smart, kind, pretty, fun and….had good income potential.

When I told her this after we were married, she gave me a good whack, but it was the truth!

(We didn’t have to run off to Vermont for a honeymoon. We lived there already.)

PureFi
PureFi
10 years ago

This line stuck out to me: “Even a single evening spent establishing financial goals can do you tremendous good as a couple.” That is true in my experience. Each time my fiancé and I sit down to talk finances, both of us feel more comfortable and on the same page afterward. We have been doing quarterly check-ins (and sometimes monthly if one of us feels like they need it) on spending and goals and the regularity has helped. Just knowing that our money is something that we consistently review together helps me know that we can adjust as needed and… Read more »

Joseph | Kickdeboff
Joseph | Kickdeboff
10 years ago

Money/ finances has been blamed for being the top cause of divorce in America!
These stats should give the ‘newly weds to be’ reasons to look for advice, starigten their finances and be proactive in cumminicating about finances.
I like the tips thatyou highlighted!

MoneyGreenLife
MoneyGreenLife
10 years ago

When I read the title of this entry, I was hoping it was some financial advice, things to do before getting married financially. But nevertheless, good helpful tips.

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

I’m going to be married for 10 years this September. It is amazing how much time, effort and detail people (us included) put into planning and executing the wedding, but the comparatively small amount of time (if any) spent on the financial picture, which, as Sierra points out, lasts far after you’ve cut the cake. Debts can take years to work through, one partner might want to further their education, stay at home with the kids, travel, buy a house, etc. I’m not a religious person, but I know that many churches include a “financial” section in the marriage class… Read more »

RJ Weiss
RJ Weiss
10 years ago

Good general advice.

I have been married for about a year now. It’s an entirely different mindset sharing finances. One that took a while to get used to. However, setting and achieving goals with my wife has been very rewarding.

Good luck to anyone getting married soon.

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

my spouse and I lived together for more than 20 years before we legally married. during that time, we had separate accounts, but always shared expenses and bought a house together. One thing I thought wasn’t brought out enough in this post was that over time, things change. Including attitudes toward money and ways of spending etc. Attitudes that seem part of a personality when you marry turn out to be changeable. I know that we have influenced each other (in big things and in little ones: I became more thoughtful about the future, he agreed to use coupons; I… Read more »

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

It’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. 😛 I think it’s interesting how we’ve come from an extreme of financial considerations being paramount in choosing a mate to an extreme of it not being a consideration at all. Perhaps it’s cold blooded of me, but marriage is an institution I think is about more than love. How many people refuse to get married after making a baby because they just aren’t feeling it any more and then struggle to support that kid? Or people who get divorced and ruin their financial… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
10 years ago

My husband and I met leading a Financial Peace University small group. It’s such a blessing to be on the same page when it comes to finances. I was just speaking with someone who’s husband went out and bought a truck with a payment after they discussed it and came to the conclusion that they couldn’t afford it. I don’t understand that. You’re in it together. You gotta work together.

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
10 years ago

For the most part, these steps are good, solid information, but I see a huge red flag with this point in step #2: “You can embrace your partner’s lousy credit and attempt to help him recover in the same way that you could support him in recovering from an illness.” One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s essentially impossible to change someone else, unless THEY are willing to change too. If you discover that your fiance has horrible credit, have them explain to you what their plans are, and then watch to see if they are actually… Read more »

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

I’m imagining a great RomCom where the two meet at the coupon counter! I would totally pay money to see that!
I enjoy your posts, Sierra. Thanks for sharing this one. We got married while in grad school and did not talk about money at all. Thankfully over the last 20 years we’ve talked a LOT about money and we’ll be completely debt free in a few years!

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Before we got married I really enjoyed going through all the checklists and quizzes available in various places on the internet about what you’re supposed to discuss with your fiance before marriage.

Possibly it helped the marriage and planning for the future, but it also made me feel like we were getting to know each other better, even after 6 years of dating.

Four Pillars
Four Pillars
10 years ago

I think Hannah just volunteered for the next “Sunday Reader’s Story” segment. 🙂

I like the point about how legally a couple’s finances are mixed together even if they want to pretend to keep them separate.

I’m also curious about exactly how separate people can keep their finances from their spouse. Are there any situations where the spouses have no idea what the partner makes or how much money/debts they have?

Vickey
Vickey
10 years ago

Liked the article but in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts your finances don’t automatically merge. Your debt is your debt and your spouse’s debt is theirs. Same with assets. Now if you divorce we will put it all in to a pot and divide from the pot according to equity which isn’t always half. We are not a community property state. My husband’s name is the only one on the deed. We are newlyweds and selling his place so we aren’t going to bother changing that. He will be the only one signing the deed to sell it and I have… Read more »

Ely
Ely
10 years ago

@ elisabeth, that’s a really good point. People do change over time, priorities change, things that seemed important once no longer do and vice versa. That’s why continually communicating is so essential. In any type of long-term partnership there is a bit of a balancing act, and each partner needs to know which way the other is leaning to avoid crashing to the floor. @ Hannah, I am really sensitive to digs about separate finances and I really didn’t get that from Sierra at all. Maybe she could have worded that phrase better, but I don’t hear smug and superior… Read more »

Jason Beck
Jason Beck
10 years ago

I’ve been set up virtually with my best friend’s co-worker. We haven’t met yet, but we’ve already exchanged credit scores. I’ve got her beat by 9 points… but she’s a few years younger. We both have cars from 2007 that are paid off. I’m impressed.

Lisa
Lisa
10 years ago

@Shara

I think you need to love your partner, and you also need to love the life you have with your partner. Both of these are essential for any successful long-term relationship. Finances definitely play a role in this, as do many other things.

Dick
Dick
10 years ago

Way to go Sierra !
We may have heard them before but they bear repeating, I am sure of that.

Thisiswhyubroke!
Thisiswhyubroke!
10 years ago

Know thyself, know thyself, know thyself!

I cant tell you how many times I’ve been speaking to friends with marital issues and have begun to realize that the marriage was doomed BEFORE it even happened, because each spouse was expecting the OTHER person to define them financially and as a person. This is sooo important and I’m glad you listed that as #1, Sierra!

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

@MoneyGreenLife #8, I think Sierra’s five directives are extremely important, but I’ll be happy to offer the following as an addition. To successfully plan for a wedding that will not wreck your finances: 1st, decide what kind of wedding and reception you want to have (casual on the beach, black tie at a hotel – work out all the details and trimmings you’d both like, including tips for service providers and gifts for the wedding party, and make your big compromises here and now). 2nd, figure out how much that kind of wedding will cost. (e.g., $15+ per person for… Read more »

naku
naku
10 years ago

Tying the knot?

I am just curious. Doesn’t marriage is exchanging RINGS ? Only Hindus tie knot during their marriage.

Any explanation where this “Tying the Knot” came from ?

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

Good post, but like another commenter above I was looking for a checklist of things go over before marriage. Especially since the post started out with 2nd marriages between people who already have children and debts/assets. The financial issues related to marriage are much more complex in 2nd marriages, yet few financial articles address them except to just say “get a lawyer involved & a prenup”. Some specifics of things to look out for, things to go over with my intended, would be much more helpful than just a warning that marriage is a financial deal (which everyone already knows,… Read more »

getagrip
getagrip
10 years ago

During our marriage prep meetings years ago, the couple leading the meetings said the two biggest issues that caused breakups to occur in front of them were basically how much money a person felt free to spend without consulting with their future spouse and how many kids they wanted.

It always amazed them how many people who dated for months to years never discussed either topic. Often the pair just assumed their own ideas were their partners.

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

Very good points, but bad title. Those are 5 significant topics to understand, not things to do. Nitpick, nitpick. We were pretty good in this area. DH had a huge financial mess with his marriage #1. I watched my parents fight a lot about money, control, goals, and power. So, we came to the issue knowing that we wanted to avoid, and talked about it a lot before we got married. 🙂 This is slightly off-topic, and might not resonate with many of you, but someone raised the issue of “marrying a rich man”, tongue-in-cheek, but it made me remember… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

Okay, okay. I’m the guilty party on the title. Sierra’s original title was “Your Marriage is a Business”, and I’m the one who decided to go with the “five things to do”. 🙂

Stephan
Stephan
10 years ago

great post, definitely some tips to keep in mind before tying the knot. i also think you might want to mention prenups, i know its a touchy subject, but definitely something that should be discussed among future partners.

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Nicolle Matthews
Nicolle Matthews
10 years ago

tip # 3 is SO important…not just to know your partner’s financial habits but their living habits as well. I know it’s common for people to wait until after the wedding to begin living together, but that can be a huge mistake if you were envisioning marrying someone as clean and tidy as you when in reality they’re a slob. Also, it’s incredibly important to find out where your partner stands financially: how many student loans they have, if they have any outstanding credit card debt, and come up with a plan of attack together on how to tackle those… Read more »

Justin@weeklymealideas
10 years ago

I am a firm believer that couples who want to marry benefit from serious, intensive marriage counseling BEFORE getting married to one another. Listening to my friends, I often think that many of them would have benefitted (and avoided a lot of pain) from going to several pre-marital counseling sessions. My wife and I were made to talk about all of the hot-button issues – including, but not limited to, finances. We were even walked through how to make a budget! I am constantly reminded how thankful I am that we went through that process.

Marve
Marve
10 years ago

Great Tips, my Girlfriend of 5 years and I are planning to tie the knot RSN, and like what the poster said knowing what you want and how to get there is certainly our priority

Michelle
Michelle
10 years ago

Another awesome post by Sierra Black! I love her contributions to this blog! Thanks J.D. for adding her on as a staff writer!

Amanda L. Grossman
Amanda L. Grossman
10 years ago

I just got married three weeks ago! Hurrah Hurrah! We moved in together and bought a home last year, and so we merged our finances at that point (we were engaged). Since I am a bit of a financial guru, I have taken the reins, but we have periodic ‘meetings’ to discuss everything and make adjustments as needed. The first thing we did was to lay out our debts on the table. We have since paid one off, and are going to pay the second off in July (his mustang!). Then it’s just my student loans to tackle, which I… Read more »

Amanda L. Grossman
Amanda L. Grossman
10 years ago

P.S. We are now in the process where we need to start thinking about joint financial goals and life goals together. Once our debts are paid off, which will be soon, the sky will be open to us. But what to do with the extra income? We are all ready both saving for retirement, which is certainly a joint goal. But what about traveling, or experiences, or that flat screen he’s dying for (he’s being very patient by paying off our debt first).

Ely
Ely
10 years ago

@ TosaJen, absolutely! My husband is a creative type. When we were looking to buy a house, I told him that I’d be willing to pay all the bills if he would be willing to downscale his expectations to something I could afford alone. He chose to keep the day job (which he does like) and go for something a bit bigger and better; but if he hadn’t, it’s good to know I could take care of us myself. And now, again, my career is in a good space and I COULD take care of us myself if I needed… Read more »

Kris
Kris
10 years ago

Just a small clarification – there is PLENTY of literature featuring lovers’ financial issues! It’s pretty much half the plot in “Pride and Prejudice.” Maybe modern “rom-coms” don’t feature the harsh realities of the wedded union, but the ones from a hundred years ago sure did!

david/yourfinances101
david/yourfinances101
10 years ago

The only thing I could add is to communicate.

Money can be a touchy subject to talk about, especially if you are from different mindsets.

However, if you don’t talk abou it, it can easily destroy your marriage.

Trust me on that one…

BradKP
BradKP
10 years ago

Fifth Point is quite useful. Even if you don’t bother to do the other four things, the last point probably has the potential to change things drastically. Discussing finances immediately after marriage would be a difficult and embarrassing. With time, however, one should approach and encourage spouse to talk about money. A very good post.

cybergal5184
cybergal5184
10 years ago

The wedding marketing system is one of the biggest scams. Money is a huge part of marriage and I’m shocked (well not really) that so many people ignore it. I refused to marry until I knew I could support myself. I am aware life throws curveballs but letting yourself become a dependent can’t possibly be healthy.

sam
sam
10 years ago

my wife and i started a savings account a few months into dating and then she got pregnant. luckily, we had already started talking about financial stuff, and frankly it has made forming a family much easier considering that we really didn’t know each other that well by the time we married. we are now two years into our marriage and have a nice cash savings, contribute about 17% to retirement and own a duplex that we use for passive income. essentially, frugality and personal finance stuff has been a consistent hobby of both me and my wife. we have… Read more »

EK
EK
10 years ago

@TosaJen – great point! Whether you’re male or female, don’t just rely on your partner to create the (financial) life you want – get out there and sieze it YOURSELF!
There’s all kinds of plusses to that approach, but I think security is the biggest payoff. The knowledge that even if something happened to your S.O. you could still take care of yourself is priceless. =D

Mae Jean
Mae Jean
10 years ago

Getting married is not all about romances. There are things that the couple should consider when they say their vows to each other. When you are in the situation and having trouble about financial matters, this could result into an argument. I think, this is very helpful to all those who were planning to get married.

McLaughlin
McLaughlin
10 years ago

The list should be six things – adding “sign a prenuptial agreement”

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