Combine your accounts or keep them separate? How to navigate finances as a couple
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Finances may not be the most exciting thing to talk about, but if your Valentine’s Day plans involve sharing a lease or proposing marriage, it’s something you should talk about sooner rather than later.
Before taking that next step in your relationship, discuss how you want to combine your accounts or, as more couples are choosing these days, how you’ll navigate keeping them separate.
According to a recent survey by SunTrust, only 51 percent of Americans discussed how they should handle their finances with their partner before marriage.
Kelly Luethje, a financial planner at Willow Planning Group in New Hampshire, says many couples assume they should combine everything when they get married, but that’s not always the best solution for everyone. “If you’ve been together for years and what you’re doing is already working, don’t change what’s not broken.”
Like most aspects of a healthy relationship, it comes down to communication.
Whether you choose to join accounts, keep them separate or some other combination, here are some things you should consider throughout the process.
Figure out household expenses
Beyond figuring out how to live in one another’s space, moving in together means you’ll need to rethink your spending plan and develop a household budget for two.
If you’re not yet sure exactly how you want to merge your finances, budgeting together is a great start. Bankrate’s Home Budget Calculator can get you on the right track.
“Before you move in is the best time to make those decisions, not after you’ve moved in,” Luethje says. “Who’s paying rent? Who’s paying the bills? Are they going to be split evenly? You can manage your things separately, but if there’s confusion around your household’s split expenses, that can start to get uncomfortable with tough discussions.”
Also determine a monthly amount that each of you can set aside in a household emergency fund, in case your heat goes out one winter or someone’s car breaks down. An online high-yield savings account is an easy way to start saving.
Talk about it
Before merging your bank accounts and credit cards, make sure you’re both on the same page.
The SunTrust survey found that only 41 percent of married couples knew their future spouse’s annual salary before marriage and just 36 percent were aware of their debt levels.
Talk about your income. Disclose how much high-interest credit card debt you have, how much student debt you owe and your retirement plans. Discuss your spending habits and work on ways to compromise where you may be critical of your partner’s spending.
Determine your savings goals and talk about when you want to buy a home or start a family and how you plan for those things. Look at long-term goals, too, and start planning for retirement.
These topics don’t have to be boring. Building the foundation of your lives together should be exciting.
“Sit down with your favorite food or a glass of wine and look at these things,” Luethje says. “Try to make it more of an eventful time together and a good thing.”
Deciding between joint and separate accounts
When it comes to merging finances, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Find a combination that works for you.
“What I’ve seen work really well is to have a joint checking account, a joint savings and then a joint credit card,” Luethje says. “And then, if it’s manageable, an individual checking, savings and credit card.”
Pool your money into the joint account and, after your fixed expenses and credit card balances are taken care of, split the remainder into your individual accounts.
“It keeps things pretty clear as to what you’re responsible for and it also helps with having that flexibility, freedom and autonomy with your money,” Luethje says. “You can keep that separate and personal to you and spend it on whatever it is you like to do.”
Communicate on a regular basis
If your partner is a better money manager than you, or vice versa, there’s nothing wrong with one person being more hands-on than the other.
Just make sure that communication remains a priority.
Set aside time every month to talk about your account totals. How have your savings goals progressed? Are you paying off your debts? Have your expenses risen or your cash flow increased?
And if you choose to take a back seat in managing accounts, you should still make an effort to know the basics, Luethje says. Keep tabs on where your accounts are and how to access them. Track your own income, debts and spending.
Online tools like Mint and You Need a Budget or even your own spreadsheets can help streamline your organization.
Adjust your plans as things change
The goals you set as newlyweds or when you first move in together will almost certainly change in 10 or 20 years.
As your lives change, make sure your financial plan does the same. And if something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change it.
“Every year look at it and see, is this making sense for us?” Luethje says. “And that would include other things, like is this bank working for us? Is this credit card good for us? Should we look into a credit card that gives us more points on what we like to do together?”
If one partner is overspending or taking on more debt than is comfortable, figure out what needs to adjust. If someone is laid off or receives a raise, adjust for that too. If you decide to start a family, think about what your new priorities and goals will be and, again, adjust accordingly.
“Be patient,” Luethje says. “Sometimes, if you are changing the way you operate your finances, it does take time. It might be uncomfortable, but if you do believe it’s right for your relationship, be patient.”
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