Financial Planning – The Best Pre-Marital Counseling Out There

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Nothing says “Just Married” quite like a Cinderella carriage.

Calling all soon to be newlyweds!

First of all, congratulations! You’ve found your soul mate. The one you want to wake up with every morning, the person you want to grow old with, and the one person in the world you have broken the fart barrier with. (Ladies, if it hasn’t happened yet, just trust me, it’s coming…)

But before you jump into that proverbial land of marital bliss, it’s time to have some conversations with your spouse to be about money. Seriously. The No. 1 reason that marriages end in divorce today is, you guessed it, money problems.

So keep reading, and we’ll talk through what you can do to start tackling the wonderful world of marital financial planning.

Our Story

When my now husband and I got engaged in the summer of 2012, we started having some of those hypothetical conversations about the future in more detail. Are we going to have pets? Where will we live? How many kids did we want? Etc…

During these conversations, the topic of money eventually came up. Are we going to have joint accounts or separate? How are we going to handle paying bills and paying off debt?

Engagement Photo. Courtesy of Drew Mason Productions.

Engagement Photo.
Courtesy of Drew Mason Productions.

My husband considered it a foregone conclusion that we would have a joint account. His parents did, and that’s how he always assumed most couples did it.

I, on the other hand, thought we would have our own separate accounts. That’s what my parents did, and it seems like it’s working out very well for them.

Two great examples, but each one very different from the other.

After landing in no-mans land on the finance topic, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. Almost as if the good Lord himself had read my mind, the next day I received an e-mail newsletter from the church that I attended while working for Disney down in Florida. It talked all about the most recent Financial Peace University class that the church had hosted, and it shared all of the success stories from couples who took the class.

So yeah, I talked Mike into taking the class. I didn’t do it to push one agenda or another or to have us be brainwashed into changing our financial goals. I asked him to do it so we could explore the basics of financial planning together and then make a system that worked for us. And we did just that. After 7 months of marriage, we’ve paid off more than half of all our student loans, and we still have money left over for ballroom dance lessons!

Things To Talk About

Below are some things it’s important for newlyweds to discuss and establish. I highly recommend taking some sort of financial course as well so that you and your soon-to-be-spouse can have these conversations before you’re married. But if a class just doesn’t fit your style or time frame, the thoughts below are certainly a great place to start.

1) Combine or Separate Finances

You need to pick a method that works for both of you. Consider your strengths, your future spouse’s strengths, and go from there. Does one of you like crunching numbers? Does the other shudder at the very thought of counting every penny you spend? Keep this in mind as you discuss joining or keeping separate finances.

My parents always had separate accounts. Both of them like financial planning, and both of them want to be part of the process. They have a system where my mother covers certain expenses, my father covers others, and they always discuss big purchases with the other spouse before they take place.

My husband and I combined our finances, mainly because my husband hates bean counting with a fiery passion. (You probably think I’m being overly dramatic by characterizing him this way, but I assure you, he would agree wholeheartedly with that assessment.) Given my need to check my bank account every day and my paranoia of fees and late charges, we decided to combine finances so that I can keep an eye on everything.

Regardless of which style you choose, the biggest point here is to agree on the system, and set ground rules for it. Remember, just because you have separate finances doesn’t mean you don’t have a joint budget, and just because one of you manages the budget doesn’t mean that you control all spending. It still needs to be a partnership in every sense of the word. One of you just might count more beans than the other…

2) Short Term and Long Term Financial Goals

Discover what your priorities are!

When we started taking Financial Peace University, Dave Ramsey (the guy who created it) said something that made total sense to me; he said that your monthly budget is a way of discovering what is most important to you. Given limited resources, you’ll only pay for what matters the most to you. For some folks, that’s wonderful food and for others that’s an amazing apartment.

As you prepare to start your new life together, it’s time to establish your priorities.

For my husband and I, our joint hobby (and short term goal) is to be competitive ballroom dancers. We are willing to cut back on eating out, and cut back on our cable bill in order to take a few ballroom dance lessons together each month. While I’d love to buy some more comfortable dress shoes (I swear they don’t exist…) and my husband would always love more musical instruments (because he’s a music teacher), the monthly budget only goes so far, and those aren’t as big a priority to us as owning a house, having hot water, and ballroom dancing.

On the long term front, we’ve had a lot of chats lately about children and college. I want to cover ALL expenses, and my husband thinks maybe we should only cover tuition and not room and board. We haven’t had to cross this bridge yet as we’re still paying off our own student debt (as fast as humanly possible!), but soon we’ll need to be aligned on that as well going froward.

Whatever your priorities are, set them together and put your money where your priorities are.

3) Setting the Monthly Budget and Ground Rules

Look at what you’re both spending now. Seriously. While you may think you don’t go shopping that much, and he may think he doesn’t eat out that much, your monthly spending doesn’t lie.

Next, take your combined monthly income (regardless of whether you have combined accounts or not. Remember: you still share the same budget!) and try and zero it out with all of your monthly expenses. Here is a great simple budget form that Dave shares, and I found it quite helpful when we started exploring where we want our money to go.

Seriously, go through the form, and write down all of your expenses until you have no money left for the month. Did you not reach zero yet? If not, assign that money to savings or for vacations! If you don’t have a place for that money, trust me, it will just disappear… (A trip to the movies here, a Mexican goat roast there; you get the idea…)

As a part of this process, decide (if you haven’t already) what is the threshold at which purchases have to be discussed with both parties. $100? $500? Make sure you keep open communication on this, because that $150 pair of shoes or $300 guitar could cause a lot of marital strife if you didn’t agree to it beforehand.

4) Agree on who’s going to be the “money nerd”

If you are both managing accounts, this part isn’t as important since you’ll both be managing your part of the finances, but if you’re joint, someone has to be responsible for monitoring it. You just set some financial goals, and the money nerd is responsible for making sure you reach them. They are there to pay the bills, make sure the pay checks come in, and make sure you’re not over spending in any category.

If you don’t know how to monitor your expenses, or both of you don’t like monitoring finances, check out mint.com. You can set your own budgets here and monitor them really easily. We have a Mint account as well as monitoring our monthly spending via spreadsheet. I look at our accounts and check bill paying every week, but with all of the loans we have, we have accounts all over the place! Mint gives you a summary view of all of your accounts at once along with payment and usage history. It’s made by the folks who work on the Intuit and Quicken software, and every review from crazy financial analysts that I’ve read makes it seem like it’s pretty darn safe (just as safe as internet banking anyway!)

5) Set up weekly budgeting meetings

Now, while you’re going to have at least one of you monitoring finances, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to get together and talk about it. Don’t be like organizations who set growth measures and then don’t measure them until the project or campaign is over. Have a budget report out with both of you once a week. Just a quick update on spending and how you’re doing with sticking to the budget.

6) The importance of savings

Savings is a very important part of your financial plan. While you might think you’re invincible and that you’ll never need a financial cushion, take it from someone who’s lived through and witnessed a bunch of organizational downsizing: there’s a very good chance one of you is going to be impacted by job loss at some point in your careers. Try and have at least a few months (3-6) of savings stored away for a rainy day. Because as the saying goes, when it rains, it pours… (And please, don’t use this money for your next trip to Fiji. You can set up another savings account for that!)

Other Things to Think About

This has just been a very broad summary of some of the financial planning stuff we’ve learned over the past few months. There are lots of other topics you’ll want to explore as you dive deeper into your knowledge of the wonderful world of planning (Life Insurance, Roth IRAs, Education Savings, Home Buying, etc…)

If any of these topics are interesting to you, or you’d like to know more about what we’ve learned, leave me a note! Happy to elaborate, or even write another post in more detail on other parts of this.

And remember newly weds: you’re in for the biggest year of transition in your life! (Except for maybe kids. Can’t comment on that one yet…) You’re going to be living with someone who has different cleaning, sleeping, and eating habits than you do. Discussing finances before you walk down the isle removes one more of those fun “surprises” you’re about to encounter.

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