So, You’re Getting Married?

What a great time in your life. So much mystery ahead. So much to be happy about. You’re probably very excited if you’re planning a lovely wedding. And you’ll be setting up a home together. Lots to think about, right?

So where do you start? That’s got to be the toughest part of all.

I think you should start here: “Honey, we need to talk.”

1. Who is going to manage the money?
I’m not a big proponent of one person taking on all the financial responsibility in a household. Nope. That’s a recipe for resentment, abdication and disaster. I’d recommend you skip that meal.

But you do have to talk about who is going to manage which aspects of the money, how, when, where, and how that body is going to keep the other body up-to-date on what’s going on.

This, of course, raises questions such as, “How many accounts will we have?” (“To Consolidate or Not to Consolidate?”) and “How will we keep up to date on our money” (“We Inc.”)

It also necessitates coming clean (“Coming Clean”) – a full disclosure of what you own, what you owe, what you’re like with money, and how you plan to negotiate your way though the road blocks.

I’m a big believer in taking turns when it comes to the day-to-day money management: She does it from January to June, and he does it from July to December. That way, you both get the aggravation, the discipline and the sense of how easy or hard it is for the other. Doing a mid-year hand-over also creates a prime opportunity for you to have an in-depth look at how you are doing, where you’re going, and what needs to be tweaked in the plan.

2. Who’s bringing in the moolah?
Will you both work? Full time or part-time? Doing what and making how much? What are your plans for further schooling? For when the babies start arriving? Will one parent stay home? Who? For how long? Will you use daycare or a nanny or family care or something else for childcare? These important questions lay the foundation for your budget.

Life can be very expensive and many couples choose to use the early years of marriage to establish themselves financially. Others plunge right into the baby game, often without having giving a moment’s thought to the financial implications. If you don’t know how much income you’re going to have, you’re asking for trouble.

3. How will we handle the household expenses?
A lot of couples have trouble with this question. It raises power and control issues people would rather ignore until later. Ignore at your own risk.

You have a bunch of options here. You can:

  • split everything fifty-fifty, which is completely fair if you make exactly the same amount of money, and until one of you starts making more or less, or you have babies, or someone gets sick, or someone has the opportunity for a career move that also moves the family.
  • you can split the expenses proportionately. He makes $50,000. She makes $75,000. So he pays forty percent of the expenses, and she pays sixty. Again, great, as long as you continue to monitor the incomes and proportion of expenses you’re assuming, and adjust as your incomes change.
  • you pool all the money, set your goals together, and take a “mad money” amount for your individual indulgences.

Guess which one’s my favorite! But it’s not my money. It’s your money. And you have to come to an agreement you each feel (really feel, not pretend to feel) is fair and equitable.

My whole take on the money thing is this: If I’m good enough to marry, I’m good enough to share fully and completely with. If you have to keep score, it just makes things a whole lot more complicated.

My husband and I have been married a loooooong time now (and since we’re both re-marriages, we’ve actually beaten the odds). Sometimes I’ve made more. Sometimes he’s made more. Always we’ve shared. And a good thing too since its only a matter of time before the one of us needs the other. That’s what a marriage, a partnership for life, a fully committed relationship, is about. It isn’t always easy. And no one says there aren’t bumps. But if you make the money something you fight over, build up resentments over, or seethe silently over, you’re doomed.

4. How much personal spending money should each of us have that doesn't have to be accounted for?
Couples often leave this out of their budgets. The reality is that you each need some money of your own or you’ll drive each other crazy. I don’t have to check with Ken when I want to buy yet another book, bottle of grapefruit shower gel, or plant. And he doesn’t have to ask me permission to dip into the account for his coffee or a new Buddha (of which he has quite the collection now, I’ll tell you!)

Each of us needs some personal spending money to spend as we wish without having to account for it, regardless of how much (or little) we contribute to the household coffers. Whether it’s money we spend on hobbies, gifts, or small indulgences, if we don’t have it, we go CRAZY! Decide what is fair – in this case equal is fair – and work it into your budget.

5. How much can we spend on a purchase without needing consent from the other person?
Okay, here’s a big one.

People go out and shop up a storm and then come home and lie about how much they spent to keep their partners off their backs. Great! A relationship built on trust!

Or people go out and spend up a storm, and then come home and tell their partners who then believe they have permission to go out and spend up a storm in retaliation. Great! A relationship based on equality!

Can you see the problem?

Set a limit on how much either of you can spend before consulting with each other. If your budget is tight, this may be as little as $20; for others it might be $500. If one of you is a shop-a-holic, make the number low. If one of you is a miser, negotiate a slightly higher number. Decide on an amount that won’t throw your budget totally out of whack and won’t create resentment.

6. What is your attitude toward money?
I’ve worked with enough people now to know that how we feel about money is A BIG DEAL. And I’ve worked with enough people to know that it’s our personality, not simply the environment we come from, that dictates how we feel about our money.

Talk about how money makes you feel. How much do you need in your wallet, in your bank account, in your shoe, to feel safe? How does spending make you feel? What’s more important, having a dollar or spending a dollar? How much debt is too much debt?

If you are just the same, you may be fine, or you may find yourself supporting your significant other in some bad habits. If you are completely different you may be fine or you may find yourself butting heads with your partner on a too-regular basis. Ultimately, whether you are fine or not depends on how well you understand yourself and your partner.

7. What assets and liabilities are you bringing to the marriage?
If you can’t tell each other the truth about your money, don’t bother getting married because you’re already doomed. If you don’t know how much your buddy makes, how much he spends, how much she owns and how he deals with his bills, you’re a dope. What? Are you so dumb-in-love that you’d marry a pig in a poke? Are you so head-over-heals that you’re prepared to walk blindfolded over the cliff? Get a grip!

Each partner needs to know exactly what the other person is bringing to the table: how much is in your chequing account, savings account, retirement account; how much you have in student loans, car loans, other loans, your line of credit and on your credit cards – all of them; what your credit histories looks like; and, of course, how much you make and where it goes. Read “Coming Clean” for more guidance if you need it.

Very often I meet people who are perfectly happy to live together or get married (join their lives) without being willing to take on the debts of their partner (join their money.) Whazzup with that? Why would you want to marry someone who you’re not willing to go to bat for, or who isn’t willing to go to bat for you? Do you have ANY idea how hard it is to stay married? If you aren’t prepared to pony up and help each other through thick and thin, then just throw a party and skip the nuptials.

8. How will we cope if the ca-ca hits the fan?
Crap happens. People get sick. People die. Businesses fail. Jobs are lost. His mother becomes a dependant. Her brother needs to be bailed out, yet again. How will you deal with the myriad changes in financial circumstances that come with a long life lived together.

It’s all well and good to think that as long as you keep your house in order, you’ll be fine. But it just ain’t so. Just when you think everything is going smoothly, reality bites! If you don’t have a plan for dealing with life’s ups and downs, you’re asking for more stress than you can handle.

Do you each have any/enough life insurance? Disability insurance? You’ve got your wills done? You’re willing to name your new partner as your power of attorney for both financial and medical emergencies? And you’re talking about how you’ll deal with your elders as they become more elderly? How much will you set aside each month for emergencies?

Sounds like a drag? I’m not surprised. Most of the just-in-case conversations have less to do with winning the lottery (yeah!) than with dealing with unforeseen negative financial changes (bummer!). But talk about it you must.

I always knew my husband would want his mom to come live with us when she got to the point where she couldn’t take care of herself any more. So when the time came, it was no big surprise. And he always knew I’d support him, but that it’d be his job to look after his mom. No big surprises there either.

You better talk about this, and everything else that life can throw at you. Play the, “So, what do you think you’d do if…” game and work through all the scenarios you can think of. That’s way better than being rushed into a decision you’ve never thought about in any detail, and then becoming resentful about the compromises you’re having to make.

9. Who will we use as a guide to help us through some of our financial decision-making?
There are bankers. There are financial planners. There are insurance brokers, chartered accountants, tax consultants, debt consolidators, investment brokers… the list goes on. So, whom will you hire to help you? It has to be someone you both trust. And it has to be someone who understands who YOU – specifically the two of you – are, not some generic couple that shares some of your circumstances. Read Choosing a Financial Guide.

10. What does our life look like in five years?
This question is a great way to talk about your hopes and dreams. Does one of you want to go back to school, start your own business or own a vacation home? And if you plan to raise a family, how many children will you have and when? Would you both continue working, or would one spouse want to stay home with the kids? If you’re going to buy a home, will it be in the city or the country and what will it look like? Talking about what you imagine your life will look like will help you set priorities and identify goals.

One final piece of advice: Don’t sweat the small stuff. While you’ll hear people say that marriage is about compromise, I disagree. I hate the word compromise. I compromised so much in my second marriage, that I compromised myself right out the door. Stupid!

People will get into a scrap over the dumbest things: whether to buy name-brand or off-brand at the supermarket; whether to check six places before deciding you’ve got the best deal; whether to drive half-way across town for the 75¢ off on toilet paper, whether to use coupons or not, whether to go big or go home. If you spend good energy dickin’ around on stupid stuff, you’ll wear out each other’s good will.

I like to say that marriage is about negotiation. If I get what I want, then you get what you want. If this thing we’re negotiating is a four (on a scale of one to ten) for me but an eight for you, you can have it. But the next one will likely be mine. Pick your battles and save your energy for issues that really matter. Believe me, there will be enough of them.

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