September 15, 2020

Six Conversations Couples Should be Having About Money Right Now

[GQ, illustration by Simon Abranowicz]

The pandemic hasn’t made talking about money any easier—but it has made it more important than ever. 

Given that our culture can seem entirely focused on money, it can feel strange how hard it is to actually have a productive conversation about it. That can be especially true of romantic partners—which isn’t great, because they’re likely the people you most need to talk about money with. 

One study in the journal Family Relations found that arguing about money early on in a marriage is the number one predictor of divorce. But you probably don’t need an academic paper to know talking about this stuff can be fraught—everyone has their own incredibly personal relationship to money and how spend, influenced by both practical constraints—your job, your income, the things you need to buy day in and day out—and more nebulous emotional factors like how our parents spent. 

Now, of course, the pandemic has meant many people have lost jobs or needed to make expensive changes to their living situation. Even for the continuously-employed, the future is murkier than ever. It’s time to have some uncomfortable conversions with your S.O. to get on the same page about money. 

But while trying to bring two people with different attitudes about money together to spend as a unit is difficult, it doesn’t have to be impossible. I spoke with Tiffany Aliche, a financial educator and the founder of The Budgetnista about what couples should be doing, what numbers they should be sharing, and six questions to help frame conversations around finances in a productive way. 

1. What Are Our Goals? 

Aliche points out that the easiest—and most enjoyable—entry point for financial discussions is goals. Ask your partner what they’d eventually like to spend money on. This doesn’t have to be a hard-core super serious conversation with timelines and budgets. It’s meant to take your partner’s temperature on what they’re interested in saving for and what they care about financially. Are they thinking of going back to school? Do they want to buy a house? Pay off a credit card? Take a trip to Bali when that’s a thing you can do? Not every money discussion should be painful; dip your toe in with a little bit of mutual dreaming.

2. What Do We Agree On? 

While Aliche is a super saver, her husband was not, and one way that she started to resolve that tension was finding common ground—things they both agreed were important to save for. For them, that was his daughter’s education and going on vacations—they both agreed those were worth saving for. So if he was thinking of making a big car purchase, Aliche might bring up that the money might be better put in his daughter’s college fund. Having established this common ground through what Aliche calls “non-fight conversations” provided a framework to resolve harder conversations later on. 

3. What Should We Combine? 

Aliche cautions couples against combining all of their finances. She suggests being especially careful about combining everything if you’re not married, since marriage offers certain legal protections, but even then suggests that it’s good to keep certain money separate. She and her husband have their own checking and savings accounts, as well as a joint checking account for bills and a joint savings account for big things—vacations, their wedding. 

To copy this model, a first step is to agree upon how much each person is putting in to the joint accounts. Some people split things 50/50, but many couples contribute to joint accounts at the same ratio as their income. So if someone is earning twice as much, they put in twice as much to the shared checking and savings.

Once you’ve established what you’re sharing, maintaining some financial separation allows for people to feel like they don’t need to check in like a five year old every time they want to spend some money. If it’s in your own savings account and you’ve already contributed to the joint pool, go ahead buy all the Jordans and guitars your heart desires. 

4. What’s Our Noodle Budget?

You may have heard that you should have six months of income saved, and while that’s a good number, you might not need to save quite that much. Aliche instead recommends that everyone save six months of their “noodle budget.” That’s the amount of money you spend in a month where you are really tightening your belt—eating ramen noodles every night, maybe. It’s the budget you’d have if you gave up Hulu and Spotify, if you stopped eating out, if you didn’t take trips. You should calculate that budget and save for half a year of living like that, Aliche recommends. “It’s easier, faster, and more realistic,” she says. “If you were really to lose your job, you would need to drop down and get your noodle on until your income is recovered.” Of course some people—business owners, families, freelancers, people with health problems—may want to try to save more. But it’s worth figuring out what your bare minimum is before you’re in a bind.

5. What Can We Automate?

Once you settle a money question, Aliche recommends automating as much as you can. If, for example, you both agree upon a percentage of your paycheck that is going into a shared account for rent and groceries, have the HR department at your company automatically split off the right amount of every paycheck. If you have bills that come out of that account, set them up to auto-pay. The idea is to avoid always going over the same fights and having to police each other’s spending—imagine a world free of your partner asking whether you paid the internet bill this month.  

6. Do We Need a Financial Planner?

Don’t be afraid to seek out help! Aliche says that one of the biggest mistakes couples make is trying to go it alone. While a financial advisor will help you with investments and will often be involved with actual buying and selling, a financial planner is just there to help you achieve long-term financial goals. A financial planner’s job is often to point you in the right direction, rather than to buy or sell anything. 

Aliche says that she and her husband go every other month to make sure they stay on top of their goals, but suggests that most people only need to go about once a year. Just don’t be afraid to get outside help; you aren’t expected to know it all.


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