MONEY Love and Money

The Most Important Talk You Need to Have Before Marriage

wedding rings tied to roll of $100 bills
Getty Images

A frank conversation about finances early on will prevent relationship land mines later on, says love and money expert Farnoosh Torabi.

It’s not exactly first-date material, but at some point early on couples ought to start talking about money.

Best if the first discussion happens before the relationship takes a turn for the serious—like moving in together, getting engaged or married, or cosigning a loan. You’d want to know if your steady’s trying to pay off a six-figure law school loan or hasn’t saved a dime towards retirement yet, right?

While we know it’s important, many of us shy away from asking our partners key questions related to savings, investments, debt and credit. More than 40% of couples surveyed by Country Financial recently said they didn’t discuss how they’d manage their money together ahead of tying the knot.

As a society, we’re not especially conditioned to speak intimately about our finances. One report found money to be a tougher topic for Americans to talk about than politics and religion. Plus, if you’re not particularly proud of your financial state, a no-holds-barred discussion may stir up anxiety, embarrassment and fear of rejection.

Here’s how to calmly—and, dare I say, pleasantly—enter this critical conversation into the record in the early stages of your relationship:

Set a Date

My now-husband and I had a money powwow about two years into dating.

Don’t get me wrong: By then, we’d fully observed each other’s spending behaviors and discussed goals (thankfully, with no red flags). But we’d yet to really share specific numbers.

With plans to move in together and cosign a lease just a few months down the road, we figured this was a natural and important time to get into the nitty-gritty.

If you and your mate haven’t come anywhere near this conversation yet, my recommendation is to schedule a time to talk so that your partner doesn’t feel blindsided and so that you can each do a little homework beforehand if need be.

One way to frame your request for a money summit: “I know it’s not the most exciting thing to talk about, but it would make me a lot more comfortable if we could go over our finances together since things are getting more serious. I’m not worried at all; I just think it’s helpful if we share the basics so that we’re both on the same page and can work toward common goals. And I want you to feel like you can ask me anything you want about my finances. I want to be an open book about this stuff because I’ve seen how it can unnecessarily complicate things in relationships.”

Then ask: “What do you think?”

Make an Even Exchange of Information…

To ease any potential tension, my future husband and I decided to meet at a familiar and fun setting: our favorite bar.

We ordered a round (one round only) of margaritas and proceeded to jot down the following on a piece of paper: annual income, bank balances, outstanding loans and credit card balances and approximate credit score.

Then we swapped papers, revealing our details at the same time.

This exercise gave us a simple, quick apples-to-apples comparison and helped us understand our relative strengths and weaknesses.

We discovered that while I had more retirement savings, he had a better credit score. (I was still dealing with the consequences of a late payment on my Banana Republic Card five years prior when I was younger and less vigilant. Sigh.)

You and your partner could try this tactic if you both are straight shooters. But if your sweetie could use some help coming out of his or her financial shell, you might need a softer approach.

…Or, Ease Gently into the Interrogation

Revealing a bit about yourself first may encourage your significant other to talk money.

“Share your feelings and see how he or she reacts,” says Barbara Stanny, author of Sacred Success: A Course in Financial Miracles.

For example, you could start by saying, “I really hate having credit card debt.” From there, you can talk about your personal experience and then ask for your partner’s take.

Or, try the following softball conversation starters which can help you get at hardball answers:

What you really want to ask: “How much do you have in savings?”
Start with: “Would you say you’re more of a saver or spender? Why?”

This helps you figure out habits and behavior, which can be just as telling as actual figures. “Most important, you want to know what are their spending and saving personality is like. For example, how impulsive are they?” says Kate Northrup, author of Money: A Love Story. You can follow up with a question like, “Are you trying to save up for anything major?” This approach can also help you figure out if you share similar goals.

What you really want to ask: “What’s your credit score?”
Start with: “When did you first open a credit card?”

Go down memory lane together to ease into your credit technicals. Talk about how you might have signed up for your first card in college just to score that free t-shirt. And admit a personal rookie misstep you might have made with said credit card.

Then gradually you can warm up to: “Have you ever looked up your credit score?”

If neither of you know, take a few minutes to get free estimates using mobile apps from Credit Karma, Credit Sesame or Credit.com.

What you really want to ask is: Do you have a lot of student loan debt?
Start with: How did you pay for college?

This is the question many dating couples probably want answered, as towering student loan debt is a sobering reality for many.

A conversation about how you afforded school—via scholarships, working and/or student loans—will help engage your partner. And along the way you may gain some insights into each other’s financial values or work ethic, too.

Once when you’ve gotten all these basics out of the way, treat yourselves to another margarita. Your first money talk out of the way! Now that’s a relationship milestone to be celebrated.

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at MONEY and the author of the book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. More of her columns and videos for MONEY.com:

MONEY friends & money

3 Tools that Help You Nudge Friends to Pay You Back

restaurant bill with credit cards and cash
Dan Dalton—Getty Images

Fronted a pal for a meal, a vacation or rent? These will help you collect what you're owed, and keep your relationship in tact.

Raise your hand if you’ve fronted money to a friend or relative only to realize that your “loan” ended up being a “gift,” money you never saw again.

We’ve all been there—and probably will be again. A survey by American Consumer Credit Counseling found that 82% of adults would loan money to a family member in financial need. Another 66% would lend to a friend.

In a perfect world, borrowers would quickly pay back their IOUs. But the onus is often on lenders to bring up repayment. After all, as at least one study has found, borrowers sometimes just forget and may even incorrectly assume that they’ve paid up.

To keep the peace, we avoid collecting and regretfully file the experience under: “friends and money, lessons learned.”

But it doesn’t have to always end so poorly for lenders. These three online tools serve as financial liaisons to help coordinate and move along person-to-person payments—so that friends can stay friends.

Booked a group trip on your credit card? Use Splitzee

Let’s say you’ve finished booking a group vacation for you and three friends who’ve all agreed to pay you back.

The upside is that by securing all reservations on your credit card, you earn quadruple the points. The downside is that you could be waiting for a while for your friends to pay you back—and rack up interest charges in the meantime.

Head to Splitzee and create a vacation “pool” ahead of the trip, and invite all three friends to participate. They can pay you back via the site using either a credit or debit card. You can then cash out by either having the site send you a check (which takes up to three business days) or make a direct transfer to your bank account (usually three to five business days).

To get your pals to act sooner rather than later, you might want to add a note of explanation: “I know our trip seems so far away still, but I need to pay off my card’s balance by the end of the month to avoid interest. So if you can make a payment by the 20th, I’d really appreciate it.”

If you want, you can allow everyone in the group to see who’s paid up and who hasn’t, which provides some added pressure.

If the total amount of money collected per pool is under $200 there’s no fee. After that, the site collects 5%. So, for example, if you collect a total of $500, the Splitzee sends you $475.

(If you use the collected money to buy a select product directly from one of the site’s retail partners, no fees apply—but that won’t help with your unpaid credit card balance)

Paid for your roommate’s share of the rent, Cheetos and HBO last month? Use Splitwise

As the first of the month nears, that’s a perfect time to remind your roommate that his portion of the rent and living expenses is due plus the $542 you spotted him last month.

Don’t leave this reminder via a Post-It note on the fridge. Mention it in person and say, “Hey, you know, I’ve been thinking it would be helpful for the both of us to begin tracking all of our shared expenses in one place.”

Say you found this interesting free site called Splitwise. There you can create a dashboard listing your joint expenses and invite your roommate to see exactly what he owes (and what you owe).

Splitwise lets users settle up their debts by recording a cash payment, sending money via PayPal or using Venmo. It also sends monthly reminders and alerts so you don’t have to keep chasing down your roommate.

Covered your friend’s steak and martini dinner last week? Use Square Cash

The next time the two of you go out on the town again, and the bill arrives, remind your friend that, “I think you owe me, right?”

Assuming the dinner bill’s roughly the same as last time say, “Are you okay to pay this time?” In the same breath, add, “If not, no worries…You can just pay me back online. It’s really easy.”

If she goes for the latter, introduce Square Cash, a mobile app that lets users transfer money using an email address and their debit card for free to anyone within a matter of seconds.

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at MONEY and the author of the book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. More of her columns and videos for MONEY.com:

MONEY Love and Money

What to Say When Your Kid Asks, ‘Mommy, Are We Rich?’

Illustration of wooden alphabet number blocks spelling out RICH/POOR
Mikey Burton

When your kids ask frank questions about your finances, try to view it as a teaching opportunity rather than a breach of privacy.

While visiting an exhibit about the Titanic, Elise Hahl’s 7-year-old son grew curious about social status—especially after learning how it affected survival on the fateful voyage. “Mom, which class would we have been?” he asked. She explained that the world “doesn’t work that way anymore.” But he persisted.

Truth was, the Pittsburgh family was then living solely off Dad’s stipend as a Ph.D. student. “Sorry, bud,” she finally admitted. “We would’ve been third-class for sure.”

As uncomfortable as it can be when your child asks about your income or wealth, keep in mind that curiosity can be a catalyst for learning about money. “It’s a flag on the field saying ‘I’m ready,’ ” says Susan Beacham, author of OMG: Official Money Guide for Teenagers.

Are you ready? Before answering questions like “How much do you make?” or “Are we rich?” ask one of your own: “Why?” Understanding your child’s motivation can help you craft an answer, but age also plays into what you should say.

For a Young Kid: Offer Context

No need to tell a third-grader your salary. Such figures are abstract in preadolescence, says Tom Corley, author of Rich Kids: How to Raise Our Children to Be Happy and Successful in Life. Plus, Beacham notes, “It’s information they can take to the bus stop.”

Instead, say you earn enough to afford concrete things your family values. Explain that there will always be people wealthier and less wealthy. And add that being “rich” is about feeling grateful, healthy, and happy, not just owning fancy things. If you’re struggling, let children know that you’re working hard to make ends meet. For example: “Daddy losing his job means we have enough for groceries—just not enough to eat out often.” Also reaffirm that the family’s situation is not their fault, says Beacham.

For an Older Kid: Be Straight

With teens, you may want to share relevant numbers, says Corley. At this stage, questions might be for practical reasons: For a kid worried about college, for example, hearing that “we have $50,000 for you” can manage his expectations. If you’re not comfortable sharing specifics, at least provide perspective, Corley says. For example, use the average household income (around $52,000) as a benchmark and say that you’re fortunate to earn a bit more.

When having financial difficulties, admit that and involve your child in solutions, like choosing which costs to cut. “The worst thing you can do is make it appear that everything is fine,” says Corley. “Teens are smart. They’ll know otherwise.”

Columnist Farnoosh Torabi is the author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at www.farnoosh.tv

Read more from Farnoosh Torabi:
5 Super Easy Online Tools That Can Make Couples Feel More Financially Secure
Financial Habits of Happy Stay-at-Home Parents
Ladies, This Is Why You Should Let the Guy Pay on the First Date

MONEY Love + Money

5 Super Easy Online Tools that Can Help Couples Feel More Financially Secure

hearts made out of money
iStock

Can't seem to get on the same page with your partner when it comes to money? Help has arrived.

In order to achieve common goals, getting on the same financial page with your romantic partner is critical—but it’s also challenging.

As our own MONEY survey recently revealed, a majority of married couples (70%) argue about money. Financial spats are, in fact, more frequent than disagreements over chores, sex and what’s for dinner.

The Internet can offer some strategic intervention. From budgeting to paying off debt, saving to credit awareness, these five online financial tools can help everyone—and, in particular, couples—get a better handle on their money.

The best part: They’re free.

1. For help reaching a goal: SmartyPig

SmartyPig is an FDIC-insured online savings account that—besides paying a top-of-the-heap 1% interest rate—is designed to help consumers systematically save up for specific purchases using categorized accounts like “college savings,” “summer vacation” or “new car.” Couples can link their existing bank accounts to one shared SmartyPig account and open up as many goal-oriented funds as they desire. You see exactly where you stand in terms of reaching your goals, which can motivate you to keep saving.

Additionally, SmartyPig has a social sharing tool that lets customers invite friends and family to contribute to their savings missions. Don’t want people to bring gifts to your child’s next birthday? In lieu of toys, you can suggest a ‘contribution’ to his SmartyPig music-lessons fund and provide the link to where they can transfer money.

2. For help boosting your credit scores: Credit.com

If you and your partner need to improve one—or both—of your credit scores and seek clarity on how, Credit.com can help. The Web site offers a free credit report card that assigns letter grades to each of the main factors that make up your score: payment history, debt usage, credit age, account mix and credit inquiries.

A side-by-side comparison of each person’s credit report card can—even if the scores are roughly the same—actually reveal that one spouse scored, say, a D for account inquiries, while the other has a C- under debt usage. From there you can tell what, specifically, each person needs to improve upon. “It may lead to some friendly competition,” says Gerri Detweiler, Director of Consumer Education at Credit.com.

3. For help tracking your expenses: Level Money

Called the “Mint for Millennials,” Level Money is a cash-flow-management mobile app that automatically updates your credit, debt and banking transactions and gives a simple, real-time overview of your finances. It includes a “money meter” that shows how much you have left to spend for the remainder of the day, week and month.

A spokesperson tells me that couples with completely combined finances can share a Level Money account and see all bank and credit card accounts in one place. They can get insight into when either partner spends money and how that affects cash flow. The company says it’s continuing to build out tools for couples.

4. For help eliminating debt: ReadyForZero

If you and your partner need some nudging to get out of credit card debt once and for all, ReadyForZero may be of service. Launched three years ago, it’s an online financial tool that aims to help people pay off debt faster and protect their credit. The free membership gets you a personalized debt-reduction plan with suggested payments. The site tracks your progress so you can see how well—or how poorly—you’re doing and regularly posts “success stories” on its site to motivate users. You also get access to the ReadyForZero mobile app which sends you push notifications suggesting an extra payment towards your balance if you just placed a larger than normal deposit in savings or checking.

For couples, the tool can help one or both partners to stop living in denial and to come to terms with their financial obligations. Says CEO Rod Ebrahimi, “it demystifies the debt.”

5. For help syncing up generally: Cozi

When I asked attendees at the annual Financial Bloggers Conference last month about what sites, apps and online tools they like to use to keep their finances in check in their relationships, a few pointed to the website and app Cozi. It’s not a financial tool per se, but Cozi helps households stay organized, informed and in sync with master calendars and household to-do’s like food and meal planning, shopping and appointments.

Want to schedule a meeting to talk about holiday gifting and how much to spend? Put in in Cozi. Want to plan meals for the week so you’ll know exactly what to buy at the market and not be tempted to order in? Tap Cozi to make a list.

Ashley Barnett who runs the blog MoneyTalksCoaching.com says she and her husband have been using Cozi for years. “My favorite part is that the calendar syncs across all devices, so when I enter an event into the calendar, my husband will also have it on his,” she says. Cozi’s actually gone so far as helping the couple minimize childcare costs. “Before Cozi, if I accidentally booked a meeting on a night my husband was working late, I had to either pay a sitter or reschedule the client, which is unprofessional and hurts my business,” says Barnett. “Now when I pull up my calendar I see his work schedule as well. No more surprise sitters needed!”

[Editor’s Note: Cozi was recently acquired by Time Inc., the company that owns MONEY and TIME.]

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at Money Magazine and the author of the new book When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at www.farnoosh.tv

MONEY Budgeting

Financial Habits of Happy Stay-at-Home Parents

141003_LEDE_1
Getty

When you're a stay-at-home parent, spending money on yourself can lead to feelings of guilt and resentment. It doesn't have to be that way.

Next time you complain about your 40-hour workweek, consider this: The average stay-at-home mom works more than double that rate —94 hours per week, to be exact. Her duties include (but are not limited to) cleaning house, cooking, teaching, behavior management, and laundry. For this, in theory, she should earn close to $113,000 per year, according to researchers at Salary.com. The same can be said for the growing number of stay-at-home dads.

In reality, though, full-time stay-at-home parents don’t receive a paycheck. And as a result, many struggle with feeling financially powerless or emotionally torn when it comes to spending money on themselves. A personal purchase like a new item of clothing or lunch out with a friend feels like it’s “taking away” from the family budget.

“I feel like I have to justify what I need,” one stay-at-home mom of two tells me.

“I feel extremely guilty buying things for myself,” shares another.

So how can couples set aside money for the stay-at-home parent in a way that avoids tension and emotional battles? Consider these steps.

Acknowledge Both Partners’ Feelings

If, as a stay-at-home parent, you feel guilty for spending on yourself, it may be that you’re not feeling valued for the work that you do. If that’s the case, you should be communicating that sense to your partner, says Edward Coambs, a financial planner based in Charlotte, N.C. “The issue may have more to do with your relationship dynamic.”

Coambs advises speaking up if you don’t feel empowered to spend more freely on personal things, or feel the need to ask for “permission” to shop. In exchange, he says, income-earning spouses should talk about what it feels like when their stay-at-home partner spends money on personal things. “From a place of empathy, spouses can usually find common ground in the way the family money is to be spent.”

Budget by the Same Rules

Creating a budget just for the stay-at-home-parent can lead to resentment and feeling like a second-class citizen. The solution: allow both partners equal access to the household money by creating equal spend/save funds for each person in the relationship. That sends a message that while only one person is bringing home a salary, both partners work hard and have equally important responsibilities. “When both feel they have the daily freedom to treat themselves…household well-being prospers,” says Manisha Thakor, author of Get Financially Naked: How to Talk Money With Your Honey.

How much to allocate? There’s no one-size-fits-all amount. The important thing is that you play fair. Each of you should factor in your anticipated personal needs such as haircuts, clothes, incidentals, etc. (maybe even over-estimate a tad to avoid shortfalls) and, together, decide on an equal percentage of the working partner’s income (say, 5% or 10%) that will go into your personal funds. Some months you might spend every penny; other months you might want to save up for a big purchase. The beauty is it’s yours to control. No questions asked.

Never Say ‘Allowance’

Call it a ‘personal expense account’ or ‘my personal budget’—but whatever you do, don’t call the money set aside for a stay-at-home parent an allowance. Coambs, who is also a former stay-at-home dad, says the term “allowance” is childlike and shouldn’t be used in an adult relationship. “It evokes a sense of ‘I have authority over you’ and takes me back to the days of living with my parents,” he says.

Thakor agrees. She likes to call personal accounts “joy funds.”

Earn by Saving

If the stay-at-home parent finds ways to save the household money (say via coupons or smart negotiating tactics), shouldn’t he or she be entitled to at least some of that savings? I think so. Growing up I watched my mom—an on-again, off-again stay-at-home parent—negotiate the cost of everything from bedroom furniture to deli meat. One time, after losing her job and becoming a stay-at-home parent again, the first thing she did was call up every monthly biller we had and insist on lower rates. In the end, she managed to talk our expenses down by $400 a month, which she and my father agreed should be allocated to her existing savings account each month. After all, she’d earned it!

Farnoosh Torabi is a contributing editor at MONEY and author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women. She blogs at Farnoosh.TV.

MONEY

3 Smart Ways to Protect Your Money When Taking Time Off Work

Taking time out from work to care for a loved one can have a serious impact on your finances and your career if you’re not careful.

Five months into her pregnancy, Karen Cordaway discovered that her mother was losing her battle with cancer. Plans for a brief maternity leave from teaching suddenly shifted to an immediate, unpaid one-year absence so she could be on call for her mom. Thanks to a big savings cushion and major budget cuts, Cordaway and her husband stayed afloat sans her salary. But the East Haven, Conn., couple depleted their emergency fund and dialed back their retirement savings. Cordaway has no regrets about taking that year off, but admits, “You don’t understand the magnitude of the decision until you go through the experience.”

In fact, Met Life found that for someone over 50 who leaves work temporarily to care for a loved one, the average lifetime setback is $303,880, including lost wages and retirement benefits. Should you need to lean out, keep damage to a minimum with these moves:

1. Avoid Red Ink

Start living on one salary as soon as you foresee quitting, says David Bach, vice chairman at Edelman Finan­cial Services. Meanwhile, bank your paychecks to help build a cushion before resigning. If you must leave suddenly, quickly retool your budget by setting aside funds for essential expenses first. “The three most important are housing, health, and food,” says New York financial planner Stacy Francis. Pare other costs to fit into what’s left over.

2. Get Help From the Government

You might not need to quit, depen­ding on how much time off you require. The Family and Medical Leave Act gives workers at companies with 50 or more employees who have certain family circumstances unpaid but protected leave for 12 weeks. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island residents may also benefit from paid family leave laws in their states. Must quit? A “compelling personal reason”—like caring for a very sick relative—may entitle you to unemployment insurance from your state. Find your state’s benefits at servicelocator.org.

3. Reapply for Your Job

If you need to quit—but wish to return—make the case now for a comeback. And to leave your employer with goodwill toward you, try to give more than two weeks’ notice, says LinkedIn career expert Nicole Williams. Maybe even suggest a replacement. Also, “never let go of your network,” she says. “Maintaining relationships shows that you’re still involved in the industry. If a job opens down the line, they’ll be more open to recommending it to you.”

More Love & Money from Farnoosh Torabi:
Ladies, This Is Why You Should Let the Guy Pay on the First Date
When She Makes More: How to Level the Financial Playing Field
How to Raise Your Spouse’s Low Credit Score

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