Many people don’t get beyond asking their fiances, “What’s your credit score?” and “How much debt do you have?” before they say “I do.” But everyone has certain habits and expectations about money, and we bring these into our marriages.
In my experience as a financial advisor who specializes in helping couples who are going through divorce, those two questions aren’t enough to ensure you’re compatible, financially speaking.
If you take the emotion out of the conversation and treat money habits similarly to your genetic predispositions to, say, heart disease or high cholesterol, you’ll have a much easier time talking through your expectations with your partner.
Here are eight questions that will help you learn more about each other’s patterns, deal with them and enjoy a happy marriage. For each, it’s not about there being one “right” answer—it’s about communicating with your partner and seeing how your approaches to money align (or don’t).
1. What does the term “financial infidelity” mean to you?
If your partner cheats on you financially, what does that look like? Is it O.K. for one person to withdraw $200 from your joint bank account and stash $100 of it into a personal safety deposit box every week? What if you learned that your partner had a credit card you didn’t know about? Are these reasonable ways to maintain independence or a shocking betrayal? What’s your definition of financial infidelity?
Talk to your partner in person—without alcohol and without time limits. Have this conversation well before your wedding day so you each have time to process your answers.
2. How do you identify a financial need versus a financial desire?
What do you consider to be essential—or inessential—financially? Your partner might say he needs a name-brand wardrobe to impress clients. You might feel that looking neat and stylish should be enough. Your partner might say she needs to own a home to feel secure. The idea of tying up all your money in real estate might make you nervous. These are big differences.
Crossed wires about needs and wants happen in every relationship, but the key is to ensure your patterns for resolving these conflicts are respectful. When you ask these questions, let the other person answer completely. That means no interrupting, no eye-rolling and no loaded gestures. Just listen, process and only respond after they are done talking.
3. How do you define financial success?
One person might say financial success is having things—the big house, a summer home and the ability to travel whenever you want. Another might define it as making enough to live comfortably without working 80 hours a week.
Figure out if you’re both looking toward the same future by filling in the blanks: We will be financially successful if we ___ or when we ___. How similar are your answers? How different? Where can you compromise?
4. What’s the best or worst financial decision you ever made—or didn’t make?
I hear people say, “When I was 22 years old, I had a Visa with a $25K credit line and spent the money on this…” Or, “I could have invested in this, but instead….” What happened? What did your partner learn from the experience? Has anything changed since then?
We all make mistakes, but do we learn from them? For example, if your partner ever declared personal bankruptcy, it can be useful to learn about how has he mended his ways since.
5. What would your mother or father say about how you are with money?
This question asks your partner to articulate what she already knows about how the people closest to her perceive her relationship with money. It also tells you a great deal about the financial values of the family you’re joining. It can be very telling.
How helpful are your family’s beliefs? How true are they? If you struggle with this question, instead ask, “What would your best friend say about how you are with money?” Is there a theme?
6. How will we both stay engaged with our finances?
When one person handles all the family finances, it can create a lopsided power structure over time. Worst-case scenario: You feel that you don’t have equal say in decisions, or you feel trapped, which can lead to resentment that rears its head in other ways. For example, if one of you took on the primary childcare role, how would you make sure that person stayed in the financial conversation?
Talk about how you plan to divide up the work of managing your finances and how you plan to stay on the same page. Agree to make a standing date to discuss money and don’t blow it off. It’s important that both of you always know what accounts, assets and liabilities are in your names, both together and separately, and where you stand on what is owned and owed on each one.
7. How would you feel about getting a prenuptial agreement?
Not everyone needs a prenup, but a prenup should not be a dirty word. What if one of you has kids from previous marriage or has family assets to protect?
If you hear anything like, “This means you don’t love or trust me,” or you feel rushed into signing, that’s a red flag. A prenup is just about acknowledging where each of you is starting from and agreeing ahead of time on what would define a fair and graceful exit.
8. Now that we know where we stand, how should we move forward?
If you’re both happy with your answers to six or seven of these questions, that’s a great place to be.
If you are in agreement on four to five, that’s a yellow light. Recognize that this is an area where you need to be very active about communication.
If you only connect on three questions, that’s a red light—don’t ignore it.
If one of you were diabetic, both of you would have an interest in learning about healthy eating, right? Find a registered financial therapist, a joint financial advisor or even a divorce mediator, and have a conversation with someone who can talk holistically about money.
Michelle Smith is CEO of Source Financial Advisors, a financial advisory practice focused on high-net-worth women.