Having been married for over 20 years—hello, where did the time go?—Valentine’s Day is, well, just another Saturday. It’s not that I am any less in love. Quite the opposite. And a lot of my peers have the same blasé bias about February 14th, even though they still love their spouses with gusto. It simply no longer feels necessary to mark the day with violins and bubbly—unless of course Saturday is the day you have to schlep your kid to a violin lesson or it’s bubble bath day for your little ones.
The young people that I know, however, are singing a much different tune this time of year. It’s actually more of a love song: half of the couples who said that they planned to get engaged last year did so on Valentine’s Day, according to an American Express survey.
One thing that’s the same as it was 20 years ago: the big question—will you marry me?—is really just the first in a string of questions. Where will we have the party? Who will officiate? Do we invite third cousins?
But what continues to baffle me is how important financial questions get tossed aside like a bridal bouquet in a 1950s wedding (although maybe that ridiculous tradition has returned?). And it’s these questions about your salary, spending, and values that really matter, and have a much more lasting impact on your lives together than, say, whether your gown is white or eggshell or whether your cake is sugar frosting or butter cream.
A recent poll from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling revealed that 68% of people had negative attitudes towards discussing money with their future spouses, with 5% even going so far as to say that such a discussion likely would lead to calling off the wedding. And lest young people think those conversations always happen organically after they marry, they need to think again: According to a 2013 Google Consumer Survey of married Americans done for TransUnion, almost one out of five couples surveyed said they did not talk about their finances until after they got hitched. Equally disconcerting: a little over 14 percent said they never discuss personal finances now that they are married.
If you do become engaged this Valentine’s Day—or you’re the parent of someone who has—here are four steps to consider:
1. Have “the talk”
Past romances are often discussed at nauseam by the second or third date. Past money habits, not so much! Now’s the time to be up front with your partner about your financial obligations and expectations. Do you have any significant debts (mortgages, student loans, credit card debt) or financial skeletons in the closet (a bankruptcy or a poor credit score)? Are you a saver or a spender—and, by the way, what’s your salary? How do you envision your lifestyle together—do you live to save or save to live it up? You and your future spouse don’t need to be totally in sync on every issue. (In fact, studies show opposites attract, particularly when it comes to money.) But it is important to figure out whether your personal finance habits and priorities are compatible for the long haul, and, if not, if there is room for compromise. Best to sort that out soon.
2. Tackle budgeting for two
Your “single person” budget is not your “married person” budget. Figuring out how and when to pay your bills, deciding what’s an “acceptable” splurge, prioritizing goals like saving for a house or a car, and paying back your student loans: all of the choices that you once made alone now involve someone else. This can take some adjustment—especially if you’re accustomed to being your own financial boss. So get together and work through the numbers on paper. Calculate your income and expenses. Discuss how much you want to save and how much you want to invest each month. (Mint.com’s easy-to-use budgeting tools can help you both keep track of where your money’s going.) And be accountable to each other. For example, if you and your new spouse have agreed to stick to a weekly food and entertainment budget of $250, and he’s ordering $50 worth of takeout each night, sit down and have a conversation about spending.
3. Divide (or don’t) and conquer
You’ve discussed your preferred sides of the bed. So why haven’t you brought up if and/or how you plan to divvy up your money once you’re married? Will you maintain separate accounts, or will everything go into a joint account? Perhaps you’ll compromise by putting a certain percentage of each paycheck into your separate accounts and then depositing the rest into your shared pot—this can be for living expenses, long-term saving goals, or both. Be sure you have a system for keeping track of your accounts, because with two people writing checks and making debit card transactions or ATM withdrawals, it can get complicated. This is where online banking can be a huge help. Set up text, email, or app notifications so that every time there’s a deposit or withdrawal, you’ll both be aware of it.
4. Deal with love and taxes
And you thought picking a wedding invitation was hard. Your first time filing taxes as a married couple can be an ordeal, what with name changes, new addresses, and confusing income bracket switches. A helpful resource is the IRS’s tax tips for newlyweds. You’ll want to consider whether you will pay more income tax filing jointly than you would filing separately (known as the “marriage penalty”), or whether your income taxes will go down when you get hitched (known as the “marriage bonus”). This Marriage Bonus and Penalty Tax Calculator from the Tax Policy Center is a handy tool for figuring out how marriage can affect your tax burden.
How do you and your spouse approach finances? What are your favorite ways of working together to achieve financial goals as a couple? Please share in the comments below or on my Facebook page.
© 2015 Beth Kobliner, All Rights Reserved
Beth Kobliner is the author of the New York Times bestseller Get a Financial Life, and is currently writing a new book, Make Your Kid a Money Genius (Even If You’re Not), to be published by Simon & Schuster. She is a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans. Visit her at bethkobliner.com, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.