The honeymoon may be over, but your financial life as a married couple is just beginning.
These are exciting times, and the steps you take now can help you set yourselves up for a bright future together.
How to handle finances in marriage
Now that you’ve gotten hitched, it’s time to think about how you will handle your money. Here’s a 13-step money checklist for newlyweds:
1. Have a heart-to-heart about money and marriage
First and foremost: Get in the habit of talking with each other openly about money.
“It helps to get a clear picture of what’s in each other’s hearts when it comes to money,” says Liz Higgins, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Millennial Life Counseling.
Higgins helps couples figure out what money means to each of them, see if their spending fits their values, outline money goals, and compare notes using a workbook. “It’s very empowering to do exercises like this and share the results with each other,” she says.
Your next step: Set a time to sit down with your new spouse to talk about marriage and money.
To get you thinking, here are some examples of questions you may want to ask:
- What are your money memories from childhood?
- What does money mean to you? (For example, security, control, freedom)
- What is important to you in life, and do your current spending habits match these priorities?
- Do you have any debt, and, if so, how much? How did it happen?
- At what dollar amount would you feel uncomfortable if your spouse made a purchase without talking to you first?
- What is your best money habit?
- What is your biggest money challenge?
You don’t need to talk about every possible aspect of money now, but this is the time to get the conversation started and get you both used to communicating openly about your finances.
2. Build a budget for your new family
Make a list of your fixed expenses, such as housing and utilities, and estimate the cost of other expenses such as groceries, household supplies, and restaurants based on what you’ve spent in the past, Kelley Long, a personal finance coach and CPA, recommends.
“Even if you don’t combine your money, it’s a good idea to have a household budget so you can decide on the most equitable way to split up shared expenses,” she says.
If you already have children together or if one or both of you came into the marriage with kids from a previous relationship, consider kid-related costs as well as any child support you expect to receive or pay. And be sure to include college savings in the plan.
Your next step: List your expenses and create a budget. Use your budgeting tool of choice, whether that’s the back of a napkin, a budgeting app, or a spreadsheet. Just get started.
3. Decide how you’ll handle shared bills
Every couple is different, and you may be paying bills for just the two of you or a whole new blended family.
Whatever your new household looks like, you have options for paying joint expenses:
- Marry your money: With this option, you would close your individual bank accounts and open one joint checking account into which you both deposit all of your money.
- Take a hybrid approach: This involves keeping your individual accounts and opening a joint account to which you each contribute a set amount each month.
- Keep money separate: A third option is to keep separate checking accounts and either divvy up the bills fairly or set up a system to reimburse the person who pays the bills.
Your next step: Decide whether and how to pay joint expenses and open a joint checking account if necessary.
4. See how your credit scores stack up
Credit scores can affect your finances in marriage and any big goals you may have together, such as buying a house.
If one of you has a low credit score, you may not be able to qualify for a mortgage together or may have to pay a high interest rate, says Luis F. Rosa, CFP®, host of the On My Way To Wealth podcast.
“In that case, the spouse with good credit may feel like they’re being held back by the spouse with bad credit,” Rosa says. Checking your credit now gives you time to boost your scores and helps you avoid surprises in the future.
Your next step: If you haven’t already done so this year, you can pull your credit reports from the three major bureaus for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. Credit scores are not listed on the free reports, but some credit cards, such as Discover cards, let you see your FICO score for free and will list factors affecting your score.
5. Decide how to deal with finances in marriage
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling finances together, so you have to figure out what works for you.
“The most common mistake I see is when couples feel like they have to immediately combine all their income and spending, but without proper planning and thought toward how their money habits may be different,” Long says.
She recommends taking time to get to know each other’s money styles and then working together as a team to decide which habits you may need to change. “Combining money in a marriage is an evolution, and there’s no right or wrong way,” she says.
Your next step: Come to an agreement on how you’ll manage your money together now, who will take on which money tasks, and how often you’ll meet about money with the understanding that this agreement can evolve over time.
6. Start saving for a rainy day together
You vowed to stick together for better or worse, and “worse” is the reason you need to start thinking about building your emergency fund. Life sometimes brings costly surprises like a broken foot, a car problem, or a sick cat. But you also need to prepare for bigger emergencies.
“Building up enough cash to get you through a job loss, injury, or illness gives you freedom to work toward other goals in a more aggressive way, without having to worry as much about getting your budget exactly right,” Long says. “There’s some wiggle room because you know if something goes wrong, you have your emergency fund to plug the gap.”
Your next step: For big emergencies, open a money market or savings account at an online bank or other financial institution to which you don’t have immediate access, and set up a regular automatic deposit. Also, open a savings account at your bank for everyday unexpected expenses like a car repair or trip to the vet.
7. Create a plan to conquer debt as a team
Maybe one of you has a mountain of credit card debt or the other has a huge student loan. Any debt brought into the marriage will affect you both, even if you’re not paying it off together, because the partner with debt will have less to contribute to shared goals, Long says.
Be open with each other about how much debt you have, and try your best to avoid any resentment over the source of the debt, she recommends. “Give each other grace for past money missteps and work together to write a new and improved money story,” she says.
Your next step: Create a plan together to pay off debt. Look at total owed, interest rates, and other details and then choose a strategy for debt repayment, such as the avalanche or snowball method.
8. Set your money goals
Talk to each other and come up with shared goals for your money and future.
“The biggest and best thing we do to manage our finances is set yearly goals,” says Holly Wolf, who lives in Fleetwood, Pennsylvania and has been married to her husband Gary for almost 32 years.
As a result of this planning, the couple has taken dream trips to Australia, China, Greece, Namibia, and many other places. They’ve also completed big house projects, including a kitchen remodel.
“We went from saying, ‘Someday I’d like to go to Africa or to Glacier National Park’ to ‘Let’s go next year and what do we need to do to make it happen?’” Wolf says. “These things went from dream to goal to reality.”
Your next step: Separately jot down your one-year, five-year, and 10-year financial goals, then compare notes and write out a shared vision and a plan of action. For example, if you want to take a big vacation, decide how much you need to save per week, pay period, or month to make it happen.
9. Help to secure your family’s future
In your single days, you may have listed your parent, sibling, or grandparent as a beneficiary on your bank account, 401(k), or life insurance policy.
It’s a good idea to change the beneficiary to your spouse now just in case something happens to you, Rosa says. He knew a man who got married and forgot to change the beneficiary on his pension from his mom to his wife before he died unexpectedly. “The mother just took all the money,” Rosa says, adding that the couple had children at that point. “It created a big rift in the family.”
Your next step: Make a list of all your accounts and insurance policies, and change the beneficiary to your spouse if you have not already done so. If you’ve been living together for a while and already mixed your money to some extent, you may have already done this. In that case, just skip this step.
10. Create a tax plan for your new situation
Choose and meet with a qualified tax preparer who can help you plan your taxes together. Now that you’re married, your tax situation likely has changed. For example, you may be in a higher tax bracket now, Rosa says.
Your tax preparer can take a look at your big picture and let you know which records you should be keeping and whether you need to make any changes, such as adjusting your tax withholdings at work, Rosa says.
If one of you brought children into the marriage, or you’re expecting a baby together, remember that gaining a dependent can have a big impact on your tax situation too. Your tax preparer can walk you through any new child tax credits or deductions you’ll now be able to take.
Your next step: Choose a tax preparer and set up a consultation to attend together. Find the necessary documents you need to take with you, such as your tax returns from the past few years.
11. Make sure you’re saving for retirement
Saving for retirement can make or break your future dreams, but one or both of you may be reluctant to stash away a lot of cash for the future.
Damian Bergamaschi, an investor who lives in the New York City area, knew he had to get his wife, Eleni, onboard with the idea of saving for the far-off future. So the couple, who married in 2016, “gamified” their saving and investing.
“It’s a way for us to acknowledge each other’s contribution to the overall financial mission,” he says. “Every time our account hits a new balance high in $5,000 increments, we go out and celebrate with a fancy date night.”
Your next step: Set up a consultation with a fee-only financial planner who offers financial advice for couples. The planner can help you determine how much you need to be saving now to create the future of your dreams together.
12. Adjust your insurance coverage
Now that you’re newly married, it’s time to reassess your insurance situation. For example, you may be able to save money by bundling both spouses’ car insurance policies along with your renter’s or home insurance policy, Rosa says.
This also is a good time to look at your life insurance needs. Now that she’s a certified financial planner and an associate wealth manager for Budros, Ruhlin & Roe, Inc., Krista Cavalieri can easily spot her past mistakes. She and her husband Steve have been married for nine years and live in Columbus, Ohio.
“One thing we didn’t do that we should have done is get life insurance,” she says. “That was a glaring hole in our financial plan.” Some couples wrongly assume they don’t need life insurance if they don’t have children, she says. When she and her husband were newly married, one “would have been in a financial tight spot” if something had happened to the other, she says.
Your next step: Shop your auto and renter’s or home insurance as a couple and also get term life insurance if you don’t already have a policy. Also, make a note to ask your financial planner to help you calculate your life insurance needs.
13. Start estate planning early
“Estate planning” may sound like something to do after you’ve had children or amassed a fortune.
However, estate planning is actually a process you want to begin early on in your marriage, Rosa says.
In addition to wealth planning, estate planning also may involve: making wills, creating a living trust, writing health care directives, and creating a power of attorney so your spouse can handle your financial matters if you become incapacitated.
Newlyweds may not want to talk about such sobering topics, but the estate planning process can give you peace of mind, protect both of you, and help you understand each other better.
Your next step: Find an estate-planning attorney and schedule a meeting to begin the process together. Your financial planner may be able to offer you a referral.
The bottom line
There’s a lot to do when you’re newly married, and you’ll need to communicate well as you take your first financial steps together.
Here are some final tips for handling money conversations as a newly married couple:
- Don’t keep money secrets. Be open about your money situation, even if you’re embarrassed by your old credit card debt or a past mistake. “When it comes to finances, what I’ve seen work best for couples is transparency and honesty,” Higgins says.
- Avoid judging your partner. Approach your conversations about money with curiosity about your spouse’s point of view. Your husband or wife may have totally different ideas and a different history with money and that’s OK. “We all have our own story,” Higgins says.
- Expect emotions to surface around money. Some couples will experience anxiety, shame, and conflict around money, Higgins says. “It might not be pretty at first, and it might not feel great,” she says. “But the more you have these conversations with an open heart, the better it’s going to be for your relationship going forward.”
“Remember that you play for the same team and that figuring out money together is a process,” Long says. “How you do money in five years will look very different from today and will change as your lives change and you settle into your marriage.”