Talking about money with a partner can be challenging no matter how long a couple has been together. All stages of relationships -- from newly weds and parents of young children to empty-nesters and retirees -- bring their own unique financial challenges, yet most couples share a common goal: keep the peace in the family finances. Given that spats over finances are a common cause of marital discord, Valentine's Day is an ideal time to think about how to reach greater financial harmony with your partner.
Here are four strategies that I've seen work well for countless couples over the years.
1. Have a monthly date night that focuses on your finances. My wife Sara and I sit down once a month after our three children are asleep and have a "financial date night." We go into these evenings with no preconceived notions about what will come out of them, except that we will communicate with each other about our household finances. The focus for these evenings is generally on our cash flow -- essentially our income and expenses -- from the past month. We've found that, by keeping the evenings low-key and relaxed, we are more likely to continue doing them every month.
Fortunately, there are many cash flow management software systems and online tools that can help you track cash flow, so there is little preparation needed in advance. Once a quarter, we look at longer-term investments and retirement savings accounts together. And annually, as policies are set to renew, we discuss our insurance coverages, particularly life, health, home owners and automobile policies.
2. Establish what role each of you will play in your finances. I rarely find among my couple clients that both people are financially inclined. More often than not, one person is more interested and takes the lead on financial matters. Yet, it is important that both people play some kind of role, even if it is simply participating in the monthly date nights. It's important to discuss and establish what role each of you will play. Perhaps one partner prefers to pay the bills and keep tabs on the checking account and credit card, while the other wants to monitor the retirement accounts and take care of insurance. Having separate responsibilities allows each person to have a sense of ownership.
3. Set aside "fun money" for each spouse. Each partner should have some money every month that does not need to be accounted for with the other. While this is good practice for all couples, it is particularly important for those who marry later in life or re-marry, given the financial independence already established before the relationship begins. Couples can set up a specific dollar amount that each person can spend on whatever they want (within reason) with no guilt. The process of setting up spending these parameters helps couples set budgetary goals together.
To determine your monthly "fun money" budget, assess your gross income and expenses. As long as you do not have credit card debt and are putting away between 10 and 15 percent of your income towards retirement savings, you could budget around 2.5 percent of your annual net income towards "fun money." As an example, a couple with a combined net income of $150,000 could budget around $300 per month, so each spouse ends up with $150 per month to spend as they wish. Of course, every circumstance is different so the specific dollar amount can vary greatly. Regardless of the dollar amount, the symbolic gesture of entrusting your partner can go a long way.
4. Don't forget to take the long view and review retirement and estate plans, including life insurance. When you are part of a couple, your lives and futures becomes inexorably linked with each other. And if children are in the picture, this bond becomes even stronger making estate planning and life insurance an even more important part of the financial equation alongside saving for retirement. A study done by ING U.S. found that many couples avoid discussing life insurance with each other. In fact, among married respondents, 45 percent had rarely or never talked with their spouse about what would happen to the family finances should one of them pass away. Protecting what you've built in life together, your income, assets and possessions, is important so that your partner and children don't suffer financially after your death.
These strategies do not take the place of advice from a financial professional. I find that clients tap into my services more when they are on the same page and communicate with each other outside my office about their finances. Clients even write down the questions that come up or table a conflict that arises, bringing the items to me for discussion at our next appointment. Having a third-party professional allows a couple to say "Let's not fight about this issue right now, we can ask our financial advisor about it when we meet next".
Both love and finance are important aspects of life that need to be cultivated and need time and attention to grow and flourish. These strategies can help you face together any curveballs or setbacks that come your way and get on the same page, allowing your finances to bring you closer rather than drive you apart.
ING Retirement Coach Jacob Gold is a third generation financial advisor. He is a published author of "Financial Intelligence; Getting Back to Basics after an Economic Meltdown," which was published in August 2009. Gold is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER practitioner and FINRA Series 7, 24 and 66 securities registered.