Sticking to a budget can be hard enough when it’s just your own spending and saving you’re tracking. Add another person to the mix and it can get even trickier.
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You might not think twice spending $100 on a pair of new shoes, but your partner could consider that a major splurge. Or maybe one person has a higher risk tolerance when it comes to investing.
Money issues are a common source of fights among couples. That’s why it’s important that both people feel included and comfortable when setting up a budget and financial plan.
The first step to successful financial planning as a couple is to start talking. Lay all your financial cards on the table. Yes, it might be uncomfortable, but you need to have a clear understanding of each others’ financial standing to make a sustainable budget. That means talking about things like: income, debt, spending habits, savings goals and credit scores.
“By being willing to share your financial picture with the other person, it helps build trust,” said Mandi Woodruff, chief consumer advocate at Ally.
Mark Reyes and his wife Jessica Willison had their first money conversation a few months into dating.
“We had an honest discussion about, how does money make you feel, who do you trust with money and what kind of financial situation are you in, including debt and income,” said Reyes, a financial advice manager at personal finance app Albert.
But these money conversations shouldn’t be a one-time thing. Set regular date nights where you discuss finances, review the status of your goals and make any adjustments to your plans. “It’s a small but steady stream of conversations that should happen,” said Woodruff.
Know your numbers
The first step to creating a budget is knowing what money is coming in and how it’s being spent. That means tracking all your spending (yes, all of it) for a few months.
You can do the work manually by creating your own spreadsheet and adding income and expenses or use an app, like Mint or Honeydue, that connects to your accounts and does the heavy lifting for you.
Tracking spending will provide insight into each person’s spending habits and can also help identify areas to cut back on, if necessary.
To merge or not to merge
There are three common approaches when it comes to budgeting as a couple: merge everything together and share all income and expenses, create a joint account that both people contribute to for shared expenses while also maintaining separate accounts, or keep everything separate and split the bills.
Reyes and his wife have a joint account where they pay combined expenses, like their mortgage and food, and also have separate accounts.
“We enjoy having control over our individual finances as well,” he said. “I use my personal funds for buying stuff for my car,” he said. “We have personal accounts so we don’t feel weird or guilty using our joint account for ourselves.”
For couples that decide to go with one joint account for common expenses and separate individual accounts, Jerel Butler, a certified financial planner and founder of Millennial Financial Solutions recommends using salary as a proxy to determine contribution amounts. For instance, if one person makes 60% of the total household income, they would contribute enough to cover that percentage of the total monthly joint bills.
If there’s a large discrepancy in income, splitting expenses evenly could lead to problems down the road, said Sophia Bera, certified financial planner and founder of Gen Y Planning.
“A lot of people decide to split things 50-50 and realize a few months later it’s not working,” she said.
You and your partner don’t have to have all the same savings goals. There can be shared goals, like buying a house, and more individual goals, like clothing or hobbies.
For instance, Woodruff’s husband is working toward saving for a Tesla while she has vacation and dog-training goals.
The key to achieving such milestones is to be specific: What is the goal and do you want to achieve it?
“There can be different goals, but have the conversation and document the goals to make sure spending habits stay in line with short- and long-term goals,” said Mary-Charles Nassif, a financial advisor for Edward Jones Financial.
When it comes to saving for shared objectives, like a wedding, Bera suggested a joint savings account, and a joint checking account that can be used for common household bills.