My fiancé and I have been together four-and-a-half years and are getting married this upcoming March. We’re different in a lot of ways — politics, majors in college, interest in staying home vs. going out — but something that keeps coming up is our different views on spending. I’m someone who really values traveling and going abroad, while my fiancé values having a house and stability. I worry that, once we’re married with shared finances, we’ll never go on a trip together. In fact, he and I haven’t traveled together, outside of visiting family, since 2015.
My fear: He’ll always prefer saving for a house, and then once we have the house, saving for the next repair, etc. He views my spending as frivolous, even though he spends money on all the sports packages. How do we get more on the same page?
Be honest with yourself: Will you and your fiancé will ever be on the same page, financially? It seems unlikely. And that’s fine! Picture yourselves as a Venn diagram, with one overlapping area between your two independent circles. Some couples are so synched up that their diagram resembles a full eclipse, but that’s about as rare as the celestial equivalent. The rest of us have to figure out how much of our circles we want to combine and how much we want to keep to ourselves. This will be an ongoing give-and-take, and sometimes an irritating one.
It’s normal that you and your fiancé aren’t totally aligned. In fact, your dissimilarities probably make the relationship more interesting. They verge on worrisome territory, however, when you and your fiancé can’t discuss your different values, and/or respect them. Your objective cannot be to make him change — it’s to communicate about where and how you disagree, and learn to live peacefully at odds with each other.
Neither one of you is right or wrong in your financial goals. In general, a home — thoughtfully purchased and within your means — can be a good investment. Meanwhile, research shows that spending money on experiences (like travel) tends to make people happier than buying material things (like a house). So, congratulations: You both have good priorities. Now you just have to figure out how to balance them with the rest of your spending.
Manisha Thakor, the VP of financial education at Brighton Jones, calls this process “the financial three-way” because you’re determining what goes into three distinct buckets: what’s “mine,” what’s “yours,” and what’s “ours.” In terms of the Venn diagram, how much money stays in the individual circles, and how much goes into the overlapping middle? Your initial foray into this conversation will be uncomfortable, so don’t worry if it devolves into a collective bad mood. “Start with the assumption that virtually every couple finds this awkward, especially in the early years of a relationship,” says Thakor. “In a relationship, one or both people may feel judged when they share information about their finances, as if there is something wrong or deficient about them.” The only thing that helps is to keep at it. I can say from my own experience that with practice, talking to your significant other about money gets easier.
Kick things off with the basics, if you haven’t already: How much do you each earn? What do you save annually, and where does it go (into an IRA, an investment account, a mattress)? Do you have any outstanding debt, and what’s your plan for paying it off? These questions seem straightforward, but you’ll probably be surprised at how vulnerable they make you feel. (Which may be why most couples don’t actually know these facts about each other, even when they think they do.) It’s important that you suspend judgment while you lay this groundwork, as it’ll set the tone for money discussions in the future. You’re going for a neutral, safe-space vibe here.
Next, clarify which expenses you want to pool. This is where things get thorny: “One person might assume that self-care is a joint benefit and want to pay for their weekly acupuncture out of the pooled money, while the other person feels that this is a frivolous expense and doesn’t want to contribute,” says Thakor. “The key to successful communication is to be very open with each other about what will be separate, so there’s no confusion.” This will almost certainly involve saying things that the other person doesn’t want to hear — which means you’ll have to be extra clear about it.
There’s an inherent conflict in classifying “shared” versus “separate” expenses because, if you look at the big picture, everything you spend money on affects your partner on some level. Take sports packages, for instance: You couldn’t care less about them, but if nothing makes your fiancé happier than watching muddy people chase a ball around a field on TV, one could argue that they improve your mutual well-being. Conversely, if you go to Guatemala for a week with a friend, you’ll return refreshed and invigorated, a better partner. A rising tide lifts all boats, or something like that.
On the flip side, it’s almost impossible not to judge at least some of your partner’s spending habits, or fear that he might judge yours, no matter how much joy those expenses bring to your respective lives. And that’s why most couples I know (including my husband and me) keep separate accounts for their frivolities of choice. Does my husband occasionally raise his eyebrows at my random Amazon packages? Of course. But he also trusts that I’ll hold up my end of the bills we’ve agreed to split: rent, groceries, and vacations. Meanwhile, I still can’t believe that I married a man who loves golf (where do I even start), but if he wants to blow his “fun money” on it, whatever.
I recommend keeping a chunk of your money apart from your fiancé’s, especially if you’re already squabbling over discretionary spending. If you follow the 50-30-20 rule (50 percent of your income goes to “needs,” 30 percent goes to “wants,” and 20 percent goes to savings), then keeping that 30 percent in your own account for now may smooth over some of your relationship’s rough spots.
But homeownership and future travel goals are not small things. These are major lifestyle choices. Worst-case scenario: What if your soon-to-be husband doesn’t want to travel at all, and gets upset that you’d rather buy plane tickets than a nicer house? At all costs, you want to avoid a pissing match over whose “values” are more important. Beyond that, there are no tidy compromises here. You can’t measure a life-changing trip to South America against a new kitchen floor that your household will enjoy for years to come — they’re apples and oranges. It would be a huge waste of money to drag your fiancé overseas when he’d rather be at home fixing something, just as it would be sad for you to live in a space that reminds you of all the cool places you can’t afford to visit because of your mortgage.
These matters will become even more complicated if one of you out-earns the other, which is likely to happen at some point, if it hasn’t already. When you can’t agree on expenses, the person who makes more money usually gets the upper hand in the argument. Which is why you want to start these conversations immediately.
Try to approach these talks from a place of curiosity. How soon does he want to purchase a home, and what does he hope to spend? What are his expectations for how much you’ll contribute? Also, be specific about your own goals: Do you want to take at least one trip a year? If so, how much do you want to save for them? Does he want to come with? Would you be happy in a marriage where you traveled without him? Would he? Ask follow-up questions, let him finish talking before you weigh in, and ask that he do the same. If dollar amounts are hard to pin down, try talking in terms of percentages of your respective incomes — say, you want to dedicate at least 10 percent of your annual take-home pay to travel, and you aren’t comfortable putting more than 20 percent of it toward housing.
It’s imperative that you hear each other out, and ultimately, this is an important test. If your communication falls to pieces every time spending comes up, you may genuinely need to think about whether this is the right partner for you. Remember: It’s fine — and even great — to have differences, but how you navigate and negotiate them is what will make or break your marriage.