credit & debt

4 Critical Money Questions to Ask Before You Get Married

Start your relationship with these questions to make sure you and your partner are financially compatible.

Welcome back, Starting Out fans! My name is Stacy Rapacon, and I hope that I can fill this space as well as former columnist Erin Burt did over the years.

Speaking of daunting yet exciting new opportunities, I just got married in October. Topping the long list of things my husband, Dave, and I do to keep each other happy (placed just slightly above volunteering to do the dishes) is communicating clearly and openly -- an especially helpful habit when it comes to money matters.

In fact, Dave and I started our financial talks long before we strolled down the aisle. Sure, it was embarrassing to admit that my college years were riddled with late bill payments, leaving me with a credit score about a hundred points lower than his nearly perfect record. And he struggled to fess up to the thousands of dollars in debt he had amassed, coincidentally, since we started dating. But we knew that if we wanted to share our lives, we also had to share our finances. So we laid out all our dollars and cents and hoped those early discussions would prove that we’re each other’s perfect money match and prepare us for the long journey ahead. So far, so great.

What should you find out about each other’s money before making a lifelong commitment? Here are four questions that need to be answered. Have other suggestions? Please feel free to drop them into the comment box below.

HOW MUCH IS THERE? It’s not an appropriate first-date conversation, but if you’re in it for the long haul, finding out each other’s net worth is only fair. When assigning dollar figures (priceless as your significant other may be), be sure to include retirement accounts, investments and debts, as well as checking and savings accounts. Plus, you should share your credit scores, another important piece of the financial puzzle.

If you find that debts severely outweigh assets, or that your partner’s credit score is in the gutter, you’ll want to ask some other questions, such as “How did this happen?” or “What’s your plan to deal?” Unromantic as it may be, you may not want to commit to someone who’s careless with credit, especially if that person has not considered how to fix the problem.

When Dave and I faced the issues of my late payments and his growing debt, we obviously didn’t call it quits. We focused on finding solutions. Fortunately, I had already started working at Kiplinger and had picked up good tips on how to keep up with bills, such as setting up automatic payments and e-mail alerts for due dates. As for his credit-card debt, he stopped using the card, and we made paying it all off a top priority. Mission accomplished!

So, before you dash for the door, talk out your issues and see whether you can come up with a plan to balance your finances better. But if your partner’s deep debts came from years of spending beyond his or her means, be ready to deal with this issue for the rest of your life. After all, you can’t force people to change if they don’t want to do it for themselves.

WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? At this point in your relationship, each of you knows what the other does for a living. But you should also talk about what you plan on doing and earning a year, five years, ten years and even 20 years from now.

Consider what it will take to make those plans a reality. Is there room for that kind of growth at your current companies? Or will a move be necessary somewhere down the line? Would more education or training be beneficial? (Measure the payoff of going back to school.) Asking these questions now will help you draw a road map for your future.

WHERE IS IT KEPT AND INVESTED? You probably brushed over what kinds of accounts you both keep when you tallied up net worth. But you should also dive into the details of where the money sits within those accounts. Sharing this info can help reveal financial attitudes.

For example, someone who pours heavily into emerging-markets stocks is a bit of a risk taker. (Test your risk tolerance.) And someone who invests 401(k) money entirely in a single target-date mutual fund is likely more laid back. Whatever you two discover, be sure your fiscal personalities mesh. Otherwise, you could be in for a bumpy ride, and you might want to get off before it’s too late.

WHERE IS IT GOING? Take a look at your budgets. If you don’t keep one, now’s as good a time as any to get started because you’ll have to make a new one to cover both of you anyway. To do that, bust out the pencil and paper (or Excel spreadsheet) and lay out all of your recent and regular expenses. Use our Household Budget Worksheet to get started.

Or try Kiplinger’s favorite budgeting site, Mint.com, which can organize data from all accounts into different expense categories and help you identify the biggest outlays. For example, in a deliciously colorful pie chart, you might see that a big slice of your mate’s budget goes to dining out. Is that a cost you’re willing to eat? Or are your love’s gastronomical desires subject to compromise?

No matter your method, a clearly laid out budget will illustrate the spending habits you both have. From there, you can figure out whether those habits complement each other or if it’ll take some work to make them fit. It’s okay if one of you is more of a spender and the other is more of a saver -- in fact, that’s the way it is with most couples. What’s most important is that you know what to expect from one another and you accept it.

Once you’ve survived your first big money talk, you’re free to spend your lives in love. Just remember, this is only the beginning; throughout your relationship, you’ll want to discuss your finances regularly and update your plans and budgets accordingly.

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