Three Steps for Couples Navigating the Money Maze

Whether you’re combining your finances or keeping them separate, being on the same page and communicating often and regularly are key.

A piggy bank sits in the middle of a circular maze.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

All the wonderful traits that make you compatible as a couple may not mean you are financially compatible. According to a Fidelity Investments Couples & Money Study, one in five couples identifies money as their greatest relationship challenge. However, finances don’t have to be a point of contention, even though money can be a sensitive — and personal — topic. Here are a couple of tips to smooth out these discussions and navigate the money maze as a couple.

1. Decide on a plan of action.

Some couples keep finances separate, some combine everything, and others do a combination of both. Whatever you feel most comfortable with, devise a plan that works for your relationship and stick with it, but review the plan regularly.

Whether managing separate or combined finances, it’s crucial to establish a clear plan regarding how you are dividing the expenses. I suggest addressing these questions with your partner to ensure you are on the same page. Do you split everything? Are you each responsible for specific bills? How are you working toward savings goals — together or separate? Who pays for date nights or surprises? It’s also important to discuss what happens if someone loses their job or gets a raise — will your plan stay the same or change? It’s super important to have a plan in place that is flexible enough to change over time.

Subscribe to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Be a smarter, better informed investor.

Save up to 74%

Sign up for Kiplinger’s Free E-Newsletters

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice on investing, taxes, retirement, personal finance and more - straight to your e-mail.

Profit and prosper with the best of expert advice - straight to your e-mail.

Sign up

2. Communicate, communicate and communicate.

If you don’t regularly discuss your financial situation, you are doing your relationship a disservice. Usually, issues arise if someone feels slighted, taken advantage of or not taken care of. Having an open dialogue about how your financial life is working as a couple will help minimize this tension in your relationship. Schedule a regular time to talk and review your budget, spending patterns, savings plan or issues with your partner regularly. I suggest doing this on a monthly basis so that there is no confusion about the financial plan.

I think it’s even more imperative to have these regular checkpoints if one person handles most of the finances. In our household, we combine everything, but even though the financial tasks have been designated as my responsibility, I try to keep my husband in the loop. When I’m paying the bills, I’ll let him know, “Hey, we’ve been on a little bit of a spending spree lately, let’s tone it down with our spending,” or “Your paycheck looks a little different — can you review your pay stub and see if something needs to be adjusted?” or “It looks like we did a great job this month staying within budget, so we have some excess money — should we move it to savings, add a little extra to the 529 accounts or maybe let’s treat ourselves and plan a weekend away with the kids?”

Even though my husband is usually disinterested in this, he appreciates the transparency and being kept in the loop.

3. Set priorities and a budget.

There is always the saying that one person in the relationship is the spender and the other is the saver. While this makes sense since opposites attract, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If you decide as a couple what the overall priorities are for both of you, it should be easier to plan and create a budget.

I know a lot of people hate the word budget, which I completely understand, so let’s change our mindset and reframe our thinking to focus on spending and savings goals, which is a win for everyone!

With this approach, if you decide “this is how much we need to/want to spend each month” — be specific and add in fun categories, too, like clothing, travel, date nights, etc. — then the spender can still spend. Then take it a step further and identify how much you want to save each month, too. Obviously, you have to work within the framework of how much you both take in each month, but this is a conversation, and there will be some compromises or give-and-take that happens, but at least you are having an open dialogue about your finances.

Also, if there are more expensive items, set up a joint goal. and establish a timeline for when you want to accomplish that goal, and work toward achieving it together.

Finances don’t have to be a point of contention in a relationship if you have a plan and discuss it frequently and openly. Remember, nothing is set in stone — if life circumstances change or something isn’t working, then change your plan and try something new. Finances should support your life goals as a couple, not tear you apart!

Related Content


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Kelli Kiemle, AIF®
Managing Director of Growth and Client Experience, Halbert Hargrove

Kelli Kiemle holds multiple roles with Halbert Hargrove. As Managing Director of Growth and Client Experience, she sets the tone for the quality and character of Halbert Hargrove's client service relationships. She also manages the associate wealth advisers and client service managers. Kelli is also responsible for overseeing the firm's wide-ranging marketing and communications initiatives, including their mentor program.