We Should Be Talking About Money With Our Partners — Here’s Where To Start

In the realm of romantic etiquette, financial soul-baring is hardly sexy first-date banter. In fact, spewing information about your mounting credit card debt or your penchant for purchasing $19 celery smoothies for breakfast can seem like a surefire way to dampen the mood, no matter your relationship status.

This is not unique to our romantic conquests: For the most part, we’re still reluctant to speak frankly about matters of money as a whole. But in truth, communicating about our finances feeds directly into the intimacy we want in our relationships — and it’s time we stopped dancing around the subject.

So, for some much-needed advice when it comes to navigating money discourse, we tapped two financial advisors — Georgia Lee Hussey, certified financial planner and founder and CEO of Modernist Financial, and Cynthia Loh, Charles Schwab ‘s vice president of digital advice and innovation — to weigh in. Before you open up a bottle of wine and whisper sweet student loan sums into your partner’s ear, click through for all the expert tips you’ll need to navigate six of the most common money conversations that couples shy away from.

Should You & Your Partner Split The Bill?

According to formal (outdated) decorum, financial responsibility for a date typically falls on whomever did the inviting. But today, the way most people choose to split a tab has little to do with classic etiquette — and it’s expected that we all take different approaches. Some take turns, some use a range of financial apps, others support each other in full at different periods in time. Chivalry is often irrelevant. That said, in the earliest stages of a relationship, it can still be wildly awkward to discuss how you’d like to cover costs together — even if it’s just drinks. Unveiling information about your bank accounts before you’ve seen each other naked can feel counterintuitive.

Still, Hussey argues that the bill-splitting conversation can be a foray into bigger, more essential money conversations. “When I think about splitting the bill, it’s all about transparency — and it’s specific to each couple,” she says. “When it comes to a first date, each person needs to come in with their own beliefs and expectations. Are you looking for a sugar person? That’s fine as long as you’re clear. Some people will want to split the bill down to the penny. That’s also fine, if you communicate [that]. All these things will be important to the success of your relationship overall.”

Loh, too, favors transparency as early on as possible. “If you have strong feelings, you should communicate them and set expectations at the outset, before you find yourself in a situation that makes you uncomfortable.”

Illustrated by Hannah Minn.

How Do You Talk About Your Financial History With Your Partner?

Reaching the romantic stage in which you use the word “relationship” often feels like a small miracle. But once you’ve found yourself locked into something good, it’s time for a financial state of the union. No, you’re not obligated to share everything, but so long as you’re comfortable (and to the degree that you’re comfortable), your partner should know how much you make, what debts or loans plague you, and what your spending habits look like.

“From a timing perspective, this is the point where you’re considering the fact that this is the sort of person you want to make some real, elongated commitment to,” says Loh. “So when you approach the conversation, you don’t need to laser focus on finances. You can make it into a broader conversation about what sorts of things will shape your life together.”

Hussey agrees that it’s wise to make this particular conversation part of a larger discussion about establishing trust and envisioning a communal future. “I think a lot about financial intimacy and how we build it,” she says. “You have to be a little bit vulnerable in order to create a space where [your relationship] can grow. Most of us grow up in families where we don’t see anyone talk about money. It’s a place of conflict or a place of total silence. So often, with our partners, we’re unprepared for these conversations. But that vulnerability is good and healthy!”

Illustrated by Hannah Minn.

How Do You Deal With Income Disparity In A Relationship?

After you and your partner communicate your financial profiles to one another, it’s highly possible that you’ll encounter a secondary source of discomfort: income disparity. It’s not rare to enter into relationships with people who make significantly less — or more — than you do. And beyond the question of salary, you may also differ on any number of other financial factors (family members to support, trust funds, loans to pay). Often, money and ego are inextricably attached, so it can be difficult to address the ways in which your bank statements fail to align.

“Money is only one way to contribute to a relationship,” Hussey advises. “Sometimes one person is more emotionally literate than another. That’s something they contribute. Time is also an important one.” To Hussey, equal contribution is important — but not necessarily in a purely monetary capacity. “Get realistic about where you contribute to your relationship and where you see each other growing,” she continues. “Define what equality looks like together. Not everyone is going to value being at a parity in their financial situation.”

Loh adds that income disparity invites open conversation about future planning. “How do both people feel about going out to dinner versus cooking at home? About owning a home or renting? About travel? This is a conversation about how you envision living your life together. It’s really about: ‘This is what I’m comfortable with, what about you?’”

Illustrated by Hannah Minn.

How Do You Split Costs When Moving In Together?

There are plenty of reasons you might consider moving in with a significant other — chief among them: cheaper housing. But once you’ve decided to enter the world of shared real estate (thus bidding farewell to the days of splitting toilet paper costs amongst your three roommates), how do you pay? How do you furnish your space? How do you differentiate between what’s yours, mine, and ours?

“When you’re moving in together, you’re probably in a cadence you’ve mapped out,” says Loh, who suggests even mapping out what would happen in the event of a separation. “In the moment, hopefully you’re in love and you’re only thinking about the good things, but before you lunge into splitting costs, you have to be clear about what your expectations are and how things might pan out if you don’t meet them.”

“I kept an extra set of dishware for seven years after I moved in with my partner,” Hussey adds. “I wasn’t willing to give up my ability to leave, so it was a thing that made me feel comfortable and safe. We still don’t share books. We don’t buy books together. You have to set your rules together and you have to be honest. There’s no correct answer here, but you have to be upfront about what makes you comfortable.”

Illustrated by Hannah Minn.

What Do You Talk About Before Combining Your Financial Accounts?

Congratulations: You’ve built a life together that feels secure. Theoretically, you’ll continue to feel this way for the foreseeable future. And as a next step, you’ve chosen to combine your accounts — you want your incomes in all their many forms to stream into the same place. So, what do you need to know about each other? Where do your limits lie, and what are your priorities? Do you maintain some privacy or combine everything?

According to Hussey, even while combining accounts, it’s okay — even important — to maintain separate financial spaces, just so long as you communicate openly about what makes each of you most comfortable. “You can have fully joint accounts; weekly allowances; shared accounts for collective goals like household expenses, a new couch, retirement expenses; and personal accounts for day-to-day spending,” she says. “It’s really about whichever is most comfortable for the couple — couples should know that combining accounts doesn’t have to mean all accounts. Ask each other how much independence you need and how much commingling you need in your financial life.”

In a similar vein, Loh recommends setting thresholds and establishing a financial plan. “Create rules or stipulations that let you share together, whether that’s putting a cap on spending without consulting each other first or something else entirely,” she says. “But you can’t just create a financial plan that’s a one and done — it’s an ongoing conversation. As you change, your spending habits change.”

Illustrated by Hannah Minn.

How Do You Plan For A Financial Future With Your Partner?

As it turns out, mapping out your shared finances ‘til death do you part comes with all the same awkward nuances as splitting the bill (though admittedly on a larger scale). Yes, you may have some combined goals and interests, but you also have ambitions of your own. Beyond the things you want together — whether it’s kids, a home, travel opportunities — what sorts of things do you want independently of each other, and can you save for both at the same time?

Hussey explains that at different times, you’ll need different kinds of financial support from your partner. Maybe your independent goals require your partner’s fiscal support right now. Over time, those roles may reverse, and it’s important to take that into consideration in the planning stage. “One person might want to invest more in their human capital — like going back to school or starting a business,” she explains. “For this part, I highly recommend working with a financial planner of some kind. You want someone helping you to discover your goals. It’s okay if you don’t know when you want to retire and how much you want to spend and what your ultimate goals are, but it’s important to put together a plan that incorporates whatever you both think and feel — at least for the time being — to make sure e veryone is working towards their respective goals.”

For Loh, financial planning falls into the same bracket as more general future-mapping for couples. “As a couple, it’s important for you to check in on so many elements of your relationship over time. My advice is that you check in on your financial plan on an annual basis. That’s a good cadence to see how you’re feeling about things and if you’re on track. Make sure you outline your top priorities — retiring early, cars, kids — because identifying those up front will truly impact your financial life. And you can chip away at them slowly over time.”

Illustrated by Hannah Minn.

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