Our exclusive survey on love and money shows that how you handle your finances affects how happy you are in your marriage. Use the findings to help grow your relationship—and your net worth.
Married 38 years, Ron and Carol Beck are the picture of financial compatibility: They split the money chores (he pays the bills, she invests), decide together on big purchases (like their new Corvette), and align their savings goals (retirement has long been No. 1). But the San Jose couple haven’t always been so fiscally united.
Unlike many young couples today, they didn’t discuss money before marrying. So just months after taking their vows, they took their lumps. One day Ron came home with papers for Carol to sign. It was the first she’d heard of the $35,000 rental property he planned to buy. “We had a huge argument,” recalls Carol, 65, a community college counselor. What upset her most was not that their mortgage payments would go up 50%, but that Ron acted without her: “I should have been part of the process,” she says.
“I knew I overstepped, and I haven’t done it since,” says Ron, 65, who retired last year from a job as an educational technology supervisor. That night the couple resolved to always act together on major money decisions.
The Becks figured out early on just how critical it is to work as a team when it comes to finances. And a new study by MONEY underscores the lesson. The poll—which compares the perceptions and behaviors of some 500 millennials and 500 boomers when it comes to their relationships and money—reveals distinct differences in their approaches to financial matters. But one theme crosses generations: Couples who are in sync on issues like saving and budgeting feel more financially secure, argue less about money—and have hotter sex lives. In other words, financial synchronicity can help you achieve not only greater financial stability but greater marital satisfaction.
“The secret to being a happy couple is financial compatibility,” affirms David Bach, author of Smart Couples Finish Rich. The survey results also suggest some ways couples can achieve harmony; the five moves that follow should help you strengthen your union and your finances.
Katy Klein and her fiancé, Charles Hagman, both 30, began opening up about salaries, savings, and student loans just nine months into dating. The topics came up naturally as the Seattle couple figured out their plans for attending a pal’s wedding. “Some of our friends were going early and renting a home by the beach,” says Klein, who works in PR. “So we had a conversation about whether that was in our budget … which spurred other conversations.”
Hagman, a software engineer, had intended to dig into those issues anyway. “I wanted someone who had similar savings goals,” he says. But for Klein, it was new terrain: “I’d never laid it all out.” Now that she’s done so, however, she says that financial transparency has set a solid foundation for their marriage.
Experts would agree. “Couples have less conflict about money when they share information,” says Terri Orbuch, a Detroit family therapist and the author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage From Good to Great. Knowing where you stand and what you want to accomplish builds trust and a sense of teamwork. Plus, getting on the same page gives you a better shot at hitting your goals and less risk you’ll unwittingly work against each other, she says. Thus, it’s crucial for married couples—and those headed to the altar—to open their books.
MONEY’s poll suggests that couples are on board with baring all. When it comes to what partners should discuss before marriage, boomers and millennials both say the docket should include debt (78% of both generations), savings goals (69% and 74%, respectively), and amount saved (63% and 56%).
And yet other research suggests that few married couples truly practice transparency in their daily lives. A few years back, an American Express poll found that 91% of people avoid money talks with their partners; another from last year revealed that only 52% have financial conversations at least weekly. Worse, one in three adults in relationships say they lie to their partner about money, the National Endowment for Financial Education found.
How to do it
Choose a happy moment. Start the transparency conversation around the time of a positive event, like a promotion or a wedding, or at least when there’s an absence of major problems. “Finances are much easier to talk about when you are flush and happy,” says Mary Claire Allvine, a financial planner in Atlanta and the author of The Family CFO. “And opening up in good times makes it easier to talk about money when life changes for the worse.”
If you’re starting in a void, point to an article you’ve read, like this one. Say something like, “It made me realize I don’t know where we stand. Maybe we could take a look some night this week?”
Go full frontal. Crack open a bottle of wine and start opening your books. Begin by making a net-worth statement. This summary of assets and liabilities gives you a framework toward your common goals. It can also help you uncover flaws in your strategy, like debt growing as fast as savings. Use an online net-worth calculator like the one at Bankrate.com or an Excel spreadsheet. Plan to update your numbers quarterly.
If you have the energy, make a list of monthly expenses—review the last few months of bank and credit card statements—so you know where money is going. Or upload your accounts to an online money-management tool like Quicken or Mint, says Miami financial planner Ashley O’Kurley.
Find out your mate’s musts. Setting goals together begins with understanding your partner, says Patrick Wallace, a financial planner with Higher Strata Wealth Management in Hurst, Texas. He suggests you both answer these questions: What are the three most important money lessons you learned growing up? What are your three biggest money worries? What are your three biggest goals? What are the three most important ways you want to use money to leave a legacy? The answers will help your spouse understand what is important to you. “Your goals may still be in conflict,” says Wallace, “but it will be easier to compromise.”
Narrow your common objectives to three—more than that, and you’ll have trouble making headway on any. Don’t just stop at setting the goals; also make a plan to reach them. For retirement, see move No. 2; for debt, see No. 4.
The Becks started getting serious about retirement in their mid-thirties. By that time, they had two kids and realized they needed to be thinking about their family’s future. So they set some savings goals, and continued talking about their plans in the years and decades that followed. Ron planned to retire around 65, and did. Carol is expecting to quit in the next two years. “We’re still deciding where we’d like to retire to,” Ron says. But even on that they have a good idea: a home near their daughter in Monterey, Calif.
There’s no question that couples need to plan together for retirement. In fact, since amassing the requisite amount of money will take time, retirement should typically be first on the list of priorities. “When it comes to goals, everything else comes next,” says Elizabeth Grahsl, a financial planner in Dallas.
Some 79% of millennials and 91% of boomers in MONEY’s survey say they are in agreement with their partners on saving for retirement. But MONEY also found that, among people who are married or living with a significant other, one in 10 boomers and four in 10 millennials don’t know their partner’s retirement account balance, while 14% of boomers and 40% of millennials don’t know when their partner plans to retire. That backs up a 2013 Fidelity poll that found that 38% of couples disagree on the lifestyle they expect, 36% on where they will live, and 32% on whether they will work. The costs of not being aligned are substantial: You could end up with less than you need at the finish line.
How to do it
Know your retirement wish lists. Since the amount of savings you need depends on your wants, create a “vision plan” together, says Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist and the author of Mind Over Money. Both of you should write down at what age you want to retire, where you want to live, and what you expect your life to look like. Do you want to stay put, downsize … sail around the world? “Come to the table with your dreams,” Klontz says. “Where you agree, it will be easy to adjust your finances because you are excited.”
Do a reality check. First, are you saving enough for the life you want? Check what your nest egg is on track to produce in annual income with T. Rowe Price’s Retirement Income Calculator, and see if that squares with your vision. For more advice on setting a target, check out the story on page 35.
Second, keep in mind that retiring at the same time as your spouse typically isn’t the best move. Wives are often younger than their husbands, and women have longer life spans, so if a wife retires with her hubby, she’ll probably need to draw from their retirement savings for longer.
Also figuring into the equation are Social Security benefits, which make up 38% of income for the average retiree and which you’ll also want to coordinate with your spouse. One way to maximize benefits is to “file and suspend.” The higher earner files, then immediately defers benefits to let them grow (they rise 8% for every year you delay between full retirement age and 70). Assuming the lower earner is at full retirement age, he or she can then claim a spousal benefit, deferring his or her own benefit, which will also rise in the meantime. As you near retirement, run this and other basic scenarios using the benefits planner at ssa.gov or more detailed ones at maximizemysocialsecurity.com ($40).
Create a holistic plan. Make sure you’re acting as a team when it comes to saving and investing. If you’re a two-income household, you probably have access to two 401(k)s, for total annual tax-deferred savings of $36,000, or $48,000 if you’re both 50-plus. Stash at least enough in each to get the full company matches. If you can’t max out, sign up for automatic increases as your pay rises. “This is so basic it’s like breathing,” says O’Kurley, “yet a lot of couples don’t talk about it.”
You also want to think of your portfolio as one, and make sure you don’t have overlap or overexposure in your overall mix. The Instant X-Ray tool at Morningstar.com can help you figure this out. As a general rule, the percentage of your portfolio in stocks should be equal to 110 minus your age; the rest should be primarily in bonds. But if one or both of you have a traditional pension, you could adjust the bond allocation lower, since the guaranteed income allows you to take more risk.
Got several years between you or different tastes for risk? A UBS survey found that half of couples have divergent risk tolerances, but among them, those who choose an allocation between their preferences tended to be most satisfied. It’s also okay for the more risk-averse partner’s plan to be tilted toward bonds and the other’s to serve as a counterbalance in stocks, if that keeps the nervous one from overreacting to volatility. Another reason to split the baby: If your plan has lousy bond fund options, say, you could use your spouse’s plan to fulfill that allocation while using your 401(k) for stocks.
Ira Cohen and his wife, Lisa, have been married for 34 years, and they are the first to admit that they are financial opposites: “She’s a ‘let’s live for the moment’ person, and I err on the side of caution,” says Ira, a mutual fund executive. That created a conflict when the Sugar Land, Texas, couple remodeled their kitchen several years ago. Lisa was insistent on a $1,500 warming drawer that Ira didn’t think was necessary. The couple bickered over it, then “I overrode him and bought it anyway,” says Lisa, a high school administrator. He wasn’t happy but finally succumbed. “If she is that passionate about this, am I really going to fight and scream over it?” he says.
In a poll last year, MONEY found that 70% of couples argue about money, putting it ahead of conflicts over chores, sex, or snoring. What’s more, money fights are the only common spats correlated to divorce: Couples who fight about money weekly are 52% more likely to divorce than those who argue about money monthly, according to a study by Jeffrey Dew, associate professor at Utah State University.
In this year’s survey, MONEY identified the No. 1 source of conflict: “spending too much on frivolous purchases.” A partner’s frugality is another major trigger, in the top five for both generations. This classic spender-saver tension can be bad for your marriage, but can also be deleterious for your finances, particularly if the spender gets out of control.
How to do it
Allow bandwidth on smaller stuff. Spenders feel oppressed by savers watching them like hawks (which may explain why American Express found that 33% of men and 40% of women have hidden purchases from their partners). Savers get anxious every time they see their spouses swipe a card. To overcome this tension, automate savings so that those funds are never in question. Also take a cue from the 54% of millennials and 51% of boomers who think spouses should keep some money separate. Klontz says you’ll both feel freer if you set up his-and-her discretionary spending accounts in which you ask no questions about where the money goes.
To prevent conflicts on joint accounts, set a spending cap, above which each of you has to clear purchases with the other. Around $150 seems to be a magic number for both boomers and millennials in MONEY’s survey. Or set alerts on your accounts to let you know when you exceed a withdrawal amount or your balance falls below a certain level.
Let numbers drive bigger decisions. Larger purchases will naturally require more back and forth. Ira Cohen offers this advice: To avoid inciting anger, don’t just say no to a spouse who wants something you don’t want. “I tend not to debate the value of the item with Lisa, but be the voice of reason on timing and assessment of need, saying, ‘Can we wait on this?’ ” says Ira. And if she keeps asking, he eventually cedes, recognizing it’s something she cares a lot about.
Asking a spender to prioritize wants within a budget can also help you compromise without breaking the bank. Moving from Florida to Chicago this winter, Patricio Virgili, 29, an airport inspector, and his partner, Edmund Balzer, 23, a library specialist, went from one bedroom to two. “We had a lot of empty space, and I wanted to get furniture to fill it out,” says Balzer. “But Patricio is conservative with money and happy with a spartan lifestyle.” So he made a list of what he wanted, and they ranked items by importance. “Then we negotiated and renegotiated till we were both happy,” he says.
Audit yourselves periodically. Whenever Avik and Shailja Chopra feel as if their budget is getting off track, the Millburn, N.J., couple pick a month to record every expense and then talk about what they found. “You don’t realize how much you spend until you put it all down on paper,” says Shailja, 48, a lawyer. “It always changes the way we handle our finances,” adds Avik, 54, a technology consultant.
Flash-point budgeting like this—whether manual or automatic through Mint or Quicken—can help you uncover spending leaks. One time the Chopras discovered Avik was spending $100 a week on lunch. “When my wife saw that, she thought I should bring food from home,” Avik says. But he wanted time to connect with his colleagues. So they compromised: He now brown bags lunch three days a week.
Two in 10 boomers and millennials say they fight about credit card debt, making this one of the five most common conflicts for both groups. Among the older generation, 61% find excessive debt unattractive. On the surface, Gen Y seems less concerned about debt, with just 41% saying it’s a turnoff. But that’s deceiving. Millennials, sometimes called “generation debt,” are so weighed down by student loans that many just accept debt as a condition of being young.
In any case, the impact of debt on relationships is undeniable: “It is a silent killer, chipping away at your self-confidence,” says psychologist Kathleen Gurney, author of Your Money Personality. In fact, Utah State professor Dew found that marital satisfaction is correlated with assets, so that as debt increases, happiness wanes. A big IOU, of course, also stands in the way of your goals. Case in point: More than 70% of young adults say student loans keep them from saving, a National Foundation for Credit Counseling poll found.
The good news is that “as couples experience success paying down debt,” says Gurney, “they start to see themselves and their partners differently, and the arguing ends.”
How to do it
Open with someone’s misfortune. Got debt that’s burning a hole in your goals? Again, it helps to use a life event to spur the conversation, but in this case a negative one can have more impact. Particularly if one or both of you have been avoiding facing facts, “a soft-and-fuzzy approach won’t get results,” says Bruce McClary of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. You might mention how a friend’s aging parent needs help or bring up the challenges your brother has faced since being downsized, noting how if it had happened to you, your debt might make it tough to respond.
Create a pay-down plan jointly. In MONEY’s survey, 70% of millennials and 77% of boomers say properly managing debt repayment makes for a healthy relationship. Indeed, a systematic approach is the best way to erase balances, says McClary. Some people start with the highest-rate credit cards, to reduce the total interest paid, then move on to other debt. An alternative tack is to start with the smallest balances to enjoy early success. Or follow the lead of Lisa Dell and Cory Tiffin, who began attacking their combined $10,000 on four credit cards after marrying three years ago. Initially the Chicago couple, now 31 and 29, started paying the minimum on their lowest-rate cards and double the minimum on their highest-APR cards. “But we kept feeling we weren’t making progress,” she says. So they transferred the balances to one card and, by paying $900 a month, vanquished the debt in 20 months.
There’s no right answer. What’s important is that you make the decision together. Same for choosing what sacrifices you’ll make. Also be sure to review your progress regularly. As you whittle down the debts, says financial planner Wallace, “you’ll be more motivated to stick to the plan.”
A Fidelity survey found that 38% of money arguments are never resolved in a way that makes both people happy. And no wonder: Some 16% of millennials and 15% of boomers in MONEY’s poll say they resort to the silent treatment; 12% of millennials and 8% of boomers say someone walks away.
That’s not good for your marriage or your money. Not talking about the problem compounds the stress and makes it more likely the argument will recur, says Kim Olver, a relationship coach and the author of Secrets of Happy Couples. Plus, leaving the situation unresolved can put stress on your finances.“Do you want to be right?” Olver asks. “Or do you want a strong union? That takes compromise.”
How to do it
Acknowledge the argument. If you need to cool off, fine. But don’t go more than 24 hours before touching base with your partner. Consider starting with an apology even if you don’t think you need to. “Accept that you are 50% of the problem,” Klontz says. (Remember, the goal is not to “win” but to achieve agreeable resolution.) And rather than hijacking your spouse, ask for an appointment. You might say, “Honey, I’m sorry I pushed back when you mentioned buying a new car. Can we set aside time to talk more about it?”
Focus on the fear, not the fight. Klontz suggests that before meeting, you each write down the money worry prompting the argument, then face each other for a discussion. The ground rules: One person talks uninterrupted about his or her fears, avoiding blame and concentrating on facts. The other must repeat back what is said until the speaker is satisfied he or she was heard correctly. Then switch and repeat.
After Carol Beck blew up at Ron about the condo, they sat down, and “he explained to me why he thought it was a good decision.” She agreed to sign the papers. “After the property got rented, I relaxed a bit and saw that Ron was right,” she says. “Now we talk about everything together. We handle investments very differently than we did that time.”