Are you thinking about getting engaged? Have you had the talk yet?
You know … the money talk. It’s awkward, right? But let me tell why you should do it anyway ... because it's a conversation I wish I hadn't avoided.
A few years ago, I was in a serious relationship with someone who had tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. I had almost no debt myself. We talked about getting engaged.
I had questions about how we would merge finances and deal with my partner’s debt; questions I mainly kept to myself. I was never comfortable bringing up our uneven debt—I felt as if I was introducing cold-eyed calculation into a situation where love was supposed to overcome everything.
There were many reasons we never got married—and debt wasn’t one of them. But that was because we never talked about it, not because we figured out a solution together.
Looking back, I realize that I should have asked those tough questions, because once you get married, your partner’s financial burdens become yours.
Here are a few awkward financial questions I wish I’d asked.
1. What are your goals in general?
Sometimes it’s easier to open a conversation about finances by talking about your hopes and dreams in more general terms. Goals like retiring early, opening a business, going back to school, traveling, having kids, buying a house, or moving to another place all involve major financial commitments.
Having a clear-eyed discussion about both partners’ goals can open the door to talking about your financial circumstances—and the steps you’ll need to take to make those goals happen.
2. What are your thoughts about handling finances as a couple?
Every couple does it differently. Some completely merge their finances and some keep them totally separate. Others take a hybrid approach, keeping their own accounts as well as a joint account for bills.
This is true for debt as well; some couples pay off loans together, while others handle their debt individually. There’s no right or wrong way, but it’s important to talk through your expectations.
3. How much debt do you have?
So yeah … this can be a hard one to ask. But buck up your courage and ask anyway because this question is really important.
In most circumstances, you will not be held responsible for your spouse’s student loan debt. There are exceptions, however, such as student loans your spouse takes out while you’re married—if you live in a community property state. You’ll also be responsible for any loans you co-sign.
Even if you won’t be held legally accountable for repaying your spouse’s student debt, those loans will affect your financial life and freedom when you marry. A large student loan balance could make it more difficult to take on more debt or to make other financial commitments on the way to pursuing your dreams.
Most people don’t realize they can refinance student loan debt to bring their monthly payment down—and free up more money every month to put toward other financial goals. This may be a good option to explore as a couple.
While you’re talking about debt, don’t forget to ask about credit debt, car loans, money owed to family members, or any other financial obligations.
4. Are you a saver or a spender?
Often, conflicts over money come down to this question.
One partner never wants the family to go without; the other wants to build a firm financial safety net. Neither one is wrong—but if you have limited resources, where do you put your priorities?
Relationships between savers and spenders can work quite well—but they require open communication and, sometimes, renegotiation of the rules as your finances change.
5. How much money do you make?
This can be a very awkward question—but it’s essential to get the full picture of what your revenue situation would be like once you’re married.
Is there a big income disparity between you? If you make more, would you be willing to help your partner pay off a student loan? Should the higher earner between you put more toward monthly bills?
You can’t head off every conflict by having a conversation about it beforehand, but it’s crucial to get a clear picture of your partner’s financial situation before joining forces. Talking through these issues will help you develop strategies to meet both of your financial goals—and make you stronger as a couple.
Whether you're in a couple or going solo, it's always a good idea to get a head start on shoring up your finances. See how much you could save by refinancing your student loans.