Starting a life together? It's time to talk finances

Get started in the right direction--and make sure you're heading the same way.

Rachel Haig 14 April, 2010 | 11:28PM
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If you are considering marriage, are recently married, or have just moved in with the (hopefully) love of your life, there's probably a lot on your mind. Sitting down to discuss money issues may not be at the top of your list, but it's one of the most important tasks to tackle if you're starting a life with someone.

These days, couples are inundated with cautionary tales and divorce statistics warning of financial disputes--not exactly what you want to hear. It's true that money matters are complicated and have long been one of the top reasons why couples fight and split up. But discussing issues up front and getting your finances in order from the outset can help keep money from putting a damper on your relationship.

Tackling your finances as a couple begins with assessing your situation. Do you two share the same financial attitudes, habits and goals? Day-to-day questions such as whether you will share accounts, who will pay the bills, and how you will budget money together are important to discuss, but a candid conversation is the essential starting point.

Start the dialogue

Regularly discussing your financial goals and current standing is a good habit to start now, if you haven't already. What shared and unshared goals do you have? What type of lifestyle do you want? Do either of you have student loans or outstanding credit card debt? How do you each feel about it? Get any financial anxieties in the open sooner rather than later.

Discuss upcoming financial plans, such as whether you will buy a house or if one of you is considering returning to school. Do you expect any major financial changes?

Ideally, these conversations should begin before you tie the knot. If you are already living together as a couple, though, there's no better time to start than now.

Take inventory

Once the two of you are on the same page, the next step is to map out your combined earnings, assets and debts. Include your income, investments, credit card debt and student loans. Also include any mortgages, car loans and any other amounts you own or owe. Make a master list of each of your chequing, savings and investment accounts so you both know where everything is. This worksheet can help you get started.

Listing all of your assets and liabilities together will highlight any problem areas and help you see the big picture. Do you have two cars when you could get by with one? Do you have more combined debt than you realized? Once you know what you're dealing with, you can discuss how you will approach and prioritize complex issues--such as paying off credit cards and student loans--together.

Check up on other insurance needs

Couples can frequently save money by streamlining insurance policies--especially if you already live together. Change your car insurance and homeowner's or renter's insurance so that you are both on the same policy. Usually, you receive a discount for using the same provider for multiple types of insurance. Also check in with your insurance agent about insuring personal articles, such as your ring or other jewellery, which may not be covered under your homeowner's or renter's insurance.

More important than precisely outlining your combined net worth and optimizing your insurance policies, however, is making sure you understand each other's financial attitudes and goals. Openly discussing your combined financial situation together from the outset will enable you to deal with the array of financial tasks and challenges you will inevitably face in your lives together as a team.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be covering more couples finance issues, including:

  • Deciding whether to share accounts

  • Setting up a budget

  • Making a system for money management

  • Coordinating retirement savings

  • Getting a tax plan

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Rachel Haig

Rachel Haig  Rachel Haig is assistant site editor for Morningstar.com.

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