Updated on 11.23.07

Twelve Important Things To Talk About When Your Relationship Gets Serious

Trent Hamm

talk talkOne thing that I feel I did very right earlier in my life was building a strong, communication-based relationship with my wife in the years before our marriage. We talked about everything, building up to a point where no topic was off limits between us and we could expect a truly honest answer from each other, and from that communication came a strong foundation of love and trust. It was perhaps the best thing either one of us have ever done, because it became the foundation of an incredibly strong marriage.

One of the most difficult topics to discuss was money issues, largely because of the taboo nature of it. In fact, it took us years to break down that final wall, even though we had found a very strong and deep comfort level when it came to other topics, and we both found that when we finally started communicating about money, it was incredibly valuable.

What did I learn from this experience? Without a doubt, it is far better to talk about money sooner rather than later when your relationship gets deeply serious. Here are some guidelines – and some specific topics to discuss – for when the time comes to talk about such things. You’ll be glad you did.

Before You Get Started…

First of all, realize that total honesty is the only answer here if you expect to have a long, lasting, and loving relationship. Once you finally get up the courage to address these issues, don’t hold anything back. If you find yourself biting your lip or tucking away a little piece of information or two, you’re creating a relationship of mistrust. I’m not talking about things like not telling your partner about their Christmas gift, either – it’s rather obvious where the line is in this case.

Expect some disagreement as well. You’re likely going to have very different feelings on how money should be handled in your relationship. If you find yourself being truly honest and meshing well, consider yourself lucky. Very lucky.

Don’t expect to answer these questions immediately, either. Often, fundamental financial decisions aren’t made in an afternoon. If something seems like it’s building to a serious disagreement and you’re not making any progress, let a few weeks pass before talking about it again. During that time, try hard to see the situation through your partner’s eyes and understand why they want things to be that way.

For some couples, these topics might be very easy and you might find that you’re both in very strong agreement. For others, each question might be grounds for conflict. Likely, you’ll find yourself somewhere in the middle, and that’s perfectly normal and healthy.

Twelve Things To Talk About

Where do you see us being in five years? Ten years? Twenty five years? Try to flesh out as much as you can here, but realize that the future isn’t set in stone. The reason for discussing this is so that you have some idea what the dreams and the goals look like for each other.

What does our complete financial state look like? Lay everything out. Every debt. Every drop of income. Everything. Don’t hide that $4,000 credit card statement, as you’re just building a foundation on top of a lie.

Should we share our money or maintain separate accounts? Who should be the primary caretaker of the accounts? Many people will argue that any married couple should combine all accounts – my wife and I did not come to that conclusion. Talk it out and figure out what’s right for you.

When do we intend to make major shared purchases, like a house? How much do we intend to spend on such a purchase (roughly)? This is one area where people often just assume that their partner sees things the same way that they do. It’s not true. My wife and I, for example, had very different views on when a house purchase was appropriate, and my wife was ready to buy three years before I was even willing to consider it.

Are children a possibility? Although this is a very deep emotional decision, it’s also a financial one as well. Make sure you’re on the same page when it comes to children, because while having a child is a deeply fulfilling endeavor, it’s also a very expensive one, often more expensive than people without children even realize. It also means some significant lifestyle changes, too.

Are we both committed to our career path? Sometimes, the support of a spouse provides a strong situation for one member of a marriage to make a career leap they would not have otherwise considered. This is a great discussion point.

Are we both saving for retirement? When’s the retirement target? This was one financial issue that my wife and I talked about quite a bit before we were married, especially since we both were already putting away a substantial amount into 401(k)/403(b)s. Just make sure that you’re both aware of what the other is doing and that you realize that without putting money away for that inevitable day, you likely will never retire.

Do we want an urban, suburban, or rural life? You might think the answer is self-evident, but it’s often not. Take Kathy’s story from a while back – she and her spouse at first thought urban living was self-evident, but after getting married, they began to talk about things and realized that perhaps it wasn’t the obvious answer that they thought it was and then began plotting a move to a much more rural setting. If they had talked things out first, they might have moved rural right off the bat, saving themselves substantial time, money, and happiness.

What’s our financial risk tolerance? Can we tolerate short term losses to aim for long term gains? For some, losing some money in the short run is completely fine if it means some years of 20% returns down the road. For others, watching the balance of their investments drop like a rock over years is just too painful. Figure out where you’re both at on this, so that if you make investments from your shared money, you don’t wind up with your money in something far too risky for the other person’s tastes – which can result in a very bitter conflict.

What’s the balance between work and leisure? Some couples might consist of two people that are very career-oriented. Other couples might consist of people who could care less about a career, or perhaps some mix of the two. The only problem comes about when one person’s expectations completely miss the behavior of the partner.

Is a prenupital agreement appropriate? Is one of you bringing far more into the marriage than the other, or expecting to earn far more than the other during the marriage? You may want to discuss a prenupital agreement, but there needs to be an air of honesty here – if you feel one is useful, don’t hold back in saying so.

Are there any known burdens that will likely crop up in the future? For example, does one of you have an ailing parent that may need special care? What about dependent pre-existing children? Do one of you have a major illness that may start showing symptoms? While these are not usually make or break issues, they often provide the basis for some deeply insightful conversations.

Two Books Worth Reading

I strongly encourage any couple that is considering spending their lives together to take the time and each read Your Money or Your Life (the book club of YMOYL might be very useful) and Smart Couples Finish Rich, but do it together. I recommend that each of you read a chapter, then discuss it together.

One technique my wife and I found useful was reading a chapter of such a book aloud on long car trips, with the passenger reading and then both partners discussing the topics. We would just stop and start talking whenever an important point came up, and we wound up discovering a lot about each other.

No matter what you do, though, don’t put off these conversations. They can be the key to establishing a strong foundation for your relationship and building a much stronger understanding of each other. In fact, if you’ve never opened such a door with your partner, today is the best day to do it, because tomorrow it’s very easy to find a reason to put this off.

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  1. Anon says:

    ah! maybe that’s the point, but i find that graphic kind of gross. makes me want to scroll down and not read the article.

    i obviously will not be having babies anytime soon. :)

  2. Sam says:

    I wholeheartedly agree! Here are some other things I’ve come across:

    Choosing a life partner should never be based on
    love (alone).Though this may sound not politically
    correct, there’s a profound truth here. Love (alone)
    is not the basis for getting married. Rather,love is
    the result of a good marriage. When the other
    ingredients are right, then the love will come. Let
    me say it again : You can’t build a lifetime
    relationship on love alone. You need a lot more.

    Here are five questions you must ask yourself if
    you’re serious about finding and keeping a life

    QUESTION #1 : Do we share a common life purpose?
    Why is this so important?

    QUESTION #2 : Do I feel safe expressing my feelings
    and thoughts with this person?

    QUESTION #3 : Is he/she a mensch?
    A mensch is someone who is a refined and sensitive
    person. How can you test? Here are some suggestions
    Do they work on personal growth on a regular basis?
    Are they serious about improving themselves?

    QUESTION #4 : How does he/she treat other people?
    The one most important thing that makes any
    relationship work is the ability to give. By giving,
    we mean the ability to give another person pleasure.
    Ask : Is this someone who enjoys giving pleasure to
    others or are they wrapped up themselves and
    self-absorbed? To measure this, think about the
    following :
    1) How do they treat people whom they do not have
    to be nice to, such as a waiters, bus boy, taxi
    driver etc?
    2) How do they treat parents and siblings?
    3) Do they have gratitude and appreciation?
    4) Do they show respect?

    QUESTION #5 : Is there anything I’m hoping to change
    about this person after we’re married?
    Too many people make the mistake of marrying someone
    with the intention of trying to “improve” them after
    they’re married. As a colleague of mine puts it,
    “You can probably expect someone to change after
    marriage… for the worse!” If you cannot fully
    accept this person the way they are now, then you
    are not ready to marry them.

    In conclusion, dating doesn’t have to be difficult
    and treacherous. The key is to try leading a little
    more with your head and less with your heart. It
    pays to be as objective as possible when you are
    dating, to be sure to ask questions that will help
    you get to the key issues. Falling in love is a
    great feeling but when you wake up with a ring on
    your finger, you don’t want to find yourself in
    trouble because you didn’t do your homework.

  3. Bob says:

    I would love to see an article on the pros and cons of combining accounts vs keeping them separate.

    It’s a very romantic idea to “share everything” but money is such a major source of relationship trouble that psychologically, letting each party have their own income, and letting them spend it and manage it as they see fit, might have some real benefits.

    My late wife was a real ninja at managing our finances and investments, and I trusted her with everything. She didn’t disappoint; she did a superb job and taught me quite a few tricks. Her investments always beat the markets, too.

    But even with that success story, there was friction about things. She loved doing the finances but felt like I should be more involved, yet we had such different styles that she couldn’t stand for me to be involved ;-) Also, she felt like she had to come to me and supplicate for permission to make major expenditures, such as for furniture or fun things for herself. Even though I told her I didn’t feel that was at all necessary, she felt compelled for some reason to do it — and then being the strong independent woman she was, resented it.

    If I ever have it to do over again I think it would be useful to at least discuss / explore the option of keeping finances separate. Just talking about it would be a great way to get a feel for how the other party approaches money management.

  4. Emily says:

    On a non-financial note, my mother gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever heard. She told us that there will be times when we feel like we are no longer in love, but that will pass. It will come and go in stages, but if we stick it out, our relationship will come out fine.

  5. Minimum Wage says:

    Are we both saving for retirement? When’s the retirement target? This was one financial issue that my wife and I talked about quite a bit before we were married, especially since we both were already putting away a substantial amount into 401(k)/403(b)s. Just make sure that you’re both aware of what the other is doing and that you realize that without putting money away for that inevitable day, you likely will never retire.

    What happens in cases where one spouse earns much more than the other, and the lower-earning spouse is not saving anything for retirement? This is likely to be a rarity, since few couples are in this position – these people rarely marry in the first place – but I’m guessing it’s untenable whenever it exists.

  6. Aaron Stroud says:

    Wow, there’s a lot to sound off on in this post. I think I’ll take the safer route and avoid the mines!

    @ Bob – Trent linked to a discussion on whether to combine or not combine finances. One important point though, I would argue that the discussion hinges on two differing definitions of marriage. Different definitions always cause confusion.

    @ everyone – There is one very important thing to remember when discussing if “children a possibility.” People often change their minds and generally, the husband or wife decides **they do want kids**, not the other way around. That revelation can cause quite a bit of distress if only one spouse changes his/her mind!

  7. rhbee says:

    Well, this is quite a topic. I have had a long list of various and sundry relationships, marriages, and liasons in my life. They have come to me through good fortune, or happenstance, or need. Some lasted for ever, it seemed, others were like, Elton sang, candles in the wind. Love, lust, and combinations of the two colored the way they went. But I never really took the time to analyze any of them before they started and rarely did so after they fell apart. Life ater all does go on and on. Luckily for me, though, about 15 years ago, as another marriage was deteriorating under the needs of us both, I got us into counselling to see if we could be saved. For the first time, I learned that it was important for me to pay attention to what I actually was looking for. What had I learned to love as a child, need as a person, from the care givers in my life. I made a list of the characteristics of those who took care of me then. Both the good and the bad. With those in mind, I began to see what I really needed in a partner if I wanted to stop the searching and get started on a complete life. Unfortunately, the woman I was with didn’t come close to being described by my list, nor I hers. We parted friends. Fortunately, I discovered that I already knew someone who did match up with me. We have been together for 13 years, married for the last seven. We talk about everything, do most of our jobs together. Plan, carry out plans with the confidence that the other cares enough to help. We don’t always agree but we always support. Oh yeah, as soon as I made my list, I knew I loved her.

    This is exactly as we have in Mecca when the pilgrims come to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage. The one month before, that is now in 2007(there is a gap of 11 odd days between the lunar and our calendar moth). The Hajj is one time in life, a must, for the Muslims .What happens at his time in Saudi cities, is the markets are flooded with all types of commodities, perfumes, bags, watches, electronic, name it, it is here for sale. More the reason of the fake goods entering as most of the pilgrims may never come again. Therefore, the vendors try to sell all types of fake, broken, off the usual ISO or any standards at a throw away price.
    The bag is so attractive that in spite of running short of cash, you end up borrowing cash, only to find at times that you were tricked into buying fake perfume or the very fragile belt of the wrist watch or rings that looks gold. There are some honest shopkeepers to tell you that the goods are fake and cheap. They will tell you what is originals and what is the quick sale and no warranty or guarantee.
    I thank you
    Firozali A.Mulla MBA PhD
    P.O.Box 6044
    East Africa

  9. Excellent article! You can never under-estimate the contention that money can cause in a marriage. Even when you and your spouse are like-minded, conflicts will naturally arise. The quality of your marriage determines how they will be resolved.

    Best Wishes,

  10. Heidi says:

    A huge variety of comments out there today – must be the full moon.

    My fiance and I have had all of these discussions (and we continue to have them). I don’t want kids – he does – and he wants to marry me anyway. I have repeatedly said that I reserve the right to change my mind (many years from now, when our debt isn’t quite as scary). I just don’t think children are a good idea if you have no emergency fund and a load of debt.

    As far as joint vs. individual bank accounts go – I have said before and I will say again – everyone needs to have at least one account in their own name (and one credit card held individually as well). Life is unpredictable, you and you alone are responsible for CYA. Period.

  11. glblguy says:

    Dead on Trent, excellent advice.

    First, I think sharing money is critical to the success of a good marriage and also feel it further commits the couple to each other making them truly become one. Money problems aren’t caused by sharing money or by separating money to “solve” the problem. Money problems are solved by working together on the finances and communicating. It’s that simple.

    One thing that I’ll add that is critical to discuss is religious beliefs, especially if they are different. What church will you attend, what holidays will you celebrate, etc. This becomes even more important when you have children.

  12. Sandy says:

    From Amazon, I ordered the book SMART COUPLES FINISH RICH, by David Bach, for my daughter and her husband. It teaches couples of all ages how to work together on their finances as a team. It only cost $10.17.

  13. plonkee says:

    I agree that discussing religious beliefs is really important. I can’t imagine being really close to someone if I don’t know what they think about the big questions – they wouldn’t have to agree with me necessarily, but I would need to know what they thought.

  14. It’s amazing how many couples don’t talk about these basic things anymore, they just go day to day, have fun and think everything’ll be alright!

  15. Along says:

    When my hubby and I were engaged, he bought a house without me knowing it. When he told me (after the papers had been signed and 10% had been put down as downpayment), he couldn’t understand why I was so mad at him for making such a huge purchase without telling me. He saw it as a romantic gesture, something that showed his commitment to our relationship. Needless to say we got into a huge argument about this, and almost called off the wedding. However, we sat down and had a very serious talk about what we both wanted by being married. We found out a lot about each other (like he wanted 10 kids (!!) which I negotiated down to 5) but most of all, we found out that we both wanted the same things in general.

    Now 6 years later, that house is another source of income for us and the rent keeps increasing every year. So I guess he made a right choice, I just wish he had told me first.

  16. Debbie M says:

    I like the idea of addressing the “for richer, for poorer” part of many vows.

    If you’re poor, can you be frugal? If you get rich, will you want to change your lifestyle, and if so, how? That latter question has become much more important now that I haven’t been a student for a while. Several items in this list brush on these issues.

    I also like to be with a person in a totally different environment, such as on a camping trip, to see what they’re like.

    I also like to see what he’s like when he’s sick and what he’s like when I’m sick.

  17. Freddy says:

    I hardly comment, but I browsed some responses here Twelve Important Things
    To Talk About When Your Relationship Gets Serious – The
    Simple Dollar. I actually do have a few questions for you if it’s okay.
    Could it be only me or does it look like some of these comments appear like they are written by brain dead folks?
    :-P And, if you are posting at other online social sites, I’d
    like to follow everything fresh you have to post.

    Could you list of the complete urls of your shared sites like your twitter
    feed, Facebook page or linkedin profile?

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