Getting married? Have the “money talk”

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 Q. I’m getting married and I’m not sure my future husband and I are on the same page with money stuff. What do I need to know before we get married? And I’m nervous, so tips on how I can ask him would be great.

A. They say married couples fight about money even more than they fight about sex, so it’s essential that you and your future husband learn to talk openly and honestly about your finances.

And now is a great time to start.

“Many people find the `money talk’ a little nerve-wracking, but it’s just a matter of making the time and starting the conversation in a casual tone so neither of you feel the need to get defensive,” said Beverly Harzog, author of “The Debt Escape Plan: How to Free Yourself From Credit Card Balances, Boost Your Credit Score, and Live Debt-Free.”

She said there’s a pretty good chance your fiancé also feels the need to have the talk because there are many financial decisions couples make together. For example, the two of you may be planning to buy a home and this will require knowledge of each other’s salaries and credit histories.

Harzog said it’s a good idea for married couples to have a “weekly money meeting” to make sure you are both in agreement about how your money is being spent. It’s also a way to make sure the two of you set financial goals together. For example, if you want to take a vacation in a year or two, you need to plan ahead for the cost.

You can use the idea of the weekly money meeting (and vacation planning!) as a way to bring up the topic.

Debt is one of the areas you need to discuss.

“There’s a chance at least one of you has student loan debt. If this is the case, then talk about what the expectations are for repayment and how long the debt will be a part of your monthly expenses,” she said.

If your intended has credit card debt, you need to tackle this, too.

“First, keep the tone of the conversation as mellow as possible so your future spouse feels comfortable telling you why there’s debt,” Harzog said. “And you do really need to find out what caused the situation.”

For example, if it’s because of medical debt, that’s a common dilemma and not caused by reckless spending. But if it’s due to shopaholic tendencies, that’s another matter entirely and you’ll need to gently ask more questions, Harzog said.

Next, you’ll need to ask if there’s an expectation the debt will be paid off together. Harzog said when she got engaged, she had credit card debt but she felt the need to pay it off with her own income because she was responsible for the debt.

Then you need to discuss credit scores because this will determine your ability, as a couple, to borrow money for a mortgage or a car loan.

“Blurting out, `So what’s your FICO score?’ is unlikely to lead to a productive talk, especially if your future partner’s score is less than ideal,” Harzog said. “Be sure you come across as supportive if your soon-to-be spouse has bad credit. A bad score is often tied to debt, so the debt and credit score part of the conversation might happen quite naturally.”

She said you can set the stage for openness by sharing your own score first.

When you get that all out in the open, talk about whether or not you will share bank accounts and how you plan to pay bills. Make sure you’re clear about who is actually making the payments so you don’t start out your marriage with a late payment.

You also have to decide if you’re going to have joint credit card accounts.

Even if you do, Harzog recommends you each also have a separate one to build your credit history in your own name.

“If you have reason to worry about your fiancé’s spending habits, don’t agree to a joint account until the issues are resolved,” she said. “Joint account owners are both liable for the debt. So you need to feel very good about your future partner’s fiscal responsibility before you take that risk.”

And before tax season starts, consider meeting with a tax preparer who can help with strategies for your newly-married status.

Good luck!
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This story was first posted in May 2015.

NJMoneyHelp.com presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.