How to Talk About Money Before Marriage

Friday, February 4th, 2011

When you’re getting to know the person you’re thinking about marrying, there’s so much to learn.  Some of it comes about through questions as you ask each other about past experiences and future goals.  Some of it also comes about through observation.  Does he respect his parents?  Is she usually on time?

But it isn’t always easy for couples to talk about money.  Nor is it easy to understand the truth about the other person’s finances just through observation.  You can see if they’re a generous tipper, but just because they drive a nice car doesn’t mean they’re doing okay financially.  The car may have come hitched to a boatload of debt.

That’s why, if you’re seriously considering getting married, it’s important to talk about each other’s finances.  When asking the following questions, focus on listening and understanding, not judging or fixing.

Five Key Financial Questions

Here are my picks for the five most important pre-marriage money questions.

1) How much debt do you have? Research shows that having debt increases the likelihood that couples will fight about money, and couples that argue about money are more likely to divorce than any other topic of dispute.  If one person has a lot of debt, find out what happened.  Did it come about through some unusual circumstance or plain old overspending?  The key here is to see if the cause of the debt has been addressed.  If not, hold off on the wedding until it is addressed.

2) What’s your credit score? Scores range from 300 to 850.  The higher the score, the better.  If a person’s score is below 700, you’ll want to dig deeper.  Do they tend to pay their bills late?  Whether or not bills are paid on time is the most influential factor in determining your score, counting for 35 percent.  A really low score may also indicate a prior bankruptcy or foreclosure.

It may sound boring or intrusive, but it’s an act of love to share your credit reports with each other.  Just as with the first question, if there’s a problem, the key is to see if steps have been taken to fix the problem.  If the person has a history of late payments, is that still going on or was that in the past?

Get your free credit reports from each of the three national credit bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com and then buy one of your credit scores for $19.95 from MyFICO.com.  You’ll have the option of buying scores from two of the bureaus, but you just need one for now.  It doesn’t matter which one you choose.

Watch as several married people give money-related advice to those who are planning to get married.

3) Do you want to have children? This one isn’t directly a financial question, but the natural follow-up question has huge financial implications: will one of us stay home full-time if and when we do have kids?  I encourage all couples to live primarily on one income, but this is especially important for couples that want to have children and want to have one parent step out of the paid workforce.  The single most helpful financial move you can make to prepare is to live your pre-children days primarily on one income.  Are you both on the same page on this?

4) Do you use a budget? National research I’ve conducted has found that couples that use a budget experience fewer financial disagreements than those that don’t.  Do you both agree that you will operate your household with the use of a budget?  Even better, put together a budget for your first year as husband and wife before you get married.

5) How much do you give away each year? If generosity is a priority for you, you’ll want to make sure your spouse is like-minded.

There are plenty of other questions to ask as well.  In fact, early in my new book, “Money & Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples,” I devote two chapters to questions and other exercises designed to help you get to know each other financially.  But I believe these are five of the most important questions to discuss before getting married.

What about you?  Are there other questions you think should have made the top five?  Leave a comment below.

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Categories: Credit/Debt, Generosity, Money & Marriage, Planning

3 Responses to “How to Talk About Money Before Marriage”

  1. Tom Vislisel says:

    Great piece, Matt! Very informative.

  2. Teresa says:

    Matt, I always enjoy your articles, but I think this one is the most important. My husband and I sat down and created a budget when we got engaged. We used it to budget for our wedding, and then for our on-going expenses. Although, our budget has changed over the years to reflect our changing circumstances, it has consistantly helped us to stay on the same path and avoid unnecessary confrontation.

  3. Matt Bell says:

    Thanks, Tom.

    And Teresa, great to hear about how helpful a budget has been in your marriage. It’s often a tough sell in workshops. It helps when others share their positive experiences with budgets, so I appreciate you taking the time to write.

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