Among the major life milestones, marriage is one of the most profound when it comes to its impact on your finances. True, becoming a parent may feel heavier because kids are so expensive -- but you get to decide most money questions for them. But a spouse? They're your partner -- a partner who comes with their own baggage, ideas, debts, assets, and lifestyle, which you have to adapt to. And vice versa, of course.
In this segment of the Motley Fool Answers podcast, co-hosts Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp invite recently married financial planner Sean Gates to provide his best advice for getting your joint affairs in alignment. And it won't be too much of a spoiler to tell you that open communication and good budgeting are key. You might, however, be a bit surprised about where newlywed Gates comes down on planning for the worst-case marital scenarios.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Feb. 11, 2019.
Alison Southwick: Today we're going to talk about marriage and joining us is Sean Gates, one of the most romantic men I know.
Robert Brokamp: [Laughs] Or maybe the most newly married financial planner. One of those two.
Sean Gates: Both can be true.
Southwick: Sean, you're going to walk us through some lessons that people should heed when getting married when it comes to their finances, both from your personal experience and also your experience as a financial planner.
Southwick: Let's kick it off! What's the first piece of advice that you want to talk about, if so?
Gates: The first piece of advice that you can often read about that held true for me -- because you always wonder how much of that stuff is true. The first one that held true for me was very much like financial planning, you should have conversations about one another's goals, especially short-term, medium, and long-term goals.
Why this is important is No. 1, you start to understand each other better. What you want to accomplish. Make sure that you have some commonalities and that the differences you might have aren't too stark that it could cause some friction down the road. More importantly, common goals that people have are finance-related and you want to make sure that you can continue along the path toward your goals.
For example, I'm very much an adherent to the FIRE community [the Financial Independence, Retire Early] movement. Ever since I was 24, I have been working diligently to try and retire in my working career and have money for the rest of my life at age 40. Marriage created an interesting dynamic in that my wife does not share that same goal directly, so she'll be comfortable working until normal retirement age.
I think one of the lessons that I learned early on is that I was very clear with her that this is a goal for me and understood it and then we got married, but what then revealed itself was I didn't relay how serious I was about it. I am going to be successful at this goal one way or another.
Southwick: If I have to live in a broom closet at The Motley Fool for my retirement.
Brokamp: And practically speaking, at least when you and I first knew each other, you were saving well over half your income to accomplish this goal.
Gates: Correct, and I still am. That kind of ties into this whole thing, because she's a good saver, no question, but I'm on the abnormal end...
Brokamp: In so many ways.
Gates: Good ways.
Brokamp: So many good ways.
Gates: And it's a common thing in the FIRE community that you tell someone you're going to do this and they're like, "Oh, yeah, sure. You aren't married, so things will change. Or you haven't had kids and things will change." But I've been so dedicated to this cause that it's going to happen, so I'm going to drag my wife along kicking and screaming.
Southwick: Maybe we need to swap out our expert for this episode. Can we do that? Can I call (unclear: 13:37) this time? You're out, kid. I'm sorry!
Gates: I'm out.
Southwick: All right, fine. Keep talking. We're stuck with you. You're very deliberate about how you approach money, right? Like this is a commitment. You know exactly how you're going to achieve your goal of retirement by 40.
But I think a lot of people don't have a good grasp on their temperament when it comes to money, or they just think it's easy to assume these are my habits with money. I assume everyone's the same way. I don't even have a good grasp on I'm going to marry a man who doesn't like to buy a new sweater every week. I don't know. That's a thing.
Gates: That's why I think I'm advocating that having these conversations around goals can start to develop that understanding of your own temperament with money and then your partner's temperament with money and just find common ground. It's a good practice to have.
Southwick: For the record, I do have a problem with wanting to buy a new sweater every week, and my husband has given me the space to do that, just like I give him the space to buy robot parts and other things like that.
Gates: That's actually in here.
Southwick: Robot parts? It's a line item. What's your next piece of advice?
Gates: The next piece of advice that you read about that is very good advice is to be upfront. Be clear about your financial details. Going through, line by line, and saying here's how much in student loans I have. Here's my budget that I have had as a single person and might have going forward. Here's my credit card debt. All of that stuff is very good to do because it gives you full visibility into what you're getting into. You need to know that. It also creates a sense of honesty early on which is critical, and I think everyone would agree.
But I think further, you can actually start to understand your partner's values. This was a really stark shift for me, and a little bit of this is because my partner is not an American citizen, but the definition of family in India is, in my opinion, a little bit different than in America. So I have a very small family. I have a good relationship with my siblings, but it's not a very close relationship. And in India you have that same relationship with extended members of your family. Your cousins are often called your sisters or your brothers and you treat everyone in a tight-knit community.
I knew this going into the marriage, and it's actually one of the things I love about my wife, but I should have seen coming that it creates its own set of interesting knock-on effects, which is there have been times, already, in our short marriage where [and there are pros and cons] we might have to spend money that I didn't think we would have had to spend, had I not thought this through. So having to host guests in a city because they just happen to be in town and can then see everyone. We have to put them up in a hotel. That might be $500 for that month that you weren't planning on spending. It creeps up and there's a whole bunch of those.
But I think the broader point is that as you go through the details of your financial situation, try and glean the values of your partner so that you can try and anticipate some of these unknown expenses and get comfortable with them.
Southwick: Is there any sort of checklist or framework or anywhere people can do that running list of checking out your financial details? This feels like this is something where you need to sit down with a checklist. OK, student aid. Do you have it? Yes? No? Check. It'd be easy to be like, "Oh, I'm fine," and then you're like, "Oh, yes, I have my $50,000 worth of credit card debt."
Gates: Totally. I think one of the things we want to go through is our resources to help people and one that I listed, that I think is critical, which gets to your point is the automated budgeting tools. You guys have talked about those. I've talked about those a number of times. Things like Mint or Personal Capital. Any kind of automated budgeting software. You need a budget.
Those budgeting apps are extremely helpful because in those moments you can actually be like, "OK, what's my net worth?" The net worth is the financial snapshot that I think explains the possible debts, income, and all that good stuff. That's the place to go and you don't have to remember. I mean, if I put you on the spot and said, "Tell me all of your stuff," you might have just forgotten about a thing and I'm not going to hold you accountable for it, whereas if you have these tools, it's all there for you. You just pull it up. I think that's great.
Brokamp: I might also recommend the Fooly Wed Game, which you could find if you google it. We talked about this two years on the podcast. It's basically 10 questions about money that each person does separately and then you compare results. How much money do we need to be happy? How much can you spend without having to ask the other spouse? Prioritize these various things [retirement, house, things like that] in order of what's important to you and then you'll find out how much you're on the same page.
Gates: That's awesome! That sounds like a great resource!
Southwick: We have a few of them at The Fool. What's your next piece of advice?
Gates: I think the last one [and this is becoming more and more common] is I would say lean in to the prenuptial agreement conversation.
Brokamp: Ooh, that's a toughie!
Southwick: Really! Controversial take with Sean Gates. Really!
Gates: And I should say I'm not holding myself out to a higher standard. We failed at this. We did not have an explicit prenuptial agreement conversation, but we had a quasi-conversation about what things would look like if the marriage didn't go as well as we had hoped.
I think there's a couple of problems with that. No. 1, you typically don't want to have that conversation in the swoon phase of a relationship because it just puts a damper on things, but I think it sets you up to have a potential later conversation and this is something people don't talk about nearly as much, which is if you don't do a prenuptial, you're not a bad person. You can actually enact a postnuptial agreement.
It's very similar to a prenuptial agreement. It has a lot of the same kind of information that you would go over what you want your assets to be disposed of after you separate and all of that stuff. But if you've structured yourself to have prenuptial agreement conversations, you can have that postnuptial agreement conversation after having learned about each other in the day-to-day finance of your lives.
You've gotten married. You've spent six months or 12 months with each other. You understand each other's spending habits better. And it sets you up to enact a good postnuptial agreement instead of being unsure about what you would put in a prenuptial because you haven't gotten married yet. You don't know enough to put it together and not hurt one another's feelings potentially.
Brokamp: I think that's true. Many of the things you find out about a person when it comes to money you don't find out until you get married.
Southwick: That's so awkward! Now that I really know you financially, I would like a postnuptial agreement, please...
Brokamp: Nuptial. [Laughs]
Southwick: ... because I just have some feelings. Love you!
Gates: We just need mawage. It should just be called the "mawage agreement."
Southwick: The mawage agreement.