How Couples Can Bulletproof Their Finances

by Dana George | Updated July 17, 2021 - First published on March 22, 2020

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Happy Couple With Laptop

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These five steps can help any couple secure their finances.

Building a relationship is a lot like mountain climbing. You know it's going to be worth the effort in the end, but the ascent can be rocky. Money trouble is often a major stumbling block. Why not take steps designed to make your finances healthier and your relationship happier? Here are five worth implementing.

1. Budget

You can't figure out where you're going if you don't know where you are. Before you can make any kind of financial plan, you need to have a clear picture of your joint income and expenditure. 

As a couple, look over the past few months of payments -- including those made by cash, credit or debit,  checks, or automatic withdrawal. As uncomfortable as it may be to be reminded of how much you spend on non-essentials, you need those numbers to build a realistic budget. Together, create a budget that takes into account your regular monthly income, essentials that must be paid each month, and extras you want to build into your plan. If you picture your financial life as a pyramid, your budget is the base, the foundation from which everything else is built. 

2. Set goals

You and your partner don't share a brain, emotions, or upbringing. You are bound to have different ideas and feelings about money. In fact, it would be surprising if you were always on the same page. One thing that can keep you moving in the same direction is shared goals. For example, you may both want to budget for an annual vacation, a college fund for the kids, a new car in a few years, or retirement. Decide on what's important to you as a couple. 

The very process of making those goals together, as well as the goal itself, will mean you're less likely to take your finances off-script.

3. Create a safety net

Assume that you will face the unexpected, and save for that day by stashing at least three to six months' worth of expenses in an easy-to-access savings account. That way, a job loss, illness, or economic downturn are less likely to impact your long-term financial plans. If you are a two-income family, practice living on one income, just to get an idea of whether you can do it. If you can't, you'll know how large the gap between income and outlay is and be able to plan for it. 

4. Pick a team captain

Once you've created a budget and set financial goals for your future together, determine who is going to be the keeper of the budget. That person will make sure bills are paid on time each month and the budget is on track. 

As a couple, decide who is going to keep an eye on savings and investments. It can be the same person who pays the bills, or you can co-captain by assigning that task to the other partner. 

Because you are a team, schedule time together to review the budget every three months or so. If you find that you're budgeting too much for one thing but not enough for another, now is the time to refine your plan. If you find that your current investment schedule is not going to meet your goals, consider ways to increase investments. The closer your budget is to reality, the easier it is to stick with, and ultimately, sticking with a budget is what makes it work.

5. Have fun watching nickels and dimes 

Paying a few cents more for a gallon of gas or several dollars a month on parking fees may not seem like much, but for one month, jot those fees down as you pay them. You may be surprised by how much they end up costing you. The fun part is finding ways to save unnecessary fees, whether it's locating free parking or using an app to find the least expensive gasoline in your area. Make it a contest. Whichever partner saves the most money each month "wins." That may mean getting to choose the flick for movie night, having their favorite meal served by the other partner, or some other reward that makes the contest fun. If you're looking for ways to get savings started, here are some ideas that may inspire you: 

  • Save yourself interest by paying credit cards off in full each month.
  • Save late fees by automating payments, including mortgage, utilities, and credit cards.
  • If your bank charges a minimum-balance fee, find a bank that doesn't. Better yet, look for a bank or credit union that offers an interest-bearing checking account.
  • Avoid overdrafts, but make sure you have overdraft protection in place… just in case.
  • Pay off high-interest debt.
  • Invest each time you get a chance, even if it's not scheduled. Say you decide to bring a sack lunch to work one day a week rather than spending $12 to eat out. $12 invested today at 8% interest will be worth nearly $56 in 20 years. No, $56 won't provide a comfortable retirement or pay for your child's education, but every opportunity to invest -- even small amounts -- will give you more to work with when the day comes. 

There is no way to escape the ups and downs of life, but there are ways you can make those ups and downs a little less jarring. And you'll likely save your relationship a lot of strife in the process.

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