Financial Tips

Why It’s a Problem If You Don’t Know Your Partner’s Salary

Erica Sloan

Stocksy/McKinsey-Jordan
Talking about money with a partner is essential—especially if that partner is someone with whom you share a roof, a joint spending account, or any other money-based arrangement. But even if you already know that theoretically, figuring out how to discuss finances with your partner in practice can be so tricky, or even downright intimidating, that it's tough to get started (or keep up a regular cadence of money conversations).

In fact, based on a survey of 3,426 people in relationships conducted this spring by Fidelity Investments, it's clear that many folks struggle with communicating about finances—or, at least, doing so successfully: Although 71 percent of people reported that they communicate very well or exceptionally with their other half, 39 percent couldn’t identify their partner’s salary when asked.

And, folks, that's not great, since it may be reflective of lacking communication about finances in general, with regards to, say, your respective philosophies on monthly savings, retirement goals, and everyday spending. Being on the same page about such matters stands to be a boon for your financial health—both personally and as a couple—and relationship health.

“I think of financial communication like a helpful proxy for commitment and prioritization.” –Meredith Stoddard, vice president of Life Event Planning, Fidelity Investments

“When you're communicating well, you’re also keeping yourself accountable and intentional,” says Meredith Stoddard, vice president of life-event planning at Fidelity. “So, if you’re regularly having that money conversation, that means you may also be remembering to increase your contributions to your 401K each year, or double-checking your savings goals,” she says. “I think of financial communication like a helpful proxy for commitment and prioritization.”

Not to mention, communicating well, holistically, is a hallmark of any solid relationship—and financial communication is no exception to that.

How often to discuss finances with your partner:

First off, if you haven’t ever chatted through finances with your partner, the experts agree that the earlier you can do so, the better. “The sooner a couple can get on the same page about a financial plan, the greater chance they have not only for financial success, but success in their relationship as a whole,” says financial-wellness coach Carrie Casden.

Once you’ve had your first talk, the general recommendation is to have a monthly check-in thereafter. “It’s a great time to reconcile bank statements, review credit card charges, look over investment accounts, review income versus spending, and see if there’s potentially an opportunity to save a bit more,” Casden adds.

And according to a separate survey conducted by fintech company Happy Money of about 1,500 people in relationships, those who reported communicating at least monthly about money also reported having significantly more financial self-efficacy and experiencing less money-related stress. “Of course, this doesn’t tell us that communicating more frequently causes all of these good outcomes,” says Elizabeth Dunn, PhD, chief science officer at Happy Money. “But, it does suggest that communicating a little more often might be worth a try, especially if you and your partner almost never talk about money.”

If monthly check-ins feel too frequent, though, you can consider quarterly as the bare minimum, says Stoddard, and remember to also have the money talk when you arrive at any big life milestones, such as getting married, buying a home, or having kids.

Ready to dive in? Consider these tips from the pros to ensure your finance conversations are as effective as possible.

4 expert tips for communicating effectively about finances with your partner:

1. Approach the conversation from a place of sensitivity.

It’s important to remember that not everyone was raised in a stable financial environment. “When talking about sensitive issues like salaries, debt, and financial literacy, be sure that you’re coming from an understanding and non-judgmental place,” Casden says.

Doing so will help you avoid alienating a partner with a different financial background than your own. And by taking into account both your own and your partner’s conscious and subconscious relationships with money, you’ll lay an important foundation for the conversations around goals and priorities that follow.

2. Start wherever you already are.

There’s always going to be someone with a subjectively better or worse financial picture than yours, but starting up a financial conversation is always better than not doing so, regardless.

“There’s no single right answer when it comes to finances,” says Stoddard, “and the messaging that says, ‘You should be saving at least 10 percent or at least 15 percent’ can create a mental block for some people who just decide not to discuss it at all because they always feel like they’re coming up short.”

Instead, consider that every bit actually does make a difference—so, if you’re not saving anything now, saving 1 percent is a valuable step, for example—and addressing a nerve-racking situation, from a psychological standpoint, is healthier than avoidance.

3. Chat through each of your preferred financial styles (while acknowledging that they may be different).

Some people love to create spreadsheets and break down each element of their spending and saving, while others would be more interested in practically anything else, says Stoddard. “I’m more of a 'bucket' person,” she says. “I’ll designate money for a spending bucket, money for a bills bucket, and so forth, but I don’t typically track the $6 I spend here or there.”

While there are many effective financial styles, it’s a good idea to discuss with your partner how you typically manage your own finances in order to determine a method that you can both get behind. That might mean adopting one person’s existing strategy or reaching a middle ground.

4. Aim for an agreement surrounding the big life “buckets.”

As you can probably imagine, no amount of conversing can guarantee constant agreement on everything—and that’s totally okay. What you do need to come together on are life’s biggest ‘buckets,’ so to speak, says Stoddard.

Start by making a list of personal values from most important to least, suggests Casden, considering where your priorities fall for those big life buckets or major expenses—like saving for a large purchase, mapping out retirement goals, and planning for a family, for example.

At your check-ins, consider how your recent spending habits are (or aren’t) aligning with those larger values. “As you both pay attention to how purchases affect your mood, you can better identify your ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ spends,” says Dr. Dunn. By noting those trends and shifting your spending accordingly—whether that means dropping more in the retirement bucket or allocating more to a happiness-boosting splurge, in any given month—you’ll be able to identify where you and your partner overlap, and invest more in those shared goals.

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