The 5 Big Questions To Ask Your Partner About Money Before Getting Married

In an ideal world, you know your future spouse on the deepest of levels. You’ve figured out what makes them tick, celebrated their highs, comforted them through the lows, and witnessed the realities of who they are during the phases in between. But no matter how intimately you know your partner, without having talked explicitly about how you’re going to handle money as a unit, you won't necessarily be prepared for the financial obligations of marriage—legal and practical. Though it’s useful to have conversations about money at any stage of a relationship, there are a few questions to ask before marriage, in particular.

No matter how you plan to approach the relationship phase, marriage always functions, to some degree, as a financial contract. On a legal level, you and your spouse's incomes and debts will be linked—but also, marriage is typically a proxy for doing life together (and sharing the financial obligations that this entails). “Getting married and perhaps starting a family can involve a lot of money topics, like buying real estate, having children and helping them pay for college, and figuring out how you want to spend retirement and how you’ll afford to do so,” says Lisa Fischer, chief lending and growth officer at fintech Mission Lane. (Not to mention, the everyday money realities of cohabiting and coexisting, in plenty of cases.)

In that context, just assuming that a partner will align with your financial values—without asking them outright money questions—is a huge gamble. Indeed, in a 2019 survey conducted by SunTrust, 88 percent of previously or currently married respondents said they thought it was important to discuss finances before saying, “I do.” And yet, in the same survey, only 51 percent reported doing so, reflecting clear reluctance to open up about money, even among those who recognize the benefit.

Leading with curiosity, not judgment, can make navigating these vulnerable waters feel more doable, according to Megan Ford, PhD, LMFT, financial therapist at financial-wellness app Stackin. “Your partner may have different thought processes and practices with money,” she says, “so rather than approaching interactions with any intention to correct, change, or convince, go into conversations with the mindset that you’re there to learn more about them.”

“Rather than approaching [money] interactions with any intention to correct, change, or convince, go into conversations with the mindset that you’re there to learn.” —Megan Ford, PhD, LMFT, financial therapist

Creating this type of environment for your money talk at the outset will make it easier for both of you to get “financially naked,” says Dr. Ford—that is, “lay bare your financial worlds to each other.” It’s only with that open and honest foundation that you can then go on to discuss both short- and long-term goals and create a shared vision for your future.

That vision can (and likely will) shift over time, as will your respective financial realities—which is also why the money talk certainly isn’t a one-and-done thing pre-marriage. Plan to check in with your future spouse regularly about money at a cadence that works for you, and especially “if there’s a change in income or employment, during tax and bonus seasons, and before or during major life events,” says Lauren Wybar, CFP, senior wealth advisor at Vanguard Personal Adviser Services.

But again, knowing what questions to ask about money before marriage can help you lay the foundation for those money conversations to come.

5 major questions to ask your future spouse before marriage

1. What was your financial life like growing up?

So much of how we approach spending and saving money is deeply rooted in the meaning we assign to it. To understand the meaning of money to your partner, it’s important to ask about the climate in which they grew up, says Dr. Ford. “The financial beliefs and behaviors of those who raised us have a big impact on how we deal with money in adulthood,” she says.

For example, growing up in an environment where money was always tight might have led your partner to embrace a scarcity (versus abundance) mindset as an adult and to prioritize saving over spending. Or, perhaps being frequently told “no” by a parent in response to requests for new toys or clothes has inspired them to spend more freely on the things they want as an adult, now that they have the agency and means to do so.

In any case, getting to know your partner’s financial upbringing can help you better understand where some of their financial habits or hang-ups may have originated and empathize with them, says Dr. Ford. This way, you’re also turning your attention to the root cause of money behaviors, which can help strip them from some of the shame and guilt with which they’re often intertwined.

2. Do you have any debt?

While you may not be legally liable for debts that a partner incurred before your marriage (that changes once you’re married), knowing whether a partner is currently paying off student loans, car loans, credit cards, or other debts is a practical necessity. Not only does having debt affect their credit score (and, in turn, your mutual ability to get approved for loans) as well as their ability to contribute to regular expenses, but also, it could signal a propensity to amass more debt down the line during marriage, at which point you could wind up legally on the hook for it.

As an example, Fischer didn’t find out that her then-husband was hiding a gambling addiction and had racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt until years into her marriage. Much of that debt accumulated during their marriage, making his concealment of it a veritable form of financial infidelity. Despite their divorce, she wound up having to pay off over $800,000 of it. Though that example is extreme, she says she might’ve avoided the worst of it by having initiated more money conversations and asked more money questions earlier in the relationship.

If you learn that your partner does have debt, use it as the impetus to ask additional questions and align on a plan, says Fischer: Do they already have a plan for paying it off? Will you help them to do so? And if you have debts of your own, how can you and your partner create a plan for paying off both yours and theirs?

Understanding the total amount of debt you’re taking on together is the only way to plan effectively and adjust your spending habits as necessary, says Wybar. “Couples should ensure they are at least paying the monthly minimums and prioritize paying down debts with higher interest rates to free up cash flow for other goals and increase overall credit scores,” she says.

3. How will we split expenses and other financial responsibilities between us?

Whether you combine your finances and split all expenses down the middle, split them unevenly, or keep some things separate and some things joint is ultimately a personal decision; there’s no singular right or wrong way. What remains true in any case, though, is that you need to discuss the topic and come to a mutual consensus.

“Have a conversation about financial tasks and who will be responsible for what, at least initially,” says Dr. Ford. Maybe, for example, your first instinct is to split expenses down the middle, but upon reflecting on each of your salaries, you determine that this doesn’t feel fair. In this case, it would be important to “voice your concerns in advance, rather than wait until it comes time to pay everything off only to find out that you’re not on the same page,” says Fischer.

4. What is your process for budgeting?

Figuring out how your future spouse currently budgets their funds—whether it’s through a codified budget or via a more freeform approach—can help you then create (or re-up) a mutual monthly or annual budget for expenses that you’ve agreed will be split. “Talking about budgeting also helps you lay out what’s important to you, what you value, and how much you’re each willing to spend versus save on a regular basis,” says Fischer.

“Talking about budgeting helps you lay out what’s important to you, what you value, and how much you’re each willing to spend versus save.” —Lisa Fischer, chief lending and growth officer at Mission Lane

In this conversation, you can also set ground rules around personal expenses, says Dr. Ford. For example, can you each spend freely using a joint account? And what about on individual credit cards? Or, do you agree that all purchases above a certain designated dollar value (say, $100 or $500) should be discussed together? Coming to an agreement about these types of personal spending habits can mitigate tension around a shared budget.

5. What are your financial goals and dreams?

Getting a good idea of a partner’s big-picture aspirations can help you figure out how they align (or conflict) with yours, and how you might work together on a money plan that supports both. Though things like bucket-list travel or having multiple kids or retiring early might seem far off, these big goals require ample financial planning, which will ultimately influence how you view, spend, and save money as a couple—starting now, says Wybar.

“For example, maybe your partner’s biggest dream is to save aggressively and retire early in life, which might translate into them living frugally and perhaps sacrificing everyday luxuries,” says Dr. Ford. “Is that a dream you’re willing to invest in, or do you dream of more enjoyment in the here and now?” Talking through these kinds of discrepancies now can help you figure out how your earnings, spending, or saving habits may need to change during marriage to support different dreams, allowing you to avoid surprises and conflict down the line.

That’s not to say that your dreams and goals can’t change with time; again, life happens, and your approach to money can (and should) certainly adjust alongside it. “Flexibility is one of the keys to maintaining a healthy couple-money dynamic over time,” says Dr. Ford. “If something you thought would work initially doesn’t work so well in practice, feel empowered to bring it up to your partner and initiate a change.”

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