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Managing Finances as a Couple

Presented by Tim Weller

When it comes to deciding how to deal with money management as a couple, there are typically three competing factors: autonomy, connection, and convenience. Often, men prefer to pool money. But many women look to retain money of their own, as they are more likely to worry about becoming too financially dependent. With that said, each couple will have a different strategy—and whatever works well for you and your partner is the right solution.

Deciding between separate and joint

Essentially, the decision-making process can be boiled down to two basic scenarios. In Figure 1, for example, if Jane receives an inheritance, she would put the money into her own savings account.

Many couples, however, find that feeding all of their income directly into a joint account and then paying expenses from that account, including making deposits into each individual’s own savings account, strikes the right balance among autonomy, connection, and convenience (see Figure 2). Having individual accounts can relieve the tension that develops around spending differences. If one partner likes to spend his money as soon as he has it, he can. If the other prefers to build up money in her individual savings vehicle, she can. There will still be disagreements and negotiations, but this decision represents a good start.

When deciding how much goes into each individual account, some couples feel the need to make things equal. Others prefer to make this decision based on what amount makes each person feel most comfortable. This means that the amounts often differ.

In the end, like all things, these agreements and decisions will shift over time. Understanding the variables with which you have to work—and not having preconceived notions about what is right or wrong—can help you work out an arrangement that suits you both.

Investment risk tolerance

When deciding how to invest assets, many couples find that their opinions differ. Typically, one partner is more comfortable with volatility and more attracted to potentially higher returns, while the other partner is not a risk taker. The most important factor is to ensure that the top priorities of both individuals are met.

Compromise. Some couples prefer to make all decisions together and are willing to compromise. Even if one partner wants more growth potential and the other wants to invest more conservatively, they can meet somewhere in the middle and feel good about doing so.

Goal-based. For other couples, however, when it comes to investing, compromise may feel like a lackluster solution. If you’re in this camp, it may work better to make investment risk decisions based on your goals. You may, for instance, agree to have your retirement living expenses invested conservatively and your retirement travel expenses invested for growth.

Split it up. Although goal-based investing makes sense to most couples, some just don’t see eye to eye. These individuals prefer to have their own pool of assets invested separately. Again, the most important thing is that your goals are met. If this is the best way to meet them, then this is a great solution.

Couples’ goals

When deciding which goals to pursue as a couple, setting priorities can be a challenge. If you are comfortable with your joint priorities, read no further. But if you’re like many couples, it is helpful to have a framework for thinking about your goals.

Interests vs. positions. When discussing things that are important to us, we tend to jump straight to the outcome that we desire and don’t want to budge from our position. In the end, though, none of us really knows whether the outcome we desire will really meet our needs or fulfill our true desire. For example, we may think that we want a $600,000 house on Nantucket Island, but what we really want is a place where we can go to get away from the rush of the city and where our grandchildren will want to visit.

So when discussing goals with your partner, figure out what is motivating you to assume the stance you take. Once your partner understands where your real interest lies, he or she may agree with you. Or, if you are open to discussion, you and your partner could brainstorm alternative ways to satisfy your interest.

Mine, yours, and ours. Just as you have joint expenses and individual expenses, you have goals about which you are both passionate and goals that only one of you wants to achieve. By supporting your partner in his or her goals, he or she will likely be more interested in supporting you in achieving yours.

Preparing for successful conversations 

Before the talk. Start with the goal.

  • What would be the best possible outcome as a result of this conversation?
  • What location would make the other person most receptive to talking? Would it be at home, a nearby park, a restaurant?
  • What other variables can you play with to make this talk successful? Time of day? Which day? Would he listen better to a friend? Tone of voice?

During the talk. Discuss any ground rules you’d like to have, and be sure to listen to your partner’s rules.

  • For instance, how will you handle it if she needs to take a break? Will you call a 10-minute time-out and agree to resume? Are any subjects out of bounds?
  • As often as you can, bring your focus back to the goal you had in mind. What will help you return to the goal if you get off track?

After the talk.

  • Are you going to hang out afterward or take some time for yourselves?
  • If you’re spending time together, what would be fun and easy? A meal out? A movie? Going for a walk?

Having difficult conversations

When talking about sensitive subjects with your partner, it can be nearly impossible to truly listen, maintain composure, get your point across, and not hurt his or her feelings. So, to promote valuable communication, here are three strategies to guide your conversations:

Talk/listen. In this technique, one person’s job is to talk, and the other’s is to listen. Conversation should be limited to 5 or 10 minutes at a time. Here’s what to do:

  1. The talker speaks in 30-second chunks.
  2. The listener reiterates what the talker said.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

Because the talker speaks only briefly, the listener won’t get overwhelmed trying to remember what he or she is supposed to repeat and the talker won’t get too amped up. Ground rules include:

  • The talker shouldn’t ask the listener what he thinks about what was said. She should simply express her point of view.
  • The listener doesn’t offer an opinion or interpretation or speak in a mocking tone of voice. He should simply listen and repeat what was heard to confirm that he really listened. Repeating what was heard allows the listener to actually listen instead of planning a response.

This is not a back-and-forth! If you want to switch roles, wait at least a day so that you don’t wind up arguing. The purpose isn’t to resolve disputes but to ensure that you are both heard. Once you feel that you’ve been heard, you may be more ready to work at finding a solution that is acceptable to you both.

Time-out. If things get heated during a conversation, don’t be shy about calling a time-out. It’s an easy way to give yourselves some space to collect your thoughts. Taking a 10-minute walk or getting some water allows the adrenaline to die down so you are more ready to listen, express your real interests, and possibly even think of solutions.

Ideally, you may say, “I really want to be able to hear your thoughts, but I’m overwhelmed. I need a 10-minute time-out, and then we can come back to this.”

Of course, when overwhelmed, saying this might feel daunting. Many couples find it helpful to come up with a hand signal so that neither partner gets upset by the other’s tone of voice or choice of words.

Write a letter. If you want to have a back-and-forth, but things are too heated between the two of you, writing a letter can be a great way to access the calmer part of your brain.

In this technique, you write and read letters to each other. If one of you dislikes writing, you don’t have to actually write. The important aspect of this technique is in the reading.

  1. Start each letter with a greeting (e.g., “Dear Susan”).
  2. Say what you have to say as if you were writing a formal letter.
  3. End with a proper closing (e.g., “Sincerely, John”).
  4. Go back and forth, repeating as needed.

Stick with it; you’ll be pleasantly surprised. By speaking as if you were reading a formal letter, you will begin to think more calmly and rationally. It will help you arrive at the outcome you want, avoiding any blowups along the way.


This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.

Timothy Weller is a financial advisor located at Weller Group LLC, 6206 Slocum Road, Ontario, NY 14519. He offers securities and advisory services as an Investment Adviser Representative of Commonwealth Financial Network®, Member FINRA/SIPC, a Registered Investment Adviser. He can be reached at 315-524-8000 or at tim@wellergroupllc.com.

© 2019 Commonwealth Financial Network®