One of the most upsetting and painful arguments that my wife and I ever had came a few months before we got married. We had been dating for six years at that point and had been planning our marriage for more than a year.
I was fairly apprehensive about getting married. I had been thinking about marriage quite a lot for years because I intended to get married for the rest of my life and I wanted to make sure that I was making the right choice.
Anyway, about three months before we were married, I mentioned that fact to Sarah. I was worried about getting married and I was still thinking about the whole idea.
This upset her. A lot. How could I not be sure about it at that point? Hadn’t I had years to think about it even before we were engaged? We had a pretty serious argument.
The thing is, a couple of days later, she came to realize something. Although it might have seemed hurtful that I wasn’t sure, it was actually very loving that I was taking the commitment with that level of seriousness. Loving her was never in doubt. The real question was whether I could be a good enough husband to make this thing last a lifetime.
Twelve years in, things are still going along just fine.
Over the next year and a half, several of our friends and family members are getting married. I’ve actually lost count of the number of weddings we’ll be attending between now and the end of next year. Suffice it to say, love is in the air.
When I look back on that engagement period for Sarah and myself and the things that we did and the things that I thought about that set the stage for a healthy marriage, I realize that they actually helped a lot in terms of building a great, lasting marriage. Our only mistake was that we didn’t start things out on the strongest financial path.
These eight recommendations are things to think about – and things to do – as you begin to think about and prepare for marriage. They are a mix of things that Sarah and I did that led to marital success combined with some key financial steps that we should have done that would have kept us from a financial meltdown three years later.
Yes, I intend to send a link to this article to each of those couples that are getting married in the next year and a half. Consider this my advice to them.
You Need to Know the Full Details of Your Partner’s Financial Situation
Like it or not, your partner’s financial state is going to have a huge impact on your day-to-day life once you’re married. A partner that earns a lot is going to affect your life very differently than a partner who doesn’t earn very much. A partner with a lot of debt is going to affect your life very differently than a partner with no debt.
Before you commit your lives to each other, you need to know the full state of each other’s finances. If you’re not sure how to approach this, try answering each of these questions together.
How much income do you earn (or receive) each year? This includes both your income from work and your income from other things, like support money from parents, trust funds, and so on. Sarah and I really didn’t have any income streams other than our main jobs and a very small side business that I had at the time, so this was easy.
How many debts do you have? How big are they, and what are the monthly payments like? Debts are going to hang around your necks like an albatross. You should realize that when you’re married, your money essentially becomes one giant shared pool (whether you directly share that money or not) and every debt either one of you has gobbles away at your shared pool of money. Your debts can also make it clear to your partner whether or not you have good control over your spending impulses.
How much money do you have? How many assets have you accumulated? Do you have money in a savings account? A 401(k)? A Roth IRA? Do you own a home? Do you have a car that won’t need to be replaced for a while? How much money is sitting in your checking account?
These tools together should help you to answer some more difficult questions, such as how much you each spend per month versus how much you each save per month. Do you spend every dime you make, or do you save a little (in a 401(k) or in a savings account)?
Remember, there’s nothing bad here per se. Instead, it’s about putting together an open and honest picture of what your shared finances will look like should you guys get married.
You Need Some Form of Premarital Counseling
Sarah and I went through several sessions of marriage counseling with the wonderful pastor that married us. He sat us down for about a dozen weekly sessions where we talked through countless aspects of marriage – children, sexuality, money, decision making, and so on.
Those sessions weren’t always easy. Along the way, Sarah and I found a lot of things we were on the same page about, but several others that we weren’t quite in sync on. Those areas where we weren’t in sync became major conversation points for us.
Having those conversations was absolutely vital to the success of our marriage, but having a counselor that knew how to tease out those issues was vital, too.
The easiest method for premarital counseling, assuming you’re getting married in a church or a temple or some other religious building, is to talk to the person who will be officiating your wedding. Many pastors, priests, and other religious leaders are happy to guide a couple through some form of marital counseling. Some will even insist on it.
If this is not the path you’re choosing for your marriage, seek an actual marriage counselor who specifically provides pre-marital counseling. This person can also provide the same kind of teasing out of key issues that you’ll need to talk about to make your marriage work.
You Need to Merge Your Finances (Unless One or Both of You Is Super-Wealthy)
This was perhaps the biggest mistake that Sarah and I made before getting married: We didn’t merge our finances for the first few years. Instead, we maintained separate checking accounts and agreed that we would each be responsible for a few bills.
The biggest reason for this is that the one area we didn’t adequately discuss before we were married was our finances. We agreed on a few key goals, but didn’t talk at all about how we would achieve them in any specific way. We just kind of assumed it would all work out.
Once we were married, we just kept moving forward with separate finances and merely agreed on each of us paying a few bills.
We should have known that it wouldn’t work because it wasn’t long before we were having little disagreements about how we would pay for shared things. Should Sarah have to pay for the ingredients to an expensive meal I wanted to make? Should I have to pay for the weekend Sarah turned the air conditioner down to 68 when I was in Mexico City? Those were just simple examples, but it wasn’t long before we began to disagree on responsibility for bigger things – the rent going up, for example.
When we had a child, things really fell apart. Children add so many little expenses to the mix and it was really hard to tease apart a fair balance of how to pay everything.
Here’s the truth: Even if you choose to keep your finances separate, they’re not really separate. Most of your expenses are for things that you share and when a new expense shows up or an old expense changes, it’s going to feel unfair to whichever person has to shoulder that greater burden. You’ll never achieve perfect balance.
The best way to achieve perfect balance is to throw all of the money together in a shared pool and pay for everything out of it. If you each want a little “personal money,” that’s fine – keep your old checking accounts and then transfer a small amount each month automatically out of the shared pool.
In our personal life, we have one shared account that takes care of everything. (I also have a business account, but I “pay myself” out of that one and mostly just use it for business expenses.)
You Need to Establish Full Communication with Each Other With No Closed Doors
Your partner is just that – your full partner in everything. Even in the areas where you perceive that it’s all you – like your career – your partner is often holding up a lot of the structure that enables you to follow that path, from the meals you eat to the house you sleep in. Marriage is about merging two ships into one.
The second you hold any sort of secret from your partner is the day you’re opening the door to marital collapse. There is no way around it.
Now, note that I’m not talking about things like buying each other Christmas gifts. I’m talking about genuine secrets, ones that you’re holding back from your partner because you fear upsetting them or don’t want to “rock the boat.”
Of course, the same thing is true when it comes to being honest with yourself. Fooling yourself has the same result as fooling your partner – it ends up with distrust, confusion, and pain.
No secrets. If you’re holding back on a secret, talk about it before you’re married, because it will eventually come up and you’re better off openly discussing it now than having it explode later on.
If you do not do this, you’re starting off your marriage by being willfully dishonest with your partner and that’s virtually guaranteed to be a recipe for failure.
If You Have Significant Wealth Before Marriage, You Need a Prenuptial Agreement
When Sarah and I were married, neither one of us had significant wealth. We both knew that any wealth we accumulated would be done together, so a prenuptial agreement wasn’t something that was on our minds.
However, some marriages start with one or both members entering the marriage with significant wealth. Whatever the reasons for that, it needs to be discussed before your wedding day.
Many people do not like to discuss a prenuptial agreement because it doesn’t really have a function unless the marriage fails. Under that logic, it would never make sense to get life insurance because you never expect to die.
A prenuptial agreement is just that – an insurance policy on your marriage. It ensures that if things don’t work out exactly like you’re planning, there will be a safe landing pad for everyone involved.
Establish this now instead of later. Consult a lawyer and make sure that it’s correctly written and takes care of all necessary contingencies. If you’re afraid of that discussion, then you’re failing at another part of this article – the “no secrets” part. You need to be open about everything, and if you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t be getting married yet.
If your marriage succeeds, great. No problem. If your marriage fails, you will be incredibly glad to have this document.
You Need to Have the ‘Goals’ Talk
I’ll tell you right now that if you’re not on the same page when it comes to your goals moving forward and don’t have at least some basic agreement on how to achieve those goals, every single day of your married life will be like trying to drive a car after dumping a spoon full of sand in the gas tank. You’re going to be working in opposing directions in life and that constant pull will constantly pull you apart.
Everyone has goals. Even the most aimless people have goals – maybe they want to just make it home to watch a Seinfeld rerun each day and maybe they’re just content with their life and want to maintain it. That’s okay, if that’s your goal – at least you understand it.
Sometimes, people have the same goals and thus working toward those goals together becomes really easy. However, different people can have very different goals sometimes and those goals can pull people apart.
So, how do you talk about goals? Here’s a very simple way to start: Where do you want to be on your 10th wedding anniversary? What do you want your life to be like? What do you want to have achieved?
Spend a bit of time thinking about that question separately, then sit down together and talk about what you each came up with.
What you’re going to find is that you probably have some things in common and some things that are different. That’s okay – that’s actually how it should be.
However, there are two big traps that people can fall into here.
One, one of the partners completely dominates the goals of the other partner. Sure, the shared goals are a priority, but that partner’s individual goals are seen as more important than the other partner’s individual goals. Bad move. You both need individual goals and interests that are supported by the other one, even if they’re not particularly shared by both partners. Thinking that your partner’s goals are silly and just ignoring them in favor of your own personal goals is a recipe for marital disaster.
Two, the partners have drastically different levels of commitment to the shared goals. One partner might be really invested in doing great things, while the other one is mostly interested in watching The Bachelorette and, because that second partner feels bad, that partner just nods and says “Sure, honey,” to whatever goals that partner states. Again, bad move. The more ambitious partner is now thinking that their partner has full buy-in for those goals and that’s going to create a ton of conflict down the road. If you’re kinda on board with a goal, say so. Don’t make it sound like you’re really on board with it.
If your relationship is a strong one, you’re going to have at least a few goals that you’re both excited about and committed to. Achieving those things together should be one of the major cornerstones of your marriage.
When in Doubt, Spend Less on Your Wedding and Honeymoon
Looking back, Sarah and I actually had a pretty frugal wedding. Our wedding was in a tiny small town church, and our reception was in a local Knights of Columbus hall that was available for receptions. Our family members made most of the food, too. It was surprisingly low cost.
Do you know what I remember from my wedding? I don’t remember the ways in which we were “cheap.” What I remember is dancing with my beautiful wife. I remember laughing with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. I remember talking to an absolute flood of people. I remember holding my wife’s hand as we walked into the reception, and holding it again as we walked out. That’s what I remember, and those memories aren’t about the money.
Where we spent too much was on our honeymoon. We went to London and stayed in a hotel overlooking Hyde Park for several days. There was no need for that. Sure, the trip was memorable, but it would have been memorable if we stayed way out of the city center in a much less expensive hotel. It would have been memorable if we had driven to Yosemite and camped. It was memorable because (a) it was a new experience for us and (b) we were together as newlyweds.
Keep this in mind as you’re planning your wedding and your honeymoon. Your memories won’t revolve around where you were cheap – you won’t even remember it at all. Your guests won’t care, either – they’re coming for you guys, not for some fancy place or elaborate decorations.
This is a prime opportunity to really learn about one of the fundamental rules of personal finance together. Money spent on nonessential stuff that you won’t remember is money wasted. Remember what’s essential about your wedding. You. Your partner. The loved ones you invited. That’s it. Don’t burn money on the other stuff. All you’ll do is hurt you and your partner in the future.
If Something Bothers You a Little, Deal With It Now Rather Than Later
This starts now, and it will last all through your marriage.
There are going to be moments where some little thing bothers you. Sure, some of them are really transient – it’s not worth making a big deal out of spilled milk, after all. The thing you really need to watch out for are repeated things – things that show up again and again that form a pattern that troubles you.
If you don’t deal with it as soon as you start noticing it, you’re begging for it to start festering and growing and becoming a major wedge in your relationship.
Instead, address it now. The first step for addressing it is to ask yourself internally how big of a deal it actually is. If this “problem” continues, does it really matter? We often let unimportant things blow up because we never really ask ourselves that question. Does this state of affairs really matter?
If it does matter, think about solutions right off the bat and don’t just jump on your first idea, either. How can this be resolved down to something that doesn’t matter? Often, the immediate solution you come up with isn’t the best one.
For example, maybe you’re frustrated that your new spouse doesn’t always clear his or her stuff off the table after a meal. Maybe that’s not how your partner did it during their single life, for whatever reason. You could demand that you each clear off your own stuff each and every night – or else you could just agree to alternate nights taking care of the dinner cleanup and dinner dishes. (Another tip on that alternation thing: If you’re not sure whose turn it is, volunteer to do it yourself. You can never go wrong that way.)
Never, ever, ever let those things fester. The unhappiness over a minor matter can easily start growing and growing and growing until it festers into a real problem and that’s just poison. Get into a better habit now. It’s not just you any more.
The real key to marriage is communication. There is no marital problem (outside of insane breaches of trust) that can’t be dealt with with some clear communication right off the bat in which both members stay calm and realize that it’s not an attack on each other but an effort to find a solution that makes everyone happy.
This starts before marriage. If you can’t communicate like that during your engagement, then you should think very strongly about whether marriage is the right choice for you. You never have to get married.
Good luck on your marital journey.