If you tend to shy away from tackling financial topics with your partner, research suggests it could cost your relationship, big time. A TC Bank study found a strong link between couples who feel comfortable talking about money and happiness. In fact, 42% of those who openly talk about money on a weekly basis rated their relationship as "extremely happy," compared to 27% who raise the subject less than once a month.
So how do you rank? If you're unsure where you and your partner stand on anything from splitting the check to joint ownership of a home, it's time to talk. While not all relationships follow the same linear order, we spoke to Stefanie O'Connell, millennial money expert and author of The Broke and Beautiful Life, to find out the key questions every couple should ask at milestone stages. Yes, a first date isn't too soon to glean some financial insights.
Share this with your S.O. to see how many questions you can answer.
You've swiped right, matched, and sparks and texts have been flying for days—now for the first date. While it might seem premature to bring up the "m" word, O'Connell says this is an opportune time to find out about your date's attitude toward money. "The first date is all about feeling out a person’s value system—this applies to money as much as it does to anything else," she says. Questions such as Are you renting? or Do you have any vacations planned? can reveal subtle clues about how your partner views saving and spending. It's still early days, though, so don't overanalyze. "Just ask your normal 'getting to know you' questions, and make note of any red flags before you agree to a second date."
There's one last big sign to take note of on a first date: Who pays the check? "It's not that any one way of handling the bill is wrong; it's simply a reflection of whether your date's way of sharing costs mirror your own," she says.
Amid all of the cocktails, dinners, and activities, your finances have already started to intermingle. Should you lay down the rules for Venmo etiquette? "The most important thing at this stage in the game is to generate an open dialogue and steer clear of assumptions like one partner will be bearing the burden of all costs," says O'Connell. While you may not have to blatantly ask to delineate who pays for what, don't let traditional gender roles set the tone for your relationship.
Now that it's official, it's also a great time to get curious about your partner's financial habits and aspirations, beyond small talk. "Big-picture talks about goals and dreams are the perfect gateway for getting the financial dialogue going. You can naturally shift conversations from the aspirational dream-talk to tactical how-tos," she explains. For example, O'Connell says questions like, Are you saving for any big dream purchases? are best said in context. "A discussion of dream homes while watching the latest home-reno show on HGTV can shift into a practical dialogue about projected timelines and savings for a down payment. I find it's easier to start the conversation by sharing your own action plan than it is to come right out and ask."
O'Connell says there are two questions you should ask before you start searching for an apartment: What's your credit score? and How will we divide rent? "If one partner has a poor credit score, it may be better to shop around with the better score to lock in your best chances for approval," she explains.
Beyond splitting the household bill, she also flags this milestone as a good time ask, How will we split small day-to-day expenses? "Talk about how you’ll share other incidentals before making the move. You don’t want to have given up your old place only to find out your partner expects you to shoulder the burden of all the utility bills, cleaning supplies, and groceries for the two of you," she says. It doesn't have to be an even 50/50 split, but deciding where you stand from the start could avoid conflict in the future.
Things are getting serious, and as you start to talk about saving money to put toward a big purchase, you've decided to pool your funds in a joint account. Not so fast, says O'Connell. "If you haven't already, it's time to come clean about any financial skeletons in your closet—debts, delinquencies, etcetera." Set aside some time without distraction to ask your partner questions like, Are you carrying debt? or What regular payments do you make that might impact our ability to save? "Once you and your partner start sharing an account, your financial lives become intertwined with long-lasting consequences," she explains. "For example, if your partner starts writing checks from your joint account to fund a shopping spree, over-drafting and bouncing, you'll also be on the hook with your credit at stake."
If you do decide to take the joint leap, make sure to set some ground rules for the account. Will you both make equal contributions, and under what circumstances can the money be used?
Amid the excitement of an engagement and planning for a wedding, it's totally normal to believe your plans and future are ironclad, but that's no reason ignore the importance of having a Plan B: Should you sign a prenuptial agreement? "You're tying your financial lives together, and the implications are long-lasting, [so] make sure you have total transparency—this includes discussion of a prenuptial agreement," says O'Connell. "By this point in the relationship, you've hopefully both communicated your financial goals, values, and action plans, so discussing a prenuptial agreement should just be another sensible step on that journey."
Starting a family isn't a priority for every couple, but if it's in the cards for you and your partner, it's imperative to talk logistics first. Ask yourself: "How much are we going to budget for baby? Where in our monthly spending plan can we find room to accommodate that additional expense?" she recommends. While the decision to have a child is often an emotional one, figuring out how this will impact your savings and what you'll need to do to adjust your budget is a must.
The second important question? When it comes time for childcare, what is your plan, and are those costs realistic? A report by the Economic Policy Institute has found that childcare in some states is now more expensive than college. The worst states for parents-to-be include Florida and Massachusetts, with childcare totaling an average of $12,781 per year in the latter.
The take home? Don't let financial woes get in the way of major milestones in your relationship or act as a potential roadblock in the future. If you start talking about them regularly—remember, happy couples chat about funds at least once a week—you'll feel less stressed and burdened, and if the TC Bank study is any indication, it could make you feel closer to your S.O. You're a team, so treat your finances like you're on the same side.