I get a lot of couples coming in to my office, and one thing that we tend to talk about is communication. What do you need to talk about, and how often? Note that right now I’m talking about a couple in a long-term relationship or marriage, who are sharing common goals. If you’re living with a boyfriend or girlfriend, but are keeping separate finances because you’re not on the marriage path, this level of communication is likely not appropriate for your situation.
It’s fine if one person is the primary bill-payer in the relationship, and is on top of the balance in the checking account much more so than the other person. Or maybe they’re interested in investing in a way that the other partner will never be. Where I see these couples get into trouble is when one person is hyper-aware of the finances, and the other person is living in a state of blissful ignorance. Especially if the family finances aren’t sailing along smoothly – the partner in the know can face huge amounts of guilt and stress, and the other is in for a rude awakening.
Both people in the couple are adults, and both need to have a sense of the family’s finances. Plenty of people have found out the hard way that they had absolutely no idea what their own financial picture looked like when they were forced into a reality check when their circumstances suddenly changed – most often due to the illness or death of a spouse, or divorce. The time to realize that you’re totally clueless about your financial situation is NOT when you’re grieving or suddenly facing a divorce.
I think you should formalize these meetings in terms of the time and place. This is an official meeting, and you need to take it seriously, and put it in your calendar. If it’s not scheduled, it’s not going to happen. Consider the time of day and day of the week – you need to be in the right frame of mind. I personally wouldn’t do well if we met at night when I’m drained. Also consider snacks, whether that’s a cup of coffee or a microbrew – make it special. How often and what to talk about varies depending on where you are financially. Let’s start with the most intensive:
If you’re trying to dig out of a hole of debt, or are actively trying to rein in spending, I think you need to meet weekly at a minimum. In that conversation, talk about what you thought was going to happen last week (a paycheck was expected, certain bills were due) and then what actually happened. Then look ahead – what’s coming up during the next week and beyond? You need tight control on your finances for a period of time. And looking out further, is there something that needs to come onto the radar? Summer camp expenses due next month, or an upcoming car repair that you can’t put off any longer? You should also be communicating daily as things come up, but a structured weekly meeting is critical as well. Have one of those meetings also act as a monthly budget review for the prior month, as soon as you know what your actual spending looked like. You can also report on other progress then too, such as paydown of a debt or progress towards a savings goal.
Let’s say you’re one step up from there. Your spending is under control and you’re making progress towards savings and debt goals, but you still need regular check-ins. A monthly review may be the right level of communication. One of my clients writes up brief bullet points to communicate to me and his wife the good and the bad of the prior month. It’s a great way to focus our discussion on the important items. This monthly official money date doesn’t mean that you don’t communicate about money at other times during the month – it’s absolutely appropriate and necessary to alert the other person if you received a medical bill or other expense that was higher than expected, and you can talk about how to handle it as you’re making dinner or washing up.
And the promised land: the quarterly check-in. You’re ready for this if you family is living below your means, you’re easily covering your monthly expenses, and have cash in the bank to spare. I think it’s wise to review your investments on a quarterly basis. I have a net worth template that I update once a quarter, which summarizes our cash, investments, college savings, and retirement accounts. In January every year I also prepare a spreadsheet showing our actual average spending in every category for the prior year. That can provide enormous clarity in terms of understanding where our money is actually going.
If your communication level is working for you, go ahead and continue with your system. But keep in mind what you would do if you or your partner was suddenly unable to manage the finances. If you’re the person who isn’t hands on with the finances, make sure you know how to access all of your financial accounts electronically – and if you are the financial person, make sure you record user names and passwords in a place that your partner can easily access.