How to have the “Let’s combine our finances” talk

Congrats on finding a partner you want to jointly file taxes with! Here’s how to start that process with honest conversations and (potentially sexy) budgets.

Cropped shot of a couple going over their finances together at home
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Get Your Money Right

So you and your partner have made it through the early stages — matching, meme-sharing, dating, soft-launching, friend-hanging, hard-launching, cohabitating, parent-meeting, maybe even engagement-having. And now you’re on the precipice of maybe the scariest phase yet: combining your finances. Sure, it’s better than in solo times, when you had five side-hustles and three roomies. Mixing business with love can be complicated. But it can also be a real benefit (beyond, you know, splitting rent).

According to Emily Garbinsky, Ph.D., associate professor of marketing and behavioral scientist at Cornell University's SC Johnson College of Business, joining finances with your partner isn’t just a smart way to hold on to your bag — it’s a great way to bolster your relationship. Garbinsky, along with three other associates, conducted a March 2022 study focused on “Pooling Finances and Relationship Satisfaction,” and the results were pretty conclusive: “People who pooled everything were the most satisfied,” Garbinsky told the Washington Post. “People that pooled nothing were the least satisfied. The people who had this hybrid — where they pooled some (money) and not other — were in the middle.”

As with everything in relationships, the path from sharing a bathroom to sharing a checking account is paved with good communication. Before you break out the bank statements, though, it’s helpful to know what you and your hunny bunny should actually talk about. So we gathered four expert-backed tips for couples ready to make joint financial (and emotional) gainz.

1. Get it all out on the table

While combining finances is a great way to bolster a romantic relationship, it’s easy to end up in rocky territory when proper boundaries aren’t established. Prepare yourself: it’s important to have conversations about the nitty-gritty stuff. That means putting your cards on the table, maybe literally: debts you have (school, credit card, etc.); your income; your spending habits (the good and the…indulgences).

That last part should involve a no-secrets talk about how you each approach money. Does it stress you out? Do you tend to watch your bank account like a hawk, or have you not taken a look in months? Are you all about the little luxuries (your Uber bill is non-negotiable), or do you pinch pennies so you can splurge on travel?

This may take a few conversations, but by the time they’re done, you’ll both know where you stand, and what you’re getting into. If your partner has a serious gambling addiction while you have a relentless online shopping problem, you both might want to hit pause while you sort out your situations. And even if both of your financial states of affairs are (relatively) clean and healthy, you’ll have set off knowing there aren’t any real surprises.

2. Create shared financial goals

Now that you’ve shared all your darkest monetary secrets, it’s time for some optimism by writing down — yes, literally! — each of your financial goals. Those can be everything from paying down the last dollars of a school loan within the next year to owning a house within the next ten. “Joint accounts increase feelings of financial togetherness — making purchases and financial goals feel shared,” Garbinsky writes in her March 2022 paper. “This mediates the relationship between joint accounts and well-being.” By which Garbinsky likely means: if you’re going to push your money into one big pile, both of you should understand each other’s priorities, and how they relate to what dollars and cents you have. Speaking of dollars and cents…

3. Develop a joint budget

Nothing seems less sexy than a Sunday spent powering through an spreadsheet with your expenditures, but studies show that’s far from the truth: According to a January 2018 survey of 500 couples from Honeyfi, researchers found that “couples who regularly track and discuss a household budget are 50 percent more likely to report being ‘extremely happy’ in their relationship, and over 33 percent more likely to report having a great sex life.” Apparently Excel is an aphrodisiac.

Aside from supporting a stellar sex life, developing a joint budget with your partner is an opportunity to answer some crucial questions. Like: which costs are shared, and which are individual? Speaking of, how much — if any — discretionary money will you each separately have?

4. Prepare for emergencies

As in much of life, hoping for the best and planning for the worst when it comes to finances is good practice. While you’re cooking up that budget together, consider some relevant bad-news scenarios — one of you loses a job, the house needs a new roof, the cat needs surgery — and whether you’re in a place to handle them. According to the investment firm Vanguard, a solid benchmark is having enough dough in your rainy day fund to cover at least three to six months of living expenses. Of course, that advice is coming from an investment firm, and it might land somewhere between a pipe dream and a longer-term goal. The point is, now’s the time to take some action if you’re feeling nervous. Look at costs you can trim, or, better yet, talk to a financial advisor. (Tip: lots of companies offer their employees free or subsidized access to financial pros — take advantage!)

Will these four steps guarantee that combining your finances goes perfectly smoothly and neither of you ever have a fight about money? Absolutely not. Money’s stressful, always, for everyone (nods in the direction of Succession). The real measure of success here is avoiding unwanted surprises, and taking the next steps when you’re in sync. Invest the time, and then invest the money.