NEW YORK (AP) — Money might not be the most romantic topic for Valentine’s Day, but talking about finances with your significant other is a key element of a healthy relationship.
Money problems are one of the most common reasons couples separate, said Emily Simonia, head of clinical learning at Thriveworks, a mental health company.
In more than 20 years as a financial adviser, Howard Dvorkin, chairman of Debt.com, has had plenty of couples approach him with money issues that eventually lead them to break up.
“You should talk about money, lifestyle, goals and dreams,” he said. “Because (money) affects your dreams, and if you go into a relationship with debt, your dreams may be altered.”
If you’ve been wanting to approach this with your partner but you’re not sure how, here are some recommendations from experts:
HAVE AN OPEN CONVERSATION
Dvorkin recommends having a conversation about your finances as early as possible.
That doesn’t mean you must disclose everything at once — money conversations can evolve as your relationship does.
For Anna Avery, 31, conversations about money with her boyfriend, Austin, moved in baby steps. First, they opened up about the financial struggles they both faced as freelancers. Then, they talked about their styles of budgeting and, as their relationship progressed, made plans to start saving for a house.
“(We had) honest and vulnerable transparency about how we feel about money and how we grew up with money,” said Avery, a publicist based in San Antonio.
If you wait too long to talk about money, you could be unpleasantly surprised to find that your significant other has a lot of debt or irresponsible spending habits, Dvorkin said.
“You can’t continually avoid the subject because it eventually comes out anyway,” he said. “And sometimes it comes out in a bad way.”
Don’t surprise your partner with questions about their finances. Rather, set a time and day to talk and prepare a list of topics, said Olle Lind, founder of the budgeting app Buddy.
“Don’t ambush your partner, maybe say something like ‘Hey, on Sunday evening, can we go through our savings and set up some goals for the upcoming year?’” Lind said.
Having a list of discussion topics can help you stay on track and not get overwhelmed. Lind also advised that couples approach conversations without judgement about each other’s spending habits.
LEARN ABOUT EACH OTHER’S RELATIONSHIP WITH MONEY
People’s spending habits can be associated with the way they were raised, for example, if their parents got in debt, were big investors or never had credit cards. For couples to start setting financial goals, they must understand each other’s backgrounds, said Caleb Silver, editor in chief of Investopedia.
Money conversations can be even more complicated for those who have experienced financial trauma, which can be caused by living through a hard financial circumstance such as your parents experiencing bankruptcy or accumulating a large amount of debt. This trauma can cause people to be scared and feel ashamed when talking about money.
Having a conversation about how your parents handled money and what they taught you about financial habits can make you feel vulnerable, but it’s important to do.
Avery and her boyfriend both grew up in low-income Latino households where money was never talked about.
“I had a full lack of education around money,” Avery said. “All I knew was that it was scarce.”
As their relationship progressed, Avery and her boyfriend realized their life priorities were aligned. They both wanted to own a home and save money to support their parents in the future. Having similar goals motivated them to be transparent about their money.
TALK ABOUT YOUR DEBT, ALL OF IT
Dvorkin recommends talking about all of your debt, especially if you are considering marriage. That includes credit cards, student loans, mortgages, loans that you co-signed and anything else.
When Anna Craven, 26, met her fiancée, Ryan, they both had a significant amount of student loan debt. Talking about it made them open about their financial struggles.
“The emotional toll that student loan debt was taking over both of us in our early careers was the reason we made it our priority number one,” said Craven, who lives in New Hampshire.
SET FINANCIAL GOALS
When Craven and her partner started to discuss getting married, one of her priorities was to be conscious of how much they would spend on their wedding.
“It was important to me that we’d be on the same page about how long we wanted the engagement to last so we could then map back how much we needed to save,” said Craven, who was engaged earlier this month.
Whether you want to budget better, save for a house or pay off your credit card debt, setting a financial goal and making a plan with your significant other can make things less overwhelming, Silver said.
Victoria B. Watson, 30, and her husband have set several financial goals throughout their relationship, such as saving for a house and a new car and, soon, having their first child. But building these plans has taken time and practice.
At first, Watson wasn’t used to budgeting and saving. Her husband was very diligent. When they both decided they wanted to stay on track with their financial goals, the challenge of saving became a team effort.
“It makes me feel like we’re a team, approaching life together and setting goals together. And that just feels really healthy,” Watson said.
MAKE IT A DATE
Silver recommends that couples have a monthly or quarterly “money date” where they check in on their progress.
He recommends you ask questions such as: Where are we now in relation to our goals? What are some new expenses we have? Are we losing track of where we wanted to be at this point in our lives? Where do we want to be five years from now?
Watson and her husband hold monthly budgeting meetings where they discuss their finances. These meetings, she said, have set them up to buy a house and move from Washington, D.C., to northwest Arkansas.
Planning is important. How you do it depends on what works best for you and your significant other. You can use an Excel spreadsheet, paper, or a website or app.
Watson and her husband have used different apps throughout their relationship. First, they used Splitwise, which lets you track your bills and split them between several people. Then they started using YNAB, an app that stands for “You need a budget.” YNAB’s format is to make sure every dollar you earn is allocated for a specific purpose.
GET PROFESSIONAL HELP
Sometimes, financial struggles can feel overwhelming. If you feel like you can’t communicate with your partner about finances or you both have large debts, you might want to seek professional help, Simonia said.
Couples therapy can be a great space to approach this conversation and understand your partner’s financial behavior.
If you are looking for help to map out a plan, financial advisors can be a great resource. Some employers offer free consultations with financial advisors. If your employer doesn’t, non-profit organizations around the country also offer these services.
Examples include the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, which matches people with financial counselors to tackle debt, and Savvy Ladies, which offers free financial help to women.