When My Relationship Got Serious Enough for the Money Talk

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Every one of us has had "aha! moments." Epiphanies. Days when we reach a crossroads and realize that we have to make some changes. For the next two months, we're sharing moments like those in our Life Stage Lessons series: Real stories straight from the financial lives of our DailyFinance contributors about times when they realized they were due for a serious course correction. So read on, learn from our mistakes, and get inspired to improve your relationship with your money.

A lot changes when your relationship turns from "casual" to "serious." You talk about moving in together. You talk about your future. You talk about who gets primary custody of the TV remote, now that you're no longer in "I need to impress this person" mode, and you're done enduring "Modern Family" marathons.

(I kid, but only partly.)

But one thing I hadn't bargained for when my boyfriend and I started getting serious? Having the money talk.

Money Is a Part of Your Future Together

When you're contemplating spending your future with someone, money needs to be a serious part of your discussion. After all, money is one of the issues couples fight about the most, and it can get ugly if you're not both on the same page.

I know from experience. My partner and I don't fight much anymore now that we've settled into our relationship. We know each other really well. We know what works for us, and we've already worked out most of the major issues that tripped us up early on. But when we started thinking about finances in terms of "ours" instead of "mine" and "yours," things got messy.

Money is the Root of Many Problems

Suddenly, it really bugged me that he didn't contribute much to his retirement accounts, and I hated the fact that he lent money to family and friends who never paid it back. For his part, he didn't like the fact that I love high-end restaurant dining –- which adds up to hundreds of dollars each month.

We realized we needed to just be honest and clear with each other about our financial priorities. We figured out that we were going to treat our cash as a team instead of two separate entities. And like any good team, we needed to start with a clear "mission" or vision.

For example: We agreed that our retirement savings came first. We needed to max out our 401(k) and individual retirement account contributions before we'd even consider upgrading to a nicer apartment or taking vacations together. I agreed to cut back on my restaurant dining; he stopped lending money to friends and family.

Committed Together to Entrepreneurship

Then we took an extra step: We decided to commit to entrepreneurship as a path to wealth, despite its risks. We found ways to save time and money as small business owners, and worked side-by-side to nurture our small enterprise from an idea to a thriving income.

So while you're hashing out things like whose family you're spending the holidays with this year, make sure you also have some serious, honest talks about money. Here are the big things you need to discuss:
  • Savings vs. spending. If one of you has a you-only-live-once attitude toward your cash and the other is terrified to spend a dime, you're heading toward trouble. Ask yourselves what money means to you -- is it meant to be enjoyed right now, saved as much as possible or some combination? What will that look like in action?
  • Lifestyle standards. How much "stuff" do you need to be happy? What do you like to spend your time doing? What do you want your home to look like? If you're planning on spending your life with someone, you need to have similar expectations when it comes to how fancy or bare-bones that life will be. Compromise can be reached, but only if you're upfront with each other.
  • Long-term goals. In terms of your career and your life, where do you want to be in five years, 10 years, 20 years? Do you want a job that lets you live the high life or one that fulfills you even if it doesn't pay much? Do you want to settle down in a cozy suburb with 2.5 kids and a dog, or would you rather travel the world and seek out adventure? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions; the important thing is that you're honest with yourself -- and your significant other -- about what will make you happy and that you're both working toward the same things.
  • Household budget. Whether you decide to combine finances or divvy up expenses and each have your own spending money, you need to get clear on who will pay for what and what your household priorities are. You're in this together, and that includes how you spend your money, whether you have joint or separate accounts.
  • Debt. Being with someone involves accepting any baggage that might come with them, and that includes financial baggage. If you're struggling with debt, you need to come clean and work out a plan to take of it. Don't keep this deep dark secret from your partner. It will come out eventually.
  • Investment styles and risk tolerance. You've worked out some savings goals, but how are you going to get there? Do you have a conservative investment style or would you rather pursue some riskier ventures in the hopes of a bigger payout? Again, there's no right or wrong answer; the key thing is that you're both operating by the same play book and you're both comfortable with your decisions.
The money talk can be awkward, but it's absolutely necessary to ensure a happy future together. So suck it up, lay your cards on the table, and start working together when it comes to your cash. I'll leave it to you to work out the who-gets-the-remote debate.

Paula Pant ditched her 9-to-5 job in 2008. She's traveled to 30 countries, owns seven rental units and runs a business from her laptop. Her blog, Afford Anything, is a gathering spot for rebels who want to ditch the cubicle, shatter limits and live life on your own terms -- while also building wealth, security and freedom.
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