How couples can master the financial balancing act

It’s true that a marriage requires give and take, but it’s vital to a family’s overall well-being for both partners to find an equitable way to share responsibilities, especially when it comes to managing money.

Jonathan Elderfield/Jonathan Elderfield Photography via AP/File
Bicia Milioto, left, and Nick Trivigno celebrate their marriage just moments after the wedding ceremony at The Liberty House in Jersey City, NJ. (July 11, 2015).

“No marriage is 50/50 all the time. Sometimes it’s 70/30, 80/20 or even 90/10.” Plenty of us have heard some version of this relationship adage. The part often left unspoken is that hopefully you won’t always be the party putting in more.

It’s true that a marriage requires give and take, but it’s vital to a family’s overall well-being for both partners to find an equitable way to share responsibilities, especially when it comes to managing money.

So what does an equitable balance look like, and how do you get there?

Rethinking how you view 50/50

Couples may need to redefine how 50/50 looks to them. The division of responsibility between partners doesn’t have to appear 50/50 in order to achieve a balance that works for that partnership.

Imagine an old-fashioned scale in perfect balance. One side of the scale holds a hunk of rock, and the other a very tall stack of paper. Even though the items on each side look different, they weigh the same.

The contributions each partner brings to a marriage — and specifically money-management and financial-planning tasks — can, and should, be the same way. Each person brings something different to the balancing act, but when they weigh their contributions, together they achieve a steady, stable balance.

Creating balance through communication

To arrive at your new vision of balance, communication is essential. However, research indicates that couples often don’t talk about money as much or as well as they should.

A 2015 survey by Fidelity Investments found that 40% of respondents didn’t know their spouse’s annual salary, 60% didn’t know how much both partners would get in Social Security benefits in retirement, and 1 in 3 couldn’t agree on how well-off they’d be when they retire.

As a financial advisor with experience facilitating such communication between partners, I’ve identified four steps that help couples talk their way to better balance:

1. Define your personal, professional and financial goals

Defining your goals individually can help you see where you’re in concert, where you diverge, and what you have to do to achieve agreement, harmony and balance. Do you think you care more about retirement planning than your partner? Is he or she more worried about getting the kids through college? Are you not on the same page — or even in the same book — about what you’ll both do once you retire?

Study your likenesses and differences, make sure you both understand what each of you thinks should be your collective priorities, and pay close attention to honoring those priorities.

2. Clarify your roles

Here’s where the balancing act really begins. Your roles in getting to your common goals won’t be the same, and that’s fine. You’re different people with different strengths, earning different incomes from unique career paths. Consider how each partner’s contribution will define his or her role. Some roles will be short term and others long term.

But no matter how you divvy up the financial tasks, you’re both going to need to shoulder responsibility here. Do not allow just one person in the partnership to control the finances.

3. Give each other permission to ask for help

It’s vital to create a partnership in which both partners are comfortable asking for help. No one can keep everything in perfect balance all the time. Whether it’s professional (“My meeting’s running long. Can you pick up the kids today?”), financial (“We need to boost my 401(k) contributions this year. Can you shoulder more household expenses?”) or personal (“I had a rough day. Can I get a hug?”), it’s important to be able to ask for and receive help.

It’s also necessary to discuss the times when help wasn’t on the way. If you’ve experienced the feeling that your partner wasn’t there to help you, you should explore why and how it happened, and how you both can prevent it happening in the future.

4. Get professional help

A good financial advisor not only helps couples make informed investment decisions but also facilitates conversations about money, finances and investments. Think back to your goals: Have you and your partner addressed them adequately? Perhaps an advisor can help with allocating roles.

An advisor can also help you develop a routine for monthly or quarterly money discussions with your partner, so you can check in on how you both feel about your finances and reassess your roles. The simple act of having a couple sit down with a financial planner can help get the partners on the same page — or help them realize they’re already there.

Finding harmony

Today, American couples face a difficult balancing act. They must manage their careers and finances, handle competing schedules and commitments, likely while raising children and possibly caring for aging parents. No one partner should be expected to manage all of this alone. The more that couples can communicate openly and work together to find harmony — especially if they bring different strengths and skills to the table — the better off they will be.

Sabrina Lowell, CFP, is chief operating officer of Mosaic Financial Partners in San Francisco. This article first appeared at NerdWallet. Learn more about Sabrina on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor.

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