All over the country on Valentine's Day, men were down on bended knee proposing marriage. They spoke of love and affection and devotion. Few, however, mentioned what really matters: money.
Crass, maybe. But true nonetheless.
When you think about it, couples don't fight over love. They fight over money. They fight because one person didn't balance the checkbook or made a bone-headed investment without consulting the other. They fight because one partner exerts dictatorial control over the money, or because one has secretly amassed thousands of dollars in debt on a credit card, imperiling the couple's finances.
Whether the issues are big or small, money will prove a powerful force impacting your marriage -- sometimes overtly in the form of routine arguments; sometimes quietly as animosities seethe beneath the surface for years, only to explode into a potentially marriage-ending supernova.
What couples don't always grasp is that money is rarely the real culprit. It's the lack of communication, often stemming from a lack of knowledge about each other's personal financial quirks and beliefs.
So, some time between "Yes, I will marry you," and "I do," you and your partner need to have The Money Talk -- the key questions all couples should ask of one another.
Here are four of the more important questions to ask each other, since they provide insight and information on how money will flow through your marriage.
1. What Are Your Assets and Liabilities?
This question is paramount because assets and liabilities are the basic building blocks of the financial life you'll live together. Assets (banks accounts, investments, retirement plans and a house) help you strive for the life you want. The liabilities (a mortgage, credit-card debt, auto loans and leases) will hold you back.
Your goal is to pinpoint where you are financially as a couple so that you can map out where you want to go together. That could mean determining how much you want to save each month for retirement, or how much you want to put into an account for a new house, a new car or an annual vacation.
It also could mean talking about how you each use debt and the amount of debt you each have -- and mapping out a plan to pay off as quickly as possible the combined debt you will have as a family.
The best way to approach this: Present each other with a copy of your net-worth statement, a simple list of all your assets and liabilities. And voice no judgments. Mocking a partner's choices will simply lead to future silence.
2. What Is Your Money History?
What you experienced financially as a child -- how your parents managed their bills, how they talked or yelled about money, what they taught you about saving and spending -- has shaped who you are today.
Problems arise in marriage because partners don't always see money from the same perspective. You might abhor debt for anything other than a mortgage, yet your spouse-to-be thinks nothing of putting lunch, groceries and the afternoon Slurpee on a credit card, and then paying the minimum each month and allowing the balance to roll over.
In talking to one another about how you each see money, you will begin to understand one another's money habits. That, in turn, will help you find a common approach for managing money successfully as a couple.
Neither of you will -- nor should -- get your way completely. Marriage is about compromise. A better understanding early on of how you each see and use money will give you the tools to find a middle ground you're each happy with when financial discord arises.
3. How Should We Divide Financial Duties?
In many marriages, one partner exerts financial dominance over the other, leaving the silenced partner anxious and angry. Other times, one partner shirks financial duties because of disinterest, leaving the other to shoulder the burden. Neither is fair.
Couples should determine how to divvy up the various financial obligations that exist. Maybe one takes charge of investing and the other balances the checkbook. Play to each other's strengths. If you're good at challenging bureaucracy, maybe you agree to handle the insurance companies and the medical bills.
The point is that you both have an obligation to the family's financial well-being, and both spouses need to be aware of the household's financial situation.
If one partner wants to opt out of the daily financial minutiae, that's fine, so long as the other spouse is OK with handling the full obligation. But even then, you need to remain aware of what's going on with the finances so there are no unsavory surprises.
4. Do We Combine Accounts or Operate Individually?
This is a divisive issue. Many financial pros argue that operating from individual accounts helps maintain marital peace. Since neither partner knows what happens in the other's account, there's no bickering.
Maybe. But it's far from perfect. Resentments can emerge if one partner is better at saving and always has money for larger, more meaningful purchases. Moreover, individual accounts mask the family's true financial position, which can hamper the main purpose of marriage: operating as a team.
If neither of you know how much money is really flowing through the individual accounts, nor how much is being saved and invested, then it's impossible to plan a future together.
That doesn't mean individual accounts can't work. They can. But they require a large degree of openness so that you can both work toward common goals.
Ultimately, all of these questions are about one thing: communication. Learn to talk about money early and often, and you can mitigate the financial tensions that are normal in all marriages.