By Tina Smithers Peckham
As much as we hate to admit it, nothing in life is guaranteed—not even the love of your life. While a marital agreement (a.k.a. a prenup) may feel like you’re headed for failed matrimony, it simply isn’t the case. “Just because you set up a formal or informal marital agreement, it doesn’t mean you’re planning on getting a divorce. In fact, it means the opposite,” says Pam Friedman, certified financial planner and author of I Now Pronounce You Financially Fit: How to Protect Your Money in Marriage and Divorce. “It’s good financial planning. In our society, agreements are just a part of life.” But if a marital agreement isn’t for you, there are other things for couples to consider when it comes to matters of money.
Communicate with your partner. Without an open dialogue, a couple’s foundation can grow weak over time, so communication is key. Women may be afraid to bring up finances with a new partner for fear of being viewed as a gold digger, while men might steer clear of the topic due to seeming cheap or controlling. “We all have a fear of being perceived in a bad way by our partners, when in fact, the reason why you partnered up is to have support in your life,” says Friedman.
Understand your partner’s attitude about money. Friedman suggests broaching the topic of finances with harmless questions, such as, “How did your parents handle money?” or “How would you spend your money if you won the lottery?” Also find out how your partner feels about stay-at-home parenting, what their financial goals might be and how they feel about investing. “These conversations may seem hard or confrontational, but it’s actually quite the opposite,” she says. “It builds intimacy and teamwork that is needed to resolve problems like getting debt reduced or starting an emergency fund. Everyone should have an emergency fund with at least six months of income in it in the event of job loss, death or even divorce.”
Know your financial resources. According to Friedman, people have two sets of monetary resources: One being your income and expenses, and two being your assets, such as a 401K, car, home or even your parents’ assets that you might someday inherit. Also take into account any credit card debt and student loans. “It all becomes a part of your financial picture as a couple,” she says. “Gather your financial statements and your spouse’s statements so you know what you have.”
Budget and make a plan for joint and separate expenses. While everyone is different when it comes to combining finances, Friedman suggests having a combined account for joint expenses such as rent, utilities, food, etc., with each person contributing a set amount to that account. “Each contributing to that joint account rather than having your paychecks go directly to the account is probably smart at first,” she says. “Then you can see how it goes.”
Hope for the best; plan for the worst. All women should have a basic understanding of investing and know what is considered marital and what is considered separate property in their state, which is where having a certified financial planner could come in handy. “Many of us think of divorce as a heart attack in our marriage. Some of us will prepare for it, and others will hope for the best,” says Friedman. “While you can buy insurance for your health or your home, marriage is uninsurable. All you can do is prepare and educate yourself.”