iStock_64968931_XSmallJoe grew up in a financially relaxed household. Money came easily to his parents and when they needed something, it was there. He wasn’t spoiled, just well taken care of. Lucy was just the opposite. Money was scarce. Choices had to be made.

When Joe and Lucy got married, their two very different financial tracks had to merge. Much like Joe and Lucy, all of us have stories about what money was like growing up. As we enter into and manage relationships, merging those financial stories is a crucial element to the relationships’ long-term success. The following points provide guidance on how to do so.

Set expectations around your goals 

Funding your children’s schooling is a classic example. For the Joe-like individuals, the answer seems obvious – their parents paid for their schooling, so they feel obligated to do the same. The Lucy answer is starkly different. Whether it’s paying for schooling themselves, or getting some kind of scholarship, they need to have some skin in the game. Whatever the outcome, being proactive with a plan is what matters.

Couples at or near retirement can face equally difficult crossroads. One person may be under the impression they’re going to downsize the home to buy a small condo and spend their time traveling. The other person is completely attached to the home they’ve lived in for 40 years and has no intention of selling it. They want to stay closer to their family and the community relationships they have built. Wow! Sounds like fireworks. Again, plan ahead. Don’t wait until your last day of work to have this discussion. Have it now.

If your goals align, great. If not, tweak them to arrive at a compromise. Goals, plans and circumstances change, so continue to have the conversation. I suggest an annual check in. That way things can evolve naturally and you’re not stuck dealing with a dramatic change 20 years down the road.

Who manages the finances? 

It’s completely natural for one person in the relationship to gravitate to the finances. In our example, it’s typically the Lucy types – those that had to make choices about how to spend their money. Over time, that person comes to know their finances like the back of their hand. So what happens if that person is suddenly no longer around? Financial relationships can often live on a teeter totter. One person carries the weight, and the other is left suspended in air. Once the weight is gone, the other person may land pretty hard. Neither person in the relationship wants this, so it’s best to take steps to ensure both people have a baseline understanding of the household finances.

Tip: If you’re working with professionals (CFP®, CPA, etc.), make sure the non-financial person attends all meetings. This allows all parties to increase their plan acumen steadily over time and establish relationships with the professionals.

Full disclosure 

Be honest with yourself and with your partner about your financial habits. Until recently, I’d never encountered a “secret bank account.” In this case, someone siphoned money into a bank account their spouse was completely unaware of. The intention was to create a pool of money that could continually fund their spending habits. A secret like this is a ticking time bomb. It’s probably one of the primary factors behind the statistic that finance-related issues are the number one cause of divorce. Divorce is much more catastrophic than a secret bank account. Again, it’s best to have full disclosure.

Review your various account statements – bank, investment, credit cards, loans, etc. I know it’s easy to toss them into the shredder with the envelope still sealed, but most of us need to be aware of what we spend, so it’s good to get in the habit of reviewing the statements. Twenty minutes a month is all it should take. The intent is for you to get a rough baseline of where your money is going. Knowledge is power. Understanding the big picture of your spending and savings habits is crucial to your long-term success.


Like Joe and Lucy, we all come from different financial backgrounds. The above discussion topics will help those looking to merge paths as well as those who are on an independent path. Start with setting the expectations and defining goals together. From there, ensure that all parties have a baseline understanding of the financial picture. Move to full disclosure – for most of us, this should be nothing more than getting all of the information on the table. Before you know it, you’ll have a mutually agreed upon plan. Day by day and week by week, you’ll live this plan so you can accomplish all that is important to you.