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Make My Partner Happy Have a Happy Family Manage Money Efficiently

Before You Say 'I Do,' Can Couples Ease Financial Anxieties?

Advisors can give good advice for those who are struggling

Susanna Speier Staff Reporter
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So much happens on our phones nowadays, and I believe that apps can be helpful to couples looking to track expenses, save for goals and know if they are overspending.
- Michelle Buonincontri, Certified Financial Planner


A marriage and cohabitation study published by Pew Research Foundation in 2019 revealed that two-thirds of unmarried cohabiting couples in the United States cite either their own or their partner’s lack of financial readiness as the primary obstacle to marriage. To be clear, this is a focus group comprised of unmarried and unengaged couples who currently live with a romantic partner. Maybe they hope to eventually marry the romantic partner they’re living with or they hope to tie the knot with someone they have yet to meet.

Whether it’s soon or sometime in the future, out of a focus group of a little under 10,000, Pew learned that of cohabiting couples in the United States who explicitly state that they eventually want to be married, a lack of financial readiness – either on their partner’s part or their own lack of financial readiness --- is the primary obstacle.

Enduring Other Obstacles

It doesn’t take a Nate Silver mathematical aptitude to peruse this data and extract some common sense inferences. It might, in fact, be more peculiar if crippling education loans, wage stagnation, and the systemic dysfunctions of health care in the U.S. were not playing out in cohabitation partnership demographics. Having recently finished reading Elisabeth Rosenthal’s book, “An American Sickness,” which paints a deterministic picture of lives hovering one diagnosis short of crippling financial distress, it would be difficult for me not to toggle Rosenthal’s insights on to this recent Pew Research data. Continuing along the current health care path, even insured Americans with preexisting medical conditions may no longer have access to even a protracted road to financial readiness.

Is financial readiness simply a justified pain point or is it becoming a new baseline prerequisite of marriage? And at what point are cohabiting couples hoping to eventually get married setting a prohibitively high bar for one another and for themselves? In a nation of diminishing competitive healthcare markets where the illusion of transparency is disseminated through powerful marketing departments and lobbyists, will the option of matrimony, like the option of a graduate school degree be determined by privilege?

“I can certainly understand a couple wanting to each clean up their credit histories, pay off high credit card balances or save up for a wedding or home purchase fund prior to getting married,” San Francisco-based Certified Financial Planner Steve Branton reflects. “That said, I think there is no substitute for both partners working together, having frank conversations about their assets, debts, income, and spending both before and after marriage.”

Birmingham, Alabama-based Certified Financial Planner Ashley Folkes also emphasizes the importance of addressing financial anxieties, straight on. “At the end of the day, it’s more emotionally driven,” Folkes points out. “We’re sitting down with a couple and saying, ‘what are your goals,’ equally, together we put a plan in place. Get them to paint a picture of how they see things in the future. It’s not a tangible thing but it’s tangible in the future.”

Educating Couples on Debt

Phoenix, Arizona-based Certified Financial Planner Michelle Buonincontri counsels couples that forgo marriage and live together on the benefits of creating a cohabitation agreement. Buonincontri tries to help unmarried couples understand debt and how acquiring property and asset titling works so they know what they’re giving up by not getting married. Her goal is to “help millennials understand the importance of money mindset, their life values, and employ tools to help them identify their money story.” Specifically, she works with them to “cover the basics of banking, investing, cash flow management, building a spending plan, and establishing strategies to keep them on track. We can’t even get the retirement and investing until this basic foundation has been established.”

So does the custom cash flow management strategy and a spending plan make both partners vow ready? Branton says his “clients often have deep-seated fears about their future spouse’s financial skeletons in the closet and the damage these will do once they married.”

Trusting Our Partners

Also emphasizing the importance of honesty and transparency, Folkes “will not accept a new client relationship with a couple unless they are both involved.” Adding that trust deteriorates when someone in the relationship is trying to hide money then drawing from his own financial advising experience, he says, “I had a couple, both were 60, they were both doctors and they came to me and said ‘OK we’re ready to retire and here are our resources, can we do it?’ I’d done some research and put stuff together for them. They were so off-base with each other’s picture of retirement, they got in a fight in my office, the woman started crying in my office, and they had to leave.”

Does this mean the more stable financial partner needs to toss over a metaphoric ring buoy at high tide for the partner drowning in debt to grab hold of under the assumption it will enable them to swim safely to shore without getting sucked into the undertow? “It’s a very good metaphor and I think it’s pretty accurate” responded Folkes, whose family relied on food stamps when he was growing up. “At the end of the day, you want to spend less so you can save more. Especially if you have a shortfall.”

Warning for Couples

What are the red flags at high tide warnings to look out for as you integrate the new cash flow strategy via a financial management app?

“So much happens on our phones nowadays, and I believe that apps can be helpful to couples looking to track expenses, save for goals and know if they are overspending. However, there is a missing in this space around forward forecasting expenses and cash-flow and this can be done manually with a monthly spreadsheet - like an old fashioned check register. Because checking your balance on a phone doesn’t cut it and causes cash-flow issues resulting in hefty overdraft fees, late charges, and bad credit,” warns Buonincontri.

There are other ways to allay anxieties about a potential spouses’ lack of financial readiness if you’re still apprehensive about taking the next step.

“Premarital agreements can address debts and assets prior to marriage if they are a concern,” says Branton, who believes nothing touches a long-term relationship more than money. “Once clients have that financial discussion, which is ongoing, of course, maybe even a monthly financial ‘date’, then apps, in my personal experience, can be a good tool in maintaining transparency about their agreements around spending.”

Branton and his partner use the couples edition of Mint for managing their shared finances and he likes the app’s convenience as well as its transparency.

Establish Goals

Loathe to recommend apps, Folkes instead advises a couple to “start by sitting down and discussing where you want to be financially at different stages of the game. Next start establishing goals to get your there, and then prioritize those goals in accordance with importance. Create the overall plan with current resources and earning power. Establish roles for each other to handle. Have periodic reviews together as a family, so you can hold each other accountable, celebrate successes along the way.”

Folkes also believes the anxiety component can also be worked on together. “Don't beat yourself or each other up if you fall short,” Folkes said. “Just make sure you pick yourself up and get right back to the plan. Be learners, take free classes or seminars together. Work with a financial planner, etc.” 

About the Writer

Latest Articles by Susanna Speier

Contributors Jordan Murphy
  • Hi Susanna, Steve Branton has a husband, not a wife.

    • Thanks Angela. David here from AppGrooves. We let Susanna know and fixed the copy. Thanks for being a diligent reader.

  • Thank you Angela. Made the fix immediately

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