A Couple’s Guide To Co-Budgeting Like Pros

When it comes to romantic relationships, there are some fairly standard “serious conversation” topics that come up: future travel, work-related grievances, family trauma, your litany of exes, someone’s lactose intolerance. But for all the difficult conversations you’ll find yourselves navigating together, few remain quite as taboo as money. 

Our finances undercut just about everything we do in a relationship — from picking up wine for dinner to splitting rent. And while actually speaking about money is still uncomfortable for most, ignoring it can lead to all kinds of conflict. “So much of the advice we hear when it comes to personal finance is numbers-oriented,” says Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, LMSW and financial therapist, “but humans make decisions based off of their emotions and based off of psychology, so especially with couples, that’s something we need to take into consideration.” In her experience, she’s found that matters of money are a leading cause for divorce — beating out infidelity, even. That’s why she believes financial therapy (or just frank, honest rapport about money) is so important: It acts as a way of interrogating what money represents for both parties in a couple, and how that shows up in their relationship.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for effective co-budgeting. In fact, according to Krista Phillips, General Manager, Head of Credit Card Marketing, Products, Loyalty and Digital for Wells Fargo, a couple’s financial plan should always feel specific to them. “Whether a couple plans to split expenses evenly, divide costs based on their incomes, or merge finances, figuring out the best way to pay for things is highly personal,” she says. “What works for one couple may not work for another.” So, the question is: How do you and your partner go about locking in a financial plan that suits you both? And is there anything less sexy than sitting down to talk about credit scores? 

For some much needed guidance, we asked Byran-Podvin and Phillips to weigh in. Ahead, we’ve broken down their best co-budgeting advice for every stage of a relationship — from the nuances of early stage bill-splitting to full-on mortgage divisions.

Splitting the bill

However uncouth it may sound, Bryan-Podvin suggests making money a first-date talking point.  “In those early days of dating, we’re having a lot of conversations about what our families are like, or what we want to be doing in three years. And those types of conversations easily flow into bigger money talks,” she says. Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re obligated to offer up the balance of your student loan debt over drinks. Instead, it can come in the form of a conversation about priorities: What feels like it should come first, living abroad or buying an apartment? Are you thinking about grad school? What are the expenses that you find most meaningful? 

When it comes to grabbing the check, though, Bryan-Podvin encourages a little more bluntness: “If the check keeps getting picked up by person A, then person A can say, ‘Hey, I’ve loved grabbing dinner with you and going out with you. Next time, would you mind picking up the check?’” While not always easy per se, as she sees it, this kind of transparency will keep avoidable, little resentments from building beneath the surface.

“One of the best things a couple can do is keep the lines of communication open and have regular discussions about their finances,” adds Phillips. And yes, this even applies in the earliest stages of dating. 

Traveling together

Bryan-Podvin emphasizes the fact that trips are an opportunity for the money-talk to occur pretty organically. In fact, when gearing up to travel, she suggests starting out with something as simple as asking how much your partner wants to spend outright. “There’s nothing abnormal about asking that question here because it’s key, practical information for the sake of your plans,” she says. And if you notice a discomfort in your partner, this is a welcome opportunity for you to guide that conversation. Start out by sharing how much you’re comfortable with, or offering up a handful of options at different price points. Then, once you’ve nailed down the larger items (i.e. plane tickets and accomodations), you can use things like dinner reservations or museum tickets as ways of engaging in conversation about your financial priorities. Is blowing money on an extravagant meal your ideal travel move? Or would you prefer to use that money on nicer accommodation? Sharing these financial details can help to bring you closer to one another — and ensure that your vacation goes according to plan. 

Other people’s weddings

Everyone has different principles or unwritten rules when it comes to weddings — be it a question of travel costs, attire, accomodations, or gifts. And this is where you may find that you and your partner have very different approaches. Bryan-Podvin advises sharing your boundaries or limits, depending on whose wedding is on the table. Are you someone who says no to the bachelorette party, but gives a generous cash wedding gift? Do you adjust your gift depending on how far you’ve traveled for the wedding, or how well you know the person? “We all have these little rules in our head. So just asking your significant other out loud, ‘What do you typically do?’ can really help,” she says. 

Moving in together

“One of the biggest challenges that many couples encounter when moving in together is not establishing a budget or long-term goals,” notes Phillips. While juggling security deposits, renovation costs, and so many other financial details, it can be hard to look towards the future. But for the sake of your shared financial wellbeing, this is key. “Commit to establishing an attainable budget and make a habit of reviewing it together every month, particularly in the beginning,” Phillips advises. “Explore alternatives if the current arrangement isn’t working, and think practically and emotionally about short and long-term financial goals.”

By the same token, Bryan-Podvin suggests utilizing all the shared paperwork as an excuse to tackle the unsexy, nitty-gritty financial details of your new living situation: Are you splitting everything 50/50? Who puts the utilities under in their name? Do you write separate checks or use Venmo? And what happens if one of you falls behind on rent? “One person might have terrible credit, so it would be really beneficial for them to keep a utility bill in their name so they can start building credit.” Bryan-Podvin advises. ”Then, once you move in together, you should also keep those money conversations going. You want it to be a living, breathing part of your relationship.”

Getting married

Of course, marriage is certainly not a prerequisite for serious couples. But for those who do intend to tie the knot, there are a few important considerations. First among them is typically the engagement ring. 

For Bryan-Podvin, the ring is more than just a way to pop the question: “How you have ‘the ring conversation’ is reflective of how you’ll have most conversations about money,” she says. “For Gen Zers and millennials already facing debt, that ring could be a potential down payment, It could be student loan payoff,” she says. And while there’s some inherent allure to the tried-and-true “surprise” engagement, discussing the nature of the ring can help ensure that you’re kicking off your engagement with both of your priorities taken into consideration. “A lot of couples are forgoing the big, fancy, flashy engagement ring,” she says. “You can always say something like, ‘look, I want to get you a beautiful band that represents whatever our beliefs are, but I’d much rather spend $5,000 on a nice honeymoon or on a down payment. And maybe, down the road, we’ll be in a place where we can talk about upgrading the ring.”

Obviously, the buck doesn’t stop there. Next up is the orchestration of the wedding itself — which can often be a pricey affair. And while theoretically this day is about you and your person, this is also a solid stage for family drama. “When you accept money from either of your families, you and your partner need to understand what strings are attached to those dollars,” says Bryan-Podvin. For example, does that money come with decision-making power? Does that “gift” correspond not just to the wedding itself, but also, where you settle down after? 

She also advises acknowledging that, in many cultures, the wedding may be more about the coming together of families. “Be cognizant that if you’re of different cultural backgrounds, financial boundaries can feel very different when it comes to something like a wedding,” she says. So make sure you’re communicating from the very first step about the role each of your families will play…and at what cost). 

If you’re considering making a wedding registry, Bryan-Podvin recommends incorporating your values accordingly. For example, some couples may want just a honeymoon fund. For others, charity donations. Others still may want classic goods like a blender or occasion-specific stemware. Be sure you and your partner have taken the time to align on how you want to approach your registry — being that it’ll serve you both in the long run. “I don’t think there’s one right way to do this,” says Bryan-Podvin, “and I know a lot of people are getting pushback on registries being old-school and tacky. But I also think that a lot of young couples don’t have the financial startup to furnish their homes all at once,” she says. 

Merging bank accounts

Whether marriage figures into your future plans or not, combining bank accounts may still arrive as a “next step” in your relationship — and it’s a challenging one. “Like many millennials, my parents were divorced,” Bryan-Podvin shares. “And my mother led me to believe that no one should be without any separate funds of their own.” So, her first point of advice on the matter is to acknowledge that a desire to keep separate funds is not indicative of a lack of trust or commitment. It’s a question of family history, personal safety, and practically. “How you actually end up dividing personal funds and collective funds doesn’t really matter,” she says. “What matters is having those open and honest conversations.”

Phillips also notes that if a couple opts to share money, they should still consider having some separation. “It’s a good idea to maintain individual credit cards or savings accounts that can be used for gifts, girls trips, or other things that aren’t necessarily a shared expense,” she says. “Proactively discussing individual and shared financial goals, and being open to adjusting the arrangement as needed, is going to be the best approach to take,” she says. 

If open and honest discussion isn’t enough, however, there’s always a prenuptial agreement, which Bryan-Podvin says can be a good choice if you and your partner are dealing with assets that your family has requested remain separate. If the idea of a contract seems too extreme, she’s a huge fan of what she calls “money dates” as an alternative. “A money date is sitting down and talking to your partner at a regular interval, whether it’s once a month, once a week, once a quarter, about what’s going on with your finances and making sure you’re on the right track,” she explains. 

She also emphasizes the fact that it’s important for both parties to have equal and transparent access to financial information: “I think one of the best things all couples can do is ensure they all have access to the accounts, meaning everybody has the same login,” she says. “Having those open and honest conversations really helps prevent that feeling of resentment, fear, or the need to keep things hidden away to keep them safe.”

Fortunately, Phillips adds, nothing needs to be written in stone: “If a couple is approaching living together as a trial period, then I’d advise approaching merged finances as a trial period as well. Regardless of the tactics you and your partner take, ensure that they’re easy to unwind if the relationship does not work out.”

Planning for the future 

“Future planning” is one of those vague, amorphous terms we throw around with frequency. For couples, it can mean anything from home ownership and kids, to second properties or retirement. And, because planning for the future can mean something different for each couple, Bryan-Podvin’s advice holds up across the board: be sure you have a will, a trust, and life insurance. “These are things that tend to be extremely affordable for Gen Z and millennials, but often get overlooked,” she says. Regardless of what your goals are for the future, Bryan-Podvin’s advice is to be actively considering your long game. There’s no reason to put off investing in retirement, continuing to pay down those student loans, or putting aside money in a 529 or otherwise education account for your children. 

Future planning goes both ways, though. Often, it will also include caring for an older generation, like parents or grandparents. In this case, Bryan-Podvin advises putting yourselves first. “It can sound really selfish, but if you have a couple who ends up in the sandwich generation — they have younger children and aging parents — constantly putting money towards their parents’ long-term care and their child’s 529 plan will likely not leave room for them to care for themselves.” This is part of a vicious cycle: As the result of prioritizing  everyone else over your own retirement funds, you’ll likely have to lean on your own children for support, leaving a burden that can run generations deep. So, to avoid this cycle, Bryan-Podvin advises making sure your own financial footing is as solid as possible — then going about making plans to care for parents next. “Make sure you’ve got an emergency fund and you’re safely investing in retirement. Then, once you have those things figured out you can set aside some money for either long-term care or child rearing.” 

Phillips says the variables between couples make it hard to say what a good requirement looks like. “A good rule of thumb is to build an emergency fund or safety net to cover 3-6 months’ worth of projected expenses,” she says.

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