We Are Engaged! 5 Money Conversations To Have Before Getting Married

We were walking down the path by the river to go meet our friends. As it was the last day before our cross-country move and we still hadn’t finished packing or cleaning, this was a bit of an interesting choice. I didn’t think it was a good idea to pause our cleaning frenzy to go swim in the lake. Despite my hesitation, Mr. Mechanic convinced me that we had time in the day for a little bit of fun. We could go to the lake just for an hour or two while the weather was nice, and then tackle the rest of the chores in the afternoon.

He led the way, a big goofy grin on his face. I chatted with him as twigs crunched under our feet and noticed he replied with just one word answers and murmured agreements. He seemed nervous for some reason.

When we made it halfway to the lake, the path opened up to the little bridge we had spent our daily walks crossing and admiring. Our friends were there, waiting with cameras at the ready, flowers spread decoratively along the stonework. Little clues from earlier in the day fell into place, and I realized he was about to propose.

A snap of the bridge I took in the fall, the autumn before the proposal.

What Do We Do Now?

I said yes, of course. We celebrated and swam in the lake and finished our clean up with time to spare to feed our friends a huge spaghetti meal eaten out of Tupperware. 

Afterwards, our to-do list began to feel like later levels of Tetris. Not only did we plan a move during a pandemic, sign a lease without seeing the property first, and furnish it with second-hand finds, now family members want to know a wedding date to plan around. With many gatherings getting postponed due to COVID-19 and continued uncertainty around planning events with large groups of people, it will be tricky to pin down a date.

Luckily, we have been happily together for 11 years and we don’t feel a rush to get to the altar. There are plenty of things to do before we get married. Since this is a finance blog, I thought I would list out 5 money conversations any couple should have before getting married.

1. List individual and shared goals

If you weren’t sure about your mutual goals before, a good time to check up on them is while you’re betrothed. What goals do you have individually and as a couple?

Short term goals:

Mr. Mechanic wants to finish his residency strong to become a top-notch doc. I’d like to see my software engineering skills progress to senior levels. I want to get good at surfing, Mr. Mechanic wants to start running every day. I want to fill our house with greenery, he wants to plant a herb garden. 

Long term goals:

Together, we’d like to move abroad some day to Spain or (maybe) Italy. We both want to learn a new language and are intrigued by immersing ourselves in new cultures. I want to become financially independent and slow travel, Mr. Mechanic wants to continue to work for a while. We revisited our vision for a future work optional life

These things give us something to work towards for the next 5 years at least. In terms of saving for long term plans, we will need to save up in the case of a future international move, but neither of us are particularly interested in owning a house or making other large purchases. Most of our savings will go towards retirement. We live well within our means now to give us more flexibility in the future. Getting started with these conversations help us envision our future and work towards common goals.

2. Talk Money To Me

One important aspect of marriage is to discuss how you are going to manage your money. On the logistical level, how will you pay the bills? Will you have one large pool of money, and two small separate ‘me-funds’? Or will you do the opposite and keep large separate accounts but have one pooled account for all shared expenses? 

Share your numbers. Do you know each other’s salaries? Do you know how much you have in your respective retirement accounts? What are your credit scores? Tally up your net worth as a couple and as individuals.

A 2018 study by Fidelity found that over half of couples surveyed carried debt into their marriage. In Millennial relationships, the percentage is (unsurprisingly, due to the student loan crisis) higher: 74% brought debt into their marriage. If you have debt, does your partner know about it? How will you tackle paying it off together?

Money is a friction point in many relationships, so it’s important to know what you’re working with. Have the conversation now to avoid surprises down the line. In order to reach your goals together, you will need a financial plan to make them happen. 

3. Get a prenuptial agreement

While it may seem unromantic to talk about what happens to your money in case your marriage doesn’t work out, I think of it the opposite way: instead of blithely assuming everything will go right, go into your marriage fully understanding the legal ‘Terms and Conditions’ you implicitly agree to. If you fully understand the risks and consequences involved, it’s even more romantic to sign that marriage certificate! You can also decide at this point if a ‘legal’ marriage is in your best interest or if you would both prefer to celebrate with friends and family and leave the government out of it. There are many ways to structure your relationship, and the most important thing is that you are choosing what’s right for your situation.

Many young newlyweds skip this process, thinking that prenuptial agreements are only for celebrities and other wealthy folks, but there’s more to it than that. The fact is that whether you have this conversation before getting married or not, everyone has some form of a nuptial agreement. It has already been decided for you by the state you live in. Better to discuss it before the wedding, when you both want what’s best for the other (hopefully). 

Research your state laws

Every state handles this issue a bit differently, so you’ll have to do some reading. Decide together if you are okay with a judge deciding how to divvy up your property, splitting everything accumulated during the marriage fifty-fifty, or if you’d prefer something else entirely.  Generally, prenups are recommended to those who have children or are bringing significant assets or debts into a marriage, but every situation is unique. Our plan is to research California’s existing laws and see if it works for us, and consult a lawyer if there is something we’d like to tweak. 

Here’s an example of California Family Code:

For the purpose of division of property on dissolution of marriage or legal separation of the parties, property acquired by the parties during marriage in joint form, including property held in tenancy in common, joint tenancy, or tenancy by the entirety, or as community property, is presumed to be community property. This presumption is a presumption affecting the burden of proof and may be rebutted by either of the following:

(a) A clear statement in the deed or other documentary evidence of title by which the property is acquired that the property is separate property and not community property.

(b) Proof that the parties have made a written agreement that the property is separate property.

(Cal. Fam. Code § 2581)

Talk to a lawyer

Reading into the laws and codes can get a bit dense, and isn’t always as straightforward as it may seem. Consider finding a local lawyer to discuss what makes sense for you, both individually and as a couple. It may behoove you to each have your own lawyer involved. (I’ll write more on this when we actually tackle this step!)

Whatever you decide, going into the marriage with your eyes wide open will help you in the long run whether your marriage lasts forever or… not.

4. Align on a budget for your wedding

Budgeting for your wedding is a milestone in learning to budget for life. As a couple you will have to make many decisions about big purchases, whether you buy a house, a plane ticket across the world, or decide to send your kid to a private school. Start off on the right foot by setting a wedding budget together and doing your best to stick to it. If you decide to move the target to spend more or less that’s fine too, just be sure you agree on your new plans.

We still have a lot more researching to do before we can throw out a realistic number for the price of our big day, but you can bet I will be writing a breakdown on this site and sharing tips as we go along!

5. Sign up for pre-marital counseling

We found out that one employee benefit we receive is free counseling. This is available at a few workplaces, and I highly recommend checking out whether your company offers free or reduced-price counseling. We went to counseling while we lived in Portland and have picked it up again. A counselor can help you identify patterns in behavior and what triggers arguments and hurt feelings.

Having a third party around can also make it easier to delve into sensitive topics like money, children, sexuality, future goals, and general anxieties. If you struggle to discuss money or if it is already a sore subject, a therapist can help you address your concerns in a safe space. 

If we had to pay out of pocket, it would be well-worth the cost and I would gladly pay up. The insights we have gained about ourselves and each other are priceless. I highly recommend it for any couples thinking about tying the knot or sticking together long-term.

What Next?

We are excited to celebrate with our friends and family who all live in different states (and several family members in different countries too)! As we learn along the way, I will share tips on the blog, but I also hope readers will chime in with the lessons they learned while getting hitched. 

What valuable conversations did you have before getting married?

Do you have a prenuptial agreement?

What tips do you have for newbie wedding planners?

Share in the comments below!

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25 Comments

  1. Congratulations! Wow, that’s quite a bit of planning and work. Nice job.
    Marriage will be smoother with some work up front.
    We didn’t do any of that. We did it the old fashion way and eloped.
    Luckily, we had similar goals and money habits so it worked out. 🙂

    1. Elopement is making a comeback in COVID-19 times! I hope we can relax a little now that we’re settled, but still plan an awesome wedding!

  2. Congratulations!! I love the pairing with these steps. Even though me and my partner are not planning on getting married, we have had the same type of talks about goals & money before we moved in together. It’s important to know you’re aligned

    1. I definitely think all of these steps are for any serious relationship (aside from the pre-nup step, which is rather marriage specific). I’m glad to hear you had these with your partner pre-living together!

  3. First of all — congratulations!

    Re: pre-marital counselling – YES! I’m not exaggerating when I say pre-marital counselling was the single best thing we have ever done for our relationship. We learned so much through our sessions (and, to the first point, part of it involved having those discussions about goals, so…win-win).

    This isn’t so much planning advice, but one thing we did after our wedding was take the paper copies of our vows, frame them and hang up in our room where we can see them. A couple years before we got married, I went to about 237209790 weddings. At one of them, the pastor doing the ceremony was talking about how there will be times in a marriage where you need those reminders. I’m not sure why, but it really stuck with me so I often suggest it to others, as well.

  4. Congratulations! We had the “talk money to me” and had some of the per-marital counseling conversations. Planning the wedding was a lot of fun but we stuck to our budget very closely. We were able to do that as we were on the same page both financially and what we wanted for our future goals. Both of those are really important conversations before marriage. We are frugal so that allowed us to be frugal in our wedding and there are so many ways to save and still have a great wedding!

    The best tip I have is remember what Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So make it a wonderful experience for everybody! As then they will never forget about it and still bring it up to you years later.

  5. Congratulations!! Great list, too! I love that you’ve done pre-marital counseling. That’s something I plan to do. Yesterday I was looking at pre-Cana classes (the Catholic church requires it if you marry within the church) because both Catholic and non-Catholic friends who’ve taken it said it was a great way to discuss topics they would never have considered otherwise, including money and how you handle conflict. Many of their topics align with what the Gottman Institute suggests couples discuss too.

    It amazes me how so many couples never discuss these topics before marriage, then wonder why they hit such road blocks a few years down the line. So many problems could be avoided if they’d had these discussions sooner. But I’m glad you two know to have them now instead of later. Thanks for sharing your wisdom and best wishes for a happy life together!

    1. It amazes me too, even though I totally get it. We’ve been together so long, I didn’t think we would have much to talk about. However, marriage introduces legal changes and repercussions that means most WILL have new things to talk about, even if they didn’t think so at first. I was shocked while listening to a podcast last year where a cohost mentioned that she didn’t know how much her partner earned when they got married! She spoke about how awkward the money conversation was and how she wanted to focus on their relationship and how responsible he is as a person rather than on his money. To me that was wild to hear someone say! I would hope counseling would help bring those kinds of conversations to light before marriage.

      1. Wow!! I can’t believe the woman didn’t know how much her future spouse earned. To me, these are very basic conversations, but the more I talk to my younger colleagues the more I find they skip essential conversations. At least you will be prepared and ahead of the pack, so well done! 🙂

  6. Well that wasn’t the post I was expecting to have missed in your story this past week! WOW!

    Congratulations and best wishes to the both of you. Great to see that, even in the age of pandemic, love can blossom. Thanks for being a ray of sunshine.

    “I want to fill our house with greenery, he wants to plant a herb garden.” — And it sounds like you guys will find loads of ways to combine your interests in complimentery ways well into the future. 🙂

    Of the 5 conversations you mentioned, this one interested me most: “pre-marital counseling”. I don’t mean to be too personal, so answer this in anyway you choose:

    Jenni and I don’t really have any particular issues (writing that in public and having sent her the link to read this earlier hopefully won’t bite me in the butt), as to say, I can’t imagine we’d sit down with a conselor and need to hash out some sort of relationship problem. However, I’ve found the idea of sitting down and working through some sort of a relationship workflow (speaking as a systems guy) to be something that could be interesting and productive. Perhaps it’d help with discovering something otherwise unknown. I’d happily view it as a bit of cheap “insurance”. Do you think your experience was helpful in that way or was it really down to working through very specific issues or personal concerns unique to you all?

    Again, congrats! That’s exciting to hear.

    1. Thanks so much! It is a little ray of sunshine in difficult times, so we are making the best of it 🙂

      As to the counseling question, I have a couple thoughts:
      1) I absolutely think it would be a bit of cheap “insurance”. In most counseling relationships, the counselor eventually does want you to progress and grow enough to not need to see them anymore, which means if everything is all good, after a few months of counseling you have a few new tools in your belt: how counseling works, a trusted person you can go to in case something DOES come up you need to talk about urgently, and hopefully some nuggets of wisdom you can take with you after your sessions.
      2) I was surprised after meeting with our first counselor in Portland how LITTLE the sessions had to do with solving specific problems. Our counselor focused more on the emotional stimuli and the patterns of behavior we find ourselves acting out (which, she noted, would likely come up even if we were in a relationship with someone else– it was enlightening on an individual level as well). She put the focus away from working through specific concerns and onto the root of any concerns broadly that we have.
      3) That said, our second counselor seems much more focused on specific concerns, so it seems it will depend much more on who you see. I don’t like this approach as it feels like counseling sessions are less enlightening and focus too much on the negative side of things.

      So I definitely recommend trying it out for 4-6 months as ‘insurance’ and as a way to grow together, with the emphasis on getting better together and not on ‘what do we need to fix’. Hope that helps!

  7. I will second the Congratulations to you both! I do appreciate you posting these points on setting up a marriage for success. Too often poor communication leads to unhappy relationships.

    The idea of a pre-marriage counselor is an interesting one and I would be open to it if we felt the need to. (don’t worry [email protected], you didn’t bite yourself in the butt) Definitely something to think about as we continue to grow old together.

    Thanks for the detailed response! Best wishes on your engagement.

  8. Congratulations! Great post, too. For #2, I might add a discussion on how you’ll handle larger lump sums of cash- bonuses, tax returns, gifts, etc.- that come in one partner’s name. Will it be under that partner’s discretion for how to use it? Will you discuss how much to set aside towards the goals you’ve come up with together, then the partner can spend/save the rest (that’s what we do)? It may seem like you’re getting a little too in the weeds, but when those instances come up, it’s so helpful to be on the same page.

    RE wedding savings- we skipped a fancy cake for ours and did a giant tiered display of donuts from a local bakery. We put out little lunch bags for guests to take extras home. It was much cheaper than a cake and our guests still comment on it, seven years later! We bought a small cake from the grocery store to do the “cutting of the cake” tradition.

    1. That’s a great point! I’m going to run this by Mr. M and see what he thinks.

      I love finding creative ways to skip the traditional but still do it in a memorable way! Sounds delicious 🙂

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