Couples’ Guide to Combining Finances

Our couples’ guide to combining finances can help you with some basic and big-picture financial decisions as you start your life as a couple.

Graphic of a couple embracing on their wedding day

Getting married comes with so many wonderful decisions. You get to plan your ceremony and reception, fill up your registry and dream of the things you’ll do someday as a couple. One of the things that’s not usually first, second or even 20th on that list is your finances. And that’s OK. You should be thinking about where you’ll go on your honeymoon right now. But when you say “I do,” you’re combining everything about your lives, including your finances.

In our guide to couples’ finances, we’ll help you have some big-picture conversations about money that can help you and your partner gain a deeper understanding of how each person thinks financially. We’ll also go over some basic financial steps that you’ll need to take. Whether you’ve already had many of these conversations or this is a starting point, we hope to help you get off on the right financial footing so that you can go back to dreaming about the really fun stuff, like first-dance songs and wedding cake.

Section 01 Get intimate financially

Getting married means you’re sharing experiences with your partner that you won’t share with anyone else. A good relationship means being vulnerable with each other. That carries into your finances.

Hopefully you’ve talked about money at least a bit. But now is the time to really get to know each other financially. Before diving into the nitty-gritty details, start the conversation by sharing your personal experiences with money. Much of your financial background is established as you’re growing up, so start by talking about how money has played a role in your past. Was your family financially secure, or did you have money struggles growing up? What were you taught about money? Were attitudes toward money generally positive or generally negative?

Next, move into how those experiences may have shaped any money values and spending philosophies. For example, does it stress you out if you don’t have a certain amount in savings? Or is the opposite true — do you feel the need to spend money once you have it?

A discussion of values can transition into a discussion of where you each stand financially. You’ll want to make sure to share what you bring to the table. Do you have debt? What kind and how much? Are you saving for the future? Do you have a 401(k)? If so, how much of your paycheck are you saving? Do you have any other investments? What have you saved so far? Understanding where each of you is coming from will help you better plan to get to where you want to be.


It’s important that these conversations occur without judgment, especially if either of you have made decisions that you’re not particularly proud of. Having all the information out in the open is the best way forward toward your future goals together.

Do you need a prenup?

A prenuptial agreement, or prenup, is a legal document that will determine who gets what in the event that you divorce. While it can make partners bristle at first, there may be some situations when it could make sense to have one — like if one of you owns a business or is bringing considerable wealth to the table. Even without big assets, some couples choose to create a prenup to make sure money comes back if one supported the other through graduate school or to make sure a partner gets additional financial support in case he or she has difficulty finding a job after sacrificing years in a career to raise kids.

You’ll want to discuss your current money habits. How do you track your money? Do you like a detailed spreadsheet, or do you prefer to pop in and check your account balances every once in a while? Also, discuss whether you like managing finances. If one of you has a natural affinity for this work, it may be a good idea to let him/her take the lead.

The goal of your conversations is to gain better insight into how each of you thinks about money. This can help you be more understanding of your partner and facilitate future money conversations. Make sure these conversations are done with understanding and support, preparing the stage to work collaboratively moving forward.


    Conversation Starters

    Not sure where to start? Ask these questions to get a better understanding of each of your attitudes toward money.

    • What are some of your earliest experiences with money? What feelings do you have about money?
    • Do you consider yourself a spender or a saver?
    • What do you feel excited to put money toward? What do you dislike having to pay for?

    Section 02 Set shared financial goals

    Financial goals include things like paying down debt. They can also be really fun; they include all the amazing things you’ll do in your future together. What are you planning to accomplish? Are you hoping to have children? Do you want to travel regularly? Would you like to buy a home in the suburbs? Do you want to take the kids to Disney every year?

    This conversation will help you set shared goals and a plan to reach them as a couple. You may find areas of agreement, such as a shared goal to travel. But there may be other places where you have different views. For instance, it’s not uncommon for one person to want to cover all college costs for children while another is open to loans (to allow for all those Disney trips).

    Areas of disagreement are OK. But it’s important to talk about things like this upfront so that you know your partner’s stance and can develop a process for working toward areas of agreement and through differences.

    As you set goals, it’s good to group them into short-, mid- and long-term categories.  

    Short-term (1–4 years)

    • Settle credit card debt

    • Start an emergency fund

    • Save for vacation

    • Save for big purchases (e.g., car, furniture)

    Mid-term (5–10 years)

    • Save for a down payment on a home

    • Pay off student loans

    • Obtain additional education or professional certifications

    Long-term (10+ years)

    • Start a college fund for children

    • Purchase a second property

    • Start your own business

    • Retire to a warmer climate

    Section 03 Determine how you’ll manage your money

    Now it’s time to start actually combing through your financial lives. One of the first big decisions is where you keep your day-to-day money. To answer this question, you have to figure out if you want joint or separate accounts or some combination of the two.

    Pros and cons of joint accounts

    • One joint account: With a joint account, you’d both have your paychecks deposited into a shared account that is used to pay bills and cover expenses. Many couples like this option because it simplifies tracking by keeping all the money in once place. It can also be a great way to work toward common goals, especially if one person works and one person doesn’t. Having joint accounts can result in additional disagreements, though, since you both have a view of what the other is spending money on.

    • Joint and separate accounts: Some couples will pay a certain amount of money into a joint account to cover shared expenses (like household bills or kids’ expenses) and keep separate accounts for personal expenses or bills you’d like to keep separate (like student loans, for example). You can each contribute 50 percent into the shared account; or if there’s an income disparity you’d like to account for, you can agree on different contribution percentages. Maintaining separate accounts can allow you each to maintain a sense of autonomy with your personal spending and protect individual assets, but it can also make tracking money a bit more cumbersome.

    • Completely separate accounts: If you’d rather not make any changes to your accounts, you can each maintain your separate accounts and find a way to divide bills up. Another approach is to dedicate one person’s income to monthly expenses and the other person’s income to savings.

    If you have credit cards (or plan to), you also have the option of a joint or separate credit card account (or both). A single card is easier to manage, but your partner can see how you spend your money.

    Regardless of the option you choose, you’ll also want to establish a process for managing the money on an ongoing basis. Who is going to track the budget? Who will pay the bills each month? Who will manage and track investments and gauge progress toward long-term goals? In assigning these jobs, consider your strengths and interests. If one of you likes to manage finances more or is better at it than the other, he/she may be a good person to take the lead.

    Now that you’ve figured out where the money will be and who will be tracking it, it’s time to put the financial pieces in place.

    Set a budget together

    Get a sense of how you’ll spend on a day-to-day basis as a couple. One or both of you may already follow a monthly budget — which can be a good starting point for building one together. If you’re starting from scratch, you can easily build a budget with these steps:


    1. Total your take-home pay. Add up your income and your partner’s income (after taxes and withholding). This is what you’ll be working with.
    2. Add up fixed costs. Make a list of essential expenses that don’t vary from month to month – things like mortgage/rent, car payments, cell phone bills, etc. This is a great opportunity to look for redundancies. Now that you’re married, you won’t need two Netflix accounts. Perhaps you can get a family gym membership or save money with a single cell phone plan.
    3. Set a budget for irregular costs. You’ll want to make room in your budget for costs that are essential to living but aren’t fixed each month. These could include things like groceries, car repairs or gifts. It’s typical to dedicate about 60 percent of your budget to fixed and irregular expenses combined.
    4. Set money aside for financial goal contributions. We’ll get into this more below. But it’s likely that the dreams you have will require savings to achieve. It’s common to set aside about 20 percent of your take-home pay for future goals savings. But this amount can vary greatly depending on your plans.
    5. Figure out your discretionary spending. Now it’s time to do some simple math: Subtract your fixed costs, goal contributions and irregular costs from your total take-home pay. This is how much money you have left to spend on impulses, splurges, going out to dinner — the last-minute fun stuff. Knowing that you’re budgeting for your essential expenses and goals should free you to spend this money now. Some couples use this money together, while others give each other a set amount to spend (perhaps 50/50). This amount can vary the most depending on the rest of your budget, but it’s not uncommon to spend about 20 percent of your take-home pay on discretionary expenses.

    Build an emergency fund

    If you don’t already have an emergency fund (or two), start setting aside money for unexpected expenses — such as a big car repair, a medical bill or something else you didn’t expect. It’s a good idea to have a way to access up to six months’ worth of your expenses in the event of an emergency.

    Figure out your taxes

    Now that you’re married, you’re eligible to take advantage of additional tax breaks, credits and deductions if you file jointly. There are a few situations, though, when it makes sense to file separately — like if one of you itemizes a lot of income-based deductions or owes a lot to the IRS. You’ll also want to look at your big financial picture to determine whether you’d like to make changes to your withholding (especially if your marriage bumped you into a different tax bracket). If you need help determining the right moves for your situation, a tax advisor or financial advisor can help.

    Make a plan to save

    Look at the goals you’ve set together, and do some rough math to figure out how much money you’ll need to reach them. Then calculate how much you should be saving each month toward that goal. This is what you’ll want to budget monthly for goal savings.

    Next, you’ll want to discuss how you’ll manage those savings. Different savings vehicles yield different benefits, so what you’re saving for and when you plan to access your savings will dictate where you want to put your money.  

    • If you’re saving for short-term goals like building an emergency fund, saving for vacation or buying a new car, a savings account through a traditional bank may be a good fit so that you can easily access money.
    • If you’re saving for mid-term goals like a down payment for a home, you may want to look at options that can allow your money to grow, such as CDs or even investments.
    • If you’re saving for long-term goals like retirement, there are a number of options, including those with tax advantages, such as a 401(k).

    This is an area where a financial advisor can help. He or she can get to know you and even help to facilitate your financial conversations as a couple. Then your advisor can recommend the best financial options to help you reach your goals.

    See how a financial plan with a Northwestern Mutual advisor can help you reach your goals.

    Ready to turn your dreams into a financial plan?

    Our advisors will walk you through what to do next — and will be there every step of the way.

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    Section 04 Reassess your insurance needs

    Now that you’re married, you’ll want to look at your insurance. You’ll likely have some opportunities and new types of insurance you may want to consider.

    1. Health insurance. When you officially get married, you’ll have a special enrollment period during which you can change your insurance. In some cases, it may make sense to stay on single insurance through each of your own jobs. But take a look at the premiums, deductibles, coinsurance and copayments of each of your insurance plans, and then determine whether it makes more sense to use a family plan through one of your employers vs. each carrying your own policy. Often, there’s some savings in doing so. In addition, one plan can make things easier vs. trying to keep track of two.
    2. Auto and homeowner insurance. Simply being married may lower your rates for homeowner and auto insurance. But this can also be a good place to consolidate if you have separate policies. You may be able to get a single policy that covers everything you need and saves you money.
    3. Disability insurance. Disability insurance is a good idea when you’re single because it helps to protect your income in the event that you become sick or injured and are unable to work. Now, in addition to yourself, you have another person depending on your income. Look into group coverage that you get through work. You may also want to consider additional coverage if your work covers only 50–60 percent of your income (which is common).
    4. Life insurance. If you haven’t considered life insurance before now, getting married is a key time to look at getting coverage. Life insurance helps to protect your income in the event that you pass away. Getting married means someone else is depending on that income. In addition to the death benefit, some life insurance accumulates cash value, which becomes a source of funding that can help you with other goals throughout your life. A financial advisor can show you more about how this type of life insurance, known as permanent insurance, can help strengthen your financial plan.

    Types of life insurance

    Term life insurance

    provides coverage for a certain period. If you die during that period, your beneficiary gets the death benefit, but there’s no payout after the coverage term ends. Term insurance does not have cash value.

    Permanent life insurance

    coverage lasts your entire life so long as required premiums are paid — it will pay a death benefit even if you live to be 100. It has a cash value component that you can access while you’re still alive and can use to fund other long-term goals.

    Section 05 Update important documents

    Combining your financial lives involves updating a lot of important documents. This checklist can help you make sure you’re covering the basics to make sure you and your spouse are listed on the right documents and that any name changes are official.

    • Submit any name changes to the Social Security Administration. If one of you is changing your name, you’ll need to do so by bringing a birth certificate and marriage certificate to your local Social Security Administration office.

    • Submit any name changes to financial institutions. Once your name change is accepted through the Social Security Administration, you’ll want to get your name updated on any accounts you hold to maintain your ability to transact on them and avoid any future confusion.

    • Update titles and deeds. To ensure you both have legal ownership and decision-making authority over shared property, you’ll want to add each other’s names to any assets you’ll share.

    • Update beneficiary forms. Make changes to beneficiaries on any existing financial accounts, such as life insurance policies or retirement accounts. Some other financial accounts will have transfer on death or payable on death designations that will automatically transfer the account to whoever is listed if you die. These designations will trump a will, so it’s important to keep this updated to reflect your wishes.

    • Create a living will with advanced health care directives. A living will documents your wishes for medical treatment that you would and would not like to receive and assigns someone — likely your spouse — as a health care power of attorney to make decisions on your behalf in the event that you’re unable to.   

    • Start an estate plan. Although you may be just starting to build your legacy, an estate plan will make sure your family, property and other assets are handled and distributed the way you want when you’re gone. Estate plans can also dictate how any minor children will be cared for. You’ll likely need help from an attorney, financial advisor or estate-planning advisor to set this up, but it’ll be an important thing to have in place as you continue to build your lives together.

    Section 06 Establish a system for regular check-ins

    Life changes, and plans do, too. You may have a different number of kids than you originally planned, or one of you may make a major career change that impacts your big picture. A good financial plan is flexible and can adapt to the changes life throws at you.

    Keep talking about finances openly, and create a process for regularly checking in on and adjusting your plan. Perhaps you’ll track and briefly review spending each month and have an annual meeting with a financial advisor, or maybe you’d like to check in on all the moving pieces quarterly. The best plan is one you’ll actually follow.

    As you set and maintain your plans together, don’t be afraid to ask for help. These are big conversations, and there are many variables to a couple’s financial picture. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers or don’t know what to do. Financial advisors are experts in these areas and can give you the support you need to create the life you want together.

    Take the next step.

    Our advisors will help to answer your questions — and share knowledge you never knew you needed — to get you to your next goal, and the next.

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