When my fiancé and I got engaged in 2018, we had been together for eight years and living together for three, so I felt like we had a pretty good idea of each other’s finances. But I still had questions about what getting married would mean for our money and how we were going to combine our separate financial lives into one.
Looking for inspiration, I Googled “how to merge finances” and before I could finish typing, the suggested search was “how to merge finances without getting divorced.” That’s the spirit, right? Nevertheless, with a little work and willingness on both our ends to compromise, my fiancé and I were able to do it in a pretty stress-free way. Here's how we combined our finances.
Step 1: Prioritize goals and make a budget
Prior to getting engaged, we both tracked our budgets separately and saved for different goals. Now, we needed to decide what goals we wanted to work toward together and how we would reach them.
Ultimately, we decided that buying a home, saving for retirement and travel were our most important goals. And even though we have different incomes, we contribute equally to both our monthly expenses (like rent, food and gas) and our savings.
We track our budget in one place so we can easily see our progress, but we keep some of our bank accounts separate. Rather than creating one joint account, we use separate checking accounts and transfer money accordingly for our shared expenses and savings goals. Neither of us liked the idea of running every purchase past one another, so our personal spending is just that — personal. But when it comes to purchases over $250, we’ll discuss them in advance (with the exception of gifts).
Step 2: Do the paperwork
I have a “death folder” ready for both my parents and my fiancé with vital information about my financial accounts. Everyone finds these folders morbid and never wants to discuss them, but it comforts me to know that if anything happens, my family will be able to navigate my finances more easily. Getting engaged forced my fiancé to look at this file with me and we’re prepping a joint folder to give to our parents for safekeeping once we’re married.
When building our “death folders” (I know; I need a new name for this), we realized that over the years we’d added each other to certain accounts and insurance policies as beneficiaries, but we weren’t sure which ones. So first, we went through all of our accounts and updated our primary beneficiaries (and chose secondaries in case of the worst scenario) on our bank accounts, investment portfolios, retirement funds and life insurance policies. Then we set up a power of attorney. Next, we’re working on the other steps of estate planning, but getting some pieces out of the way gave us both peace of mind.
We did butt heads throughout the process, especially in areas where the outcomes were uncertain.
Step 3: Prepare for taxes
As if taxes weren’t annoying enough, the thought of doing them for the first time as a married couple is even more stressful. Luckily, because I’m my own employer and am keeping my maiden name, I can skip some steps like getting a new social security card and submitting a new W-4 form.
Whether we file jointly or separately is the biggest question. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, so we’ll go over all of the pros and cons carefully before we file. And no matter when you get married (even if it’s December 31), you’re considered married for that entire tax year and have to file accordingly.
Step 4: Learn how to deal with conflict
As that unsettling Google search foreshadowed, talking finance isn’t always smooth sailing. We did butt heads throughout the process, especially in areas where the outcomes were uncertain. For instance, what’s the better investment? How much do we want to spend on a home? What amount do we need to retire comfortably?
Because there are no clear-cut answers, we struggled to know which financial decisions were right for us. What helped us get through these conflicts unscathed was knowing that none of it was personal, just financial. In the end, we agreed on our budget, savings goals and investment plan. And to make sure we’re both sticking to it, we’ll continue the conversation with monthly check-ins.
Step 5: Celebrate
This whole process started because we had something big to celebrate. After a lot of tedious and stressful work, we shook it off with a date night at our favorite restaurant. Now we can get back to what matters most, which is tasting as many wedding cake samples as is humanly possible.