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One of the first things I noticed about my now-fiance (I’ll call him “Ezra”) was that he didn’t eat leftovers. Takeout Thai, pizza, you name it, he wouldn’t eat it. At first, this turned into a lovely symbiotic relationship that resulted in me getting free lunch the next day. It wasn’t until years later that I understood how his aversion to leftovers was a tiny piece of a much larger financial puzzle.
Ezra and I were raised with radically different perspectives on money. My parents were thrifty and financially savvy. Our house was paid for and we enjoyed a lot of stability — something I couldn’t appreciate until I was much older. I grew up knowing never to spend more than I had and to invest for my future.
For Ezra, things were different. His childhood was punctuated by frequent moves, overspending and financial stress. Money was for spending, not saving. And these discrepancies impacted our relationship in more ways than takeout leftovers. Here are four things we learned that helped make our relationship with money, and with each other, better than ever.
Examine your past, together
As our relationship evolved, it became clear that we needed to reconcile our differing views on finances. When I would tell him how to invest his money, it made him feel bad that he wasn’t already doing it. Unbeknownst to me, my insensitivity made him feel judged and he’d disengage.
While conversations about money felt natural and normal for me, for Ezra they were overwhelming and nerve-wracking. But over time, he became more forthcoming with me and we talked about how money was a source of constant stress for his family, whether they had it or not. It dawned on me that his family never used leftovers as a way to save money the way mine had — and he realized that eating leftovers was a choice that had a monetary impact.
According to Maggie Gomez, a certified financial planner and founder of the website Money with Maggie, understanding your partner’s history is key: “Did they grow up poor? Did they grow up wealthy? Do they have a scarcity mind-set?” she says. “Then, you can lead with compassion instead of judgment.”
For us, opening up about money made our lives better. And it turns out, we’re not the only ones. According to TD Bank’s 2022 Love and Money survey, 50% of partners in unhappy relationships are keeping a financial secret, while only 32% in happy relationships are keeping one.
Opening the doors to family history can be emotional and even traumatic. If dredging up the past is creating excess stress for you and your partner, it may be worth looking into a financial therapist. Financial therapy uses both behavioral therapy and financial coaching to help you reform your feelings and behaviors when it comes to money.
Have the hard conversations
Financial conflict is a natural part of relationships: 44% of partners say that they sometimes argue about money, according to the 2021 Fidelity Investments Couples & Money Study. The study also notes that 51% of couples disagree on how much they’ll need to reach retirement, which can make deciding how much to invest and how much to keep for the present extra tricky.
But when conflict does arise, it’s important to remember that you’re a team facing a problem, not that your partner is the problem.
“If they find themselves in a tough conversation where they’re disagreeing, I say let’s discuss the problem and let’s separate it from the person,” says Stephanie Campos, a certified financial planner and founder of Campos Financial in Miami. “I try to avoid people saying, ‘My husband is a spender’ or ‘My wife doesn’t save.’ I don’t think that’s helpful.”
Campos advises that before couples get serious, it’s important to have conversations about the nitty-gritty of your goals.
“I think a lot of couples go into the assumption of ‘we’re going to blend our lives, we’re going to blend our house and we’re going to blend our bills,’” says Campos. “But one person thinks they’re going to buy a million-dollar house, and the other person thinks they’re going to buy a $500,000 house.”
Having better communication about finances wasn’t just a vague skill Ezra and I could applaud ourselves for: Ezra pulled himself out of significant debt, has built up savings and has opened a Roth IRA. I have become more compassionate and include him in my own investment planning.
Find systems that work — but stay flexible
Ezra and I used to split things 50/50, but when we changed jobs and had significantly different incomes, we decided to use a calculator that factors in annual income when sharing expenses and investing in our retirement accounts.
Gomez and her husband faced a similar situation, but decided it was easier for them to merge finances.
No matter what system you land on together, having one can help both you and your partner feel more aligned on how to move forward.
“Having a strong financial foundation is super important in relationships, and I knew getting on the same page would help us have a more successful relationship,” says Gomez.
It’s always good to have a system that works for you and your partner, but life happens. If one of you changes jobs or loses a job, or you start a family or move, your systems may not work anymore. So revisit how you’re handling money frequently.
Gomez suggests meeting regularly with your partner for financial date nights: “Say, once a month, get together and order pizza and talk about finances. You can review spending and see if you’re on track for saving and spending how you want to, and not as a point of judging the other for their spending.”
Invest for your future goals
Uncovering your past can help you better understand your motivations for the future. Both Ezra and I felt it was important to be financially stable before starting a family, so we focused more on saving for retirement. That way, we could benefit from compound interest over time and use our income later when we would need it more.
Gomez says it’s critical to align on investment goals before diving in.
“I’ve seen couples where one person wants to invest and the other doesn’t, and the person that’s not investing can start to feel behind. So getting on the same page about investing is really important,” she says. “And determining how much of your overall budget you want to set aside or put towards investing is going to be important because then there’s no resentment on either side.”
Aligning on investment goals isn’t just about how much money to put toward your goals. You should also discuss how much risk you’re comfortable taking, what types of investments are best for your portfolios and what types of retirement accounts, such as IRAs or 401(k)s, work best for you.
If you and your partner are feeling a little lost when it comes to investing for retirement (or any other goal), it might be worth speaking with a financial adviser who can help you identify financial goals, create a financial plan, build a budget and start investing.
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Alana Benson writes for NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.