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What to Know About Your Partner’s Finances Before Marriage

We know, talking about debt and retirement might not be the most fun things to talk about but they're absolutely essential things to discuss before getting engaged.

couple paying bills

couple paying bills

There’s a good reason they refer to marriage as a union. Getting hitched means that what was once yours and was once your partners is now shared between the two of you. This includes far more than your last name and the house chores—your big-ticket finances become merged. One of the most important things to discuss before getting engaged is money and it's important to understand your individual priorities and how they fit in with your shared goals as a couple. “What you believe, think and do with your money, along with how you honor the same in your partner, will directly impact the success of your relationship long-term,” explains certified financial coach, Emily Shutt. “Money disputes are often said to be the number one driver of divorce, so it's critical to focus on creating a supportive, authentic shared relationship with money in marriage, ideally before you even walk down the aisle.”

Here are the most important financial things to discuss before getting engaged.

Their credit score

These three numbers are a pretty big deal, affecting every major financial decision the two of you will make both individually and as a couple. “When it comes to buying a house, refinancing debt, changing jobs, starting a family or anything else, it's important to know if your partner's credit score is going to present any challenges,” says Shutt. “It's not necessarily a relationship deal-breaker, but couples should go into the partnership with eyes wide open, knowing that they'll want to prioritize credit repair before making any major shared financial decisions.”

Whether they paid their taxes fully

This one might sound obvious, but one of the most essential things to discuss before getting engaged is if he or she has any outstanding tax issues (not the sexiest convo, we know).  “When you file jointly your first year, if your partner owes the IRS, and you usually get a refund, the IRS can collect from the joint refund and the money you were counting on will be gone,” explains Abby Eisenkraft, CEO of Choice TaxSolutions Inc. in Melville, New York. “Also, the IRS can take a taxpayer’s passport if they owe a large amount in taxes that are unpaid, and no attempts have been made to resolve the issue, such as a payment plan.” In short, this isn’t how to two of you want to start out your marriage!

Their liabilities

The debt your partner has collected as a single individual will become yours when the two of you get married, so you'll want to have a clear picture of what that looks like in advance of your engagement. If your partner seems hesitant to share details about their outstanding debts, Shutt suggests trying to approach the conversation without judgement or accusation. “If they refuse to have a conversation about it at all despite repeated attempts, that's a red flag,” she says. “By the time you're preparing for marriage, you should be able to have open and honest two-way dialogue about your private lives—and that includes money.”

The source of their income

Your future spouse’s income is one of the biggest things to discuss before getting engaged. “Most people have traditional jobs with a salary, and the money flow is relatively stable, but if your partner has a side hustle or freelances full-time, their income can fluctuate and have a direct impact on how you tackle financial goals together,” explains Shutt. “There's nothing wrong with having a variable income, but it's good to just have a discussion about what to expect and how each partner will contribute to shared goals.” Additionally, she urges the importance of understanding whether or not your partner is receiving any subsidies, be it from generous parents or a previous relationship (alimony, etc.). “Money is a proxy for power in a relationship, so if your partner is receiving extra cash every month from their parents to maintain a lifestyle they otherwise would not be able to afford, they need to be transparent about it and understand how that influence might work its way into your private relationship,” she adds.

Their approach to saving money

You probably know where you stand on the saving-spending spectrum, but it’s also to know which direction your partner teeters. “If your partner minimizes the importance of saving money or is always scrambling to pay the bills, it's important to understand what's driving that behavior and to be honest about whether it works for you long-term,” says Shutt. “It might seem unromantic to have those tough conversations, but being married and living in financial chaos or buried in debt is about as romantic as it gets.” She suggests finding some common ground about how much to save and how much to spend—compromise is key.

Their goals for retirement

Retirement might seem well far off, but your life together as a married couple will fly by much faster than you realize. In addition, Shutt points out that many things change year-to-year throughout your married life, making it even more critical to be able to openly discuss retirement goals and flex accordingly as your life does change. “If your partner wants to spend all their money now, rather than contributing to a tax-advantaged employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, what does that mean for your future? Will you be okay with them working many years longer, or are they expecting that you'll work longer than you might want to?” she asks. “Having clear expectations for who contributes what, and how that will be shared in retirement, is really important.”

It's important that you and your future spouse are able to discuss your personal role in your financial picture together. "It’s a somewhat rare relationship in which both partners make a comparable amount of money—one person is always essentially contributing more to the pot because they have more to contribute, but this does not mean they are necessarily contributing more to the relationship than the other," explains Colleen Mullen, PsyD, LMFT, founder of Coaching Through Chaos. "There are many reasons besides just higher salaries that leave couples in what can be perceived as a power differential because of money." This, she explains, is why communication when it comes to all aspects of your relationship, but finances especially, is key.