Financial Planning | Life | Personal Finance | Relationships & Family | Article
Asking A Couple Hard Questions About Money
by Sophia | 7 Feb 2020 | 10 mins read
Relationships can sometimes feel like a bed of roses – but when it comes to money, does that change? How well do you know how to talk to your partner about money? If the thought of having that conversation makes you sweat (and not in a good way), maybe it’s time to understand why.
After all, frank conversations about money with someone you may want to spend your life with are important.
Think about it: Wanting to blow your salary on a sudden backpacking adventure first means you have to clear it with the husband or wife.
It’s not just that — let’s say you want to rent out your future home (in order to reach the early retirement goal, perhaps). You’ve gotta clear it with the husband or wife.
It even boils down to the little things. Want to be frugal and cook more instead of eating out? Clear it with the… yeah, you get the drift.
The point is once you are married, you are no longer making a decision for yourself — even if it is for yourself.
Well, it’s for better or worse, amirite?
So I wanted to see how difficult it was really to speak about money. I asked a couple out on a romantic dinner date in the city where I could play third wheel and quiz them on their financial chemistry… and, hopefully, not be the reason they break up.
Meet Shahrul and Kat
Shahrul, working in sales, and Kat, a sales strategist, have been together for just a little bit over two years. 32 and 27 years old respectively, Shahrul and Kat both work in the ad tech space — in the same company, no less.
We met in the city around 6 in the evening, and from there the three of us headed off for dinner at a German burger grill bar with a relaxing atmosphere, good ambience, and dim lighting. It had all the dressings of a perfect date, except I was there, loaded with financial questions for what was hopefully going to be an interesting, honest conversation.
Are you a spender or a saver?
Kat: He’s the saver, I’m the spender.
Who pays first? Will the other person pay them back?
Shahrul: We take turns, usually.
Kat: Yeah. And it’s not like a “I owe you, you owe me” kind of thing, unless it’s bigger purchases.
What do you think of the other person’s money habits?
Shahrul: It’s better than when we first started. [Turns to her.] To be honest, compared to your peers, you have set goals in mind in terms of what you want to save for and how much you want to put aside, so there’s actually a plan, which I think is good.
Kat: Aw! [Laughs.] I don’t think I’ve met anyone like him who’s thought as much about his finances. Not just for himself, but for his family as well — especially for his younger brother.
Do you guys save enough? What do you think of the other person’s savings?
Shahrul: Yeah, I save about 20% of my salary.
Kat: I save about 30% to 40% of my salary. But he has more investments.
Does your partner spend too much money?
Kat: Yes, on technology! And games that he doesn’t play.
Shahrul: Yeah. For her… ASOS. Sometimes she buys stuff for me—
Kat: You’re welcome. Before me, you had no clothes.
Shahrul: Yeah… so her spending habits are more from fashion, mine from tech.
Do you give each other trouble about spending?
Shahrul: We rarely do, but we’ll question each other if we really need to buy those things. At the end of the day, though, it’s still our own decision (which means I’ll usually agree with her).
What are your/your partner’s financial goals?
Shahrul: I think one thing that’s different is that I’m planning for my own retirement, financial independence. It’s mostly on mid to long-term investments, which help a lot. I’m on different platforms, but trying to keep it simple. If I could retire at 45, that’d be great.
Kat: So I think my goals are a bit more short-term right now, because he has a lot more savings to play around with. Like he has his rainy day savings, so he has additional funds to invest. But for me, I just built up that fund, so I’m going to start thinking about investments a bit more… but to your point, I don’t even know where to start. I think I need to sort out which savings account is best, first.
He can help you out with that.
Kat: [Looks at him.] Give me allowance. [Laughs.]
Actually, I was thinking more of that he could teach you how to invest, but…
Shahrul: Well then!
Kat: [Laughs even more.]
Shahrul, have you ever bugged Kat about learning investing?
Shahrul: She’s learning it on her own! She’s done her own investment, actually, but not so much for retirement — so that would be her next step. I do share with her what I’m doing though, like opening up the SRS account, putting money in my SA, stuff like that, so she’s aware as well.
Who earns more? Are they expected to pay more?
Shahrul: I earn slightly more than her. But things are equal between us.
Kat: Equal opportunity!
The other party has gotten into debt. Will you help them to pay it off?
Shahrul: [Turns to her.] Will you help or not?
Kat: [Laughs.] Depends. Why did you get into debt?
Shahrul: Ah… well, to the best of my ability, I would. It really also depends on how serious it is.
Kat: So if I screw up real bad…
Shahrul: Yeah, I would help. What about you?
Kat: Depends! On the situation. Is it gambling? I was gonna say [laughs] maybe he’s got a side piece*…Then, well… or like if it’s gambling then maybe not!
*millennial speak for having an affair
Shahrul: I don’t even know how to gamble.
Kat: [Laughs more.] That’s why you lost all your money.
Would you discuss it with each other if a friend/close family member asked to borrow a large sum of money? And would you agree to it?
Kat: I think you should definitely discuss it first. For us, we’re going to have a joint savings account while we still have our own individual savings accounts — that’s the ideal. And I think whatever happens to my money will also impact him, so yes.
Shahrul: I think before we even discuss it, we have to know: what does the family member need the money for? I’ve seen so many times where my relatives borrow money without paying it back and I think that sets a bad precedent. We’ll definitely have to discuss it first before deciding.
Apart from today, have you ever sat down together to talk about money before?
Kat: Everyday sia. Oh my God.
Shahrul: What?! No, it’s just Monday — anyway, I think it helps because every month we have to pay rent anyway, and it helps to keep everything under control. At least we know what’s going out and how much we’re saving every month. I think when we talk about money it’s usually about property, like if you want to buy this property, how much is it, how much do we have to save… we always have that kind of conversation.
Do you think you guys talk about money too much?
Shahrul: I think it’s just the right amount. But her parents will ask way more than we actually talk about the topic.
Does it stress you out?
Kat: I think it’s a good thing. Before him, I was engaged, and my ex and I never talked about money that much, and we mostly went with the flow, even though we planned to get married. We didn’t really plan it out, and I had little to no savings. It was going to be really bad, because our wedding budgeting wasn’t that great also. We kept blowing the budget. So now I’m glad that [Shahrul and I] can talk about things very openly. We’re both forward-planning.
Now, let’s talk about gifts.
Shahrul: [Perks up.] Hoho!
Kat: [Laughs into her salad.]
Shahrul: You mean like Christmas gifts?
Birthdays, Christmas, anything — if you bought the other person something that costs $100, would you expect something of the same value in return?
Shahrul: No. So, here’s an example. I got her a Nintendo Switch for Christmas—
Kat: [Starts laughing again, hinting at something with her expression.]
Shahrul: —and then she starts playing it, and I thought it looked pretty fun. I was like, “I wanna try!” And then I thought, “Ooh, maybe I’ll get one too.” And then we had a long conversation about it.
Kat: It took five minutes.
Shahrul: Yeah, five minutes. So we agreed to get another Switch Lite. But then I ended up using the one I bought for her—
Kat: —and I took the Switch Lite.
What is happening?! How does that happen?
Shahrul: It looked fun! And to your point… no, I don’t think we compare the value of the things we give each other.
Last one. Would you sign a pre-nup if your partner asked?
Kat: No. Are pre-nups very common?
Shahrul: I have no idea.
Kat: But I don’t have a lot [of assets], so… [Laughs.]
Shahrul: But that’s a really good question. What happens if you don’t write one?
Kat: You split half-half.
Shahrul: Ah… I’ve never thought about this. Wow. I think it only makes sense if you have a lot of assets to protect. And I can’t imagine what kind of assets I’ll have to need one if we do reach that stage where our assets are considerable… if it has to come to it, then maybe. But I’m thinking from a practical point of view, not because of any mistrust or anything like that.
Kat: On the non-practical side of things, when you get married, you don’t think about breaking up and you don’t hope to break up. But that’s the non-rational part of me.
All things considered, that dinner date went swimmingly — and no one broke up, to my relief.
So, having conversations about money isn’t all that terrifying. Just from observing the couple of the night, it was clear that the couple were no strangers to having a frank talk about finances with each other — and their comfort talking about it showed. There’s nothing that can’t be discussed and worked out, and that’s really the foundation of how to talk to your partner about money.
Whether on Valentine’s Day or on every other day in the year, ask the tough questions now — it is the rest of your lives together, after all.