Getting married changes your financial life in profound ways. It’s not just that you’re living together or sharing expenses—you don’t need marriage to do that. It’s that your legal and tax statuses change. And while your credit score remains individual, your future choices could be changed by what your spouse brings into the financial picture.
Whether you’re getting hitched for the first time or remarrying after a divorce or death, it’s smart to sit down with your partner well before the wedding to talk about these issues and do some financial planning. Granted, it’s not the most thrilling premarital activity. But the decisions that you and your future spouse make about how to handle money will have long-term repercussions for you—not just as individuals, but as a couple, whether you choose to combine your finances completely or keep certain things separate.
Your choices will have not only financial implications but also emotional and legal ones. A little preparation now will pay off handsomely later.
- Partners should fully disclose their assets, liabilities, and credit reports to each other before marriage.
- Financial decisions around wedding budgets will affect couples for years—for better or for worse.
- Marriage can have major financial benefits, especially if you understand the best way to file your taxes as a couple.
- Learn your state’s laws regarding marital property, and understand how assets and liabilities acquired before and after marriage will be shared.
Before You Say ‘I Do’
Before you exchange vows, it’s important that you and your partner each disclose your full financial circumstances to each other. Because marriage is a legal and financial decision—the government couldn’t care less how in love you are—you need to know what risks you are taking by binding yourself to another person. Disclose all assets and liabilities (including those from a previous marriage, if applicable, or responsibilities that you have for members of your immediate or extended family). Both of you should obtain your credit reports and credit scores from all three credit bureaus. Sit down and review each other’s balance sheets together and discuss any concerns.
Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can decide how you’ll handle your finances in marriage. If one partner has considerably more assets or earning power than the other, then a prenuptial agreement may be in order. These contracts can protect premarital assets and provide for children from previous marriages. They can also establish responsibility for debts acquired before marriage and prearrange spousal support in case of divorce.
If either or both of you carry considerable debt, it’s time to make a plan for paying it off. One spouse’s premarital debt does not automatically become the other’s upon signing a marriage license, but that debt can still affect you after marriage, as it affects your joint finances.
While marriage in and of itself has no impact on credit scores, common practices of married couples—seeking joint car loans or mortgages, opening joint credit card accounts, or adding a spouse as a cardholder on individual accounts—can affect both spouses’ future credit. So, if either of you has poor credit, come up with a plan for improving it. You can be co-borrowers and use both of your assets to qualify if you ever apply for an automobile loan or a mortgage together.
When spouses borrow jointly but one has poor credit, a lender may charge higher interest and fees than the spouse with good credit could have been eligible for on their own.
Setting Joint Financial Goals
Even before you set up house together, create a household budget that will help you achieve your financial goals. Now is the time to think about your answers to questions like these:
- What are your top priorities in life, and how do finances factor into those priorities?
- What are your long-term career prospects and goals?
- Will either of you need financial support for additional education or time out of the workforce to work toward your goals?
- Will one spouse stay at home full time or part time to care for children?
- Do either of you have children from a previous relationship, and if so, what kind of financial responsibilities will you have for them?
- Do either of you expect to be called on to support other relatives, such as aging parents?
- At what age do you hope to retire, and what kind of retirement do you envision?
- Do you have different attitudes toward saving and spending? How will you manage those differences?
Even if you don’t know all the answers, it’s helpful to get a sense of where your partner stands and evaluate what you each might need to think about or research further.
Planning Your Wedding
How much you will spend on the wedding and who will pay for it are two of the first big financial questions that engaged couples need to answer together. Your decisions can have a major effect on how the marriage starts off, which can set the tone for your partnership.
Traditionally, the father of the bride pays for the entire wedding. But sometimes there’s no bride, sometimes there’s no father, and sometimes neither of the engaged couple’s families has the financial means to contribute to the wedding. When you’re paying for the wedding yourselves as a couple, especially if you’re a young couple with little money saved up and many unmet goals, it’s imperative to establish an affordable wedding budget and adhere to it.
Sticking to a wedding budget can be harder than it sounds. Once you start researching wedding costs and talking to vendors, you might learn that the magical event you’ve envisioned costs double or even triple what you expected or can afford. You then have to choose whether to go into debt, scale back your expectations, or get creative—or do a bit of all three. Does the wedding have to be on a Saturday? Do you really need to have 300 guests? If you’re crafty, can you make your own centerpieces instead of paying for them?
Decisions about what to spend on wedding and engagement rings are also important. Ultimately, wearing a band on your ring finger is a symbol of commitment. A simple band can be had for as little as $10—or you can spend $10,000 or more; $5,500 is close to the national average for engagement rings. And those rings, depending on the jewels, can be way pricier.
You can have a family heirloom ring resized or reset, opt for traditional gold and diamonds or a modern alternative, shop at a major jewelry store, or use an independent jeweler who does custom work. Couples who opt for pricey rings should make sure they have enough insurance to replace the jewelry if it’s lost or stolen.
Handling Your Money After You’ve Tied the Knot
Getting married has not only emotional benefits but also a lot of financial ones. The financial benefits can include reduced housing costs, savings on health insurance, and lower car insurance premiums. These savings, in turn, can increase short- and long-term financial stability by providing cash for emergencies and the means to save for retirement. In fact, married couples often have an easier time saving for retirement not only because they share incomes and expenses but also because a higher-earning spouse can contribute to a lower-earning spouse’s traditional or Roth IRA.
Married couples often establish new joint checking and savings accounts and may want to add their new spouse as a joint owner on existing accounts. Some use a combination of strategies. It’s important to decide which strategy for managing money as a couple feels the most comfortable to you. Shortly after the wedding is also a good time to update account beneficiaries.
Because of the legal and financial ties that marriage creates, financial openness and honesty in your relationship are more important than ever. If one partner blows the household budget, for instance, then owning up to it, not hiding it, is the best way to move forward—as hard as that may be to do. Honesty will allow you, as a couple, to discuss the circumstances that led to the situation, the best strategy for damage control, and how a similar issue can be prevented going forward. A spouse who tends to overspend, for example, might need a monthly allowance that they’re accountable for sticking to.
Sharing financial responsibilities
In a marriage, it’s common for one partner to handle budgeting and bill paying and another to handle all the investments, or for one partner to do all the financial tasks. There are dangers in these lopsided approaches. What happens if one spouse becomes too sick or injured to handle their usual tasks—or even dies suddenly?
Because we do so many of our financial tasks online these days, the other spouse may have no idea which accounts exist, what bills need to be paid, or what the passwords are to log in to each account. It’s better to do financial tasks together at least some of the time or to trade off each month so both spouses can access every account and know how to manage the household’s money. A joint approach to finances also makes it harder for one spouse to hide income or overspending from the other. If neither of you is particularly money-savvy, it may make sense to consult a financial planner to get on good financial footing from the get-go.
Percentage of respondents to a Northwestern Mutual personal finance study who said financial anxieties have an impact on relationships with spouses/partners at least some of the time. One-fifth reported financial fights with their partners at least once a month.
The Legal Side of Marriage
State law determines who owns what in a marriage. The law might not seem important when you first get married, but it will become a huge factor when one spouse dies or if you get divorced. It’s better to understand how things work now than to be unpleasantly surprised later.
Most states are common law property states. If you live in such a state, it means that property and assets belong to the person whose name is on them, and that person can leave their property to anyone they want. You can own assets jointly or individually, but the type of title that you hold affects whether either joint property becomes entirely your spouse’s or you can leave your share to someone else upon your death.
In community property states, assets and debts acquired during a marriage belong equally to both spouses. However, assets that one spouse owned before the marriage—or that one spouse inherits or receives as a gift at any point—belong only to that spouse. Similarly, debts incurred by only one spouse before the marriage are not the other spouse’s responsibility.
There are nine community property states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.
If you didn’t sign a prenup but wish you had, you and your spouse can create and sign a postmarital agreement or postnuptial agreement (postnup), a legal document that lays out how assets will be divided should the marriage end. Similar to a prenup, it can simplify issues of inheritance and asset division and can eliminate the need for divorce proceedings.
Marriage also increases the importance of establishing wills for each of you—or changing your wills to incorporate the fact that you are married—as well as adding payable on death designations for all of your accounts so that your money can go to your spouse or another named beneficiary within days of your death. How the law handles your assets after your death may not be the way that you would like them handled. This also seems like a very-far-in-the-future issue (you hope), but why not take care of it while you’re organizing everything else?
Marriage and Taxes
Married couples can file joint or separate tax returns. Using tax software to run both scenarios can simplify the decision of how to file to pay the least in taxes. Filing jointly is often the way to go for financial reasons, but each couple’s circumstances are unique.
A couple might prefer to file separately if they don’t want to be responsible for the completeness and accuracy of each other’s returns or if, for example, one spouse wants to maintain complete separation from the other spouse’s business. Medical deductions for one spouse—if that spouse earns significantly less income than their partner—are another reason why it can pay to file separately in some years. On the other hand, certain deductions and exemptions are only available to couples who file jointly.
If one or both spouses have student loans, deciding whether to file joint or separate tax returns can affect the size of student loan payments. For borrowers on income-based repayment plans, filing a joint tax return means that both spouses’ incomes will be used to calculate student loan payments, potentially resulting in a higher payment than if they file separately. But the key word here is “potentially”—it depends on the repayment plan in question, the income discrepancy between the spouses, each spouse’s student loan debt, the difference in taxes owed depending on filing status, and other factors.
One tax benefit of marriage is the unlimited marital deduction, a provision that lets married couples transfer an uncapped amount of assets between each other during life and upon death without owing any gift or estate taxes.
The Bottom Line
On the surface, marriage might seem to be all about love and companionship. On a deeper level, it’s much more than an emotional commitment—it’s also a financial and legal one. Because of how state and federal laws are written, tying the knot can have significant consequences for your money. It’s important to make sure that you and your partner are on the same page about the assets and liabilities that you are bringing into the marriage, and about how you’ll handle money as a couple.
Getting these important conversations out of the way before the wedding means that you’ll start your marriage on the right foot, with no ugly surprises lying in wait. It will also set you up to have ongoing discussions about your finances over the years. These talks will help you stay on track to meet your goals and reduce or eliminate the fear and stress that couples can experience about discussing money matters with each other.
With your finances in order, you’ll have the peace of mind to focus on taking the next step in your relationship, enjoying this special time, and building a life together.