Relationships and Money: A Comprehensive Guide

It’s usually when in the depths of a relationship - you’ve got a cat, maybe even a flat together - that the topic of money starts to become a thing. Something inevitably happens; from the inconvenient breaking of the dishwasher to the life-altering loss of your partner’s job. That’s when the topic of money makes its grand entrance into your relationship, unpacks all the financial baggage you’d almost forgotten about, and makes itself at home.

At this point, it’s too late to shoo it out the back door or under the carpet. Your partner is now fully aware of your secret debt and you’ve just discovered they’ve been funding the private education of a love child you didn’t even know about (trust me, stranger things have happened). It’s not going away, and some big conversations need to be had.

It doesn’t have to be like this though. I’m a huge advocate for financial openness and honesty. I’ll talk about money with anyone who’ll listen and truly believe that having honest financial conversations is the solution to a fair number of life’s problems. I understand, however, that not everyone feels this way. So how do we navigate through the awkwardness and introduce the topic not just when we have to but right from the start?

Dating is an entirely different ball game, so for more on that, see this previous guide. But let’s say you’ve met someone. You quite like them even. Your friends know about it and perhaps you’ve decided not to date anyone else. Aside from navigating who should pay for and organise dates, money probably hasn’t been a big feature of the conversation so far.

Between the early days and deciding to grow old together (or not...) how do you break the money taboo? The answer, as always, is in communication. So, to get you started, here are the financial conversations and topics that are worth having at each stage of your relationship. Of course, what’s right for one couple might not work for another, so use your instincts to decide what feels right for you.

Stage 1: The early days

They’ve told you next to nothing about their financial life, so at this stage, it’s about using your intuition. You should have a sense of their saving/spending style and perhaps an idea of their earnings. Unless there are any major red flags (more on that in a bit), this stage is about learning – not judging. One of the biggest mistakes we make when it comes to assessing compatibility is thinking that compatibility means being the same. Differences are good, so long as they can be met with respect.

It’s also important to be looking out for any differences that you need to be sensitive to. Are they earning significantly more or less than you? How can you accommodate any differences and also be firm about your own financial boundaries? Keeping conversations light and dates reasonably affordable is usually a safe approach.

Stage 2: Coupled up

You're coupled up, and it's probably time to start having explicit conversations about your finances and broader life goals. Money isn’t just about budgets and saving, it intersects with almost every aspect of life, so it’s important to be aware of where you might not be aligned. You don’t need a 5-year plan, but a sense of where you might be going as individuals is helpful for all involved. It's about financial values as much as values more broadly: what's their priority right now. If you don’t want kids and you think they might, communicate that. Do they want to settle down in the 'burbs ASAP, but you want to backpack around the world? Can you come to a compromise? Or is it best to bring this to a close? This is often the make-or-break stage of a relationship, but being honest early on can save time and heartbreak down the line.

Stage 3: In it for the long haul

You’ve made it through Stage 2 and your lives are becoming more intertwined. If you haven't already, it's time to get real about you & your partner's financial situation. It’s also the stage at which many couples might consider merging their finances or setting up a joint account. It's also when you might consider getting married. This is where being honest about debt is super important. Be aware that taking out credit together can impact your credit score if one person has a poor credit history. This is also a good opportunity to talk about your financial philosophies. Will you merge your finances? Keep them separate? Want a prenup or cohabitation agreement? How do you navigate differences in spending style? This is also a good time to open up about how you want to ‘do money’ in your relationship. We’ve usually inherited certain beliefs from our families, so talking about how your family did things is a conversation every couple should have.

Stage 4: If you're starting a family

Before you have kids, if that’s something you want, have a conversation about how you plan to manage the financial side of things. Do you expect one person to be the breadwinner? What are your paternity/maternity leave options? Do you want to go back to work ASAP? If you're planning on being the main caregiver it's vital that you protect yourself. Please read this post for more on that. There’s no right or wrong answer or lifestyle choice, but it’s important to communicate what you want and keep the lines of communication with your partner open.

A word on financial abuse

All of the above is written with the assumption that you’re in a healthy relationship, but it’s important to be aware that money can be used as a form of abuse, typically to gain power and control. Things to look out for include:

Financial control

  • Making you feel obliged to pay
  • Trying to control your use of or access to your money

Career control

  • Pressuring you to leave your job
  • Controlling the kind of work you do
  • Sabotaging your career prospects

Controlling shared assets

  • Having ‘double standards’ around money
  • Asking you to account for everything and ask permission before spending
  • Making threats to cut you off financially
  • Insisting large purchases (e.g. house) are in their name

If any of the above points ring true in your relationship, this is not ok. You might want to consider speaking to a support charity for help and guidance, or close family or friends.

The practicalities

So, now you’re talking about money. But how do you actually manage it as a couple? This is likely to evolve throughout your relationship, so regularly check in to see if your current method is working for you both. There is no one-size-fits-all approach but, generally, there are four options to choose from:

  • The Splitters – Keep everything separate and create your own rules for paying joint expenses. This could be by splitting them 50/50 or by a proportion of how much you earn relative to the other person.
  • The Sharers – Pool your resources and have a shared account from which all your outgoings are paid. Make sure you’re both on the same page when it comes to what determines a financial want vs a need.
  • The Hybrid – Rather than go all in, create a shared account into which you both contribute a sum each month. This is then used to pay for shared expenses such as utility bills, shared dinners together, and rent. You decide what’s shared and what’s not.
  • The Allowance – If one partner isn’t earning or is earning less than the other, the main earner could transfer a specified amount into their partner’s account. What the allowance covers is up to you, but it’s important that both parties are happy with the arrangement and that the money isn’t viewed as a ‘favour’ from one to the other.

I know this can all be overwhelming. If you’ve been single for a while, then the idea of having to think about your money in relation to another person can feel alien. Remember that this is a process. Move at a pace that feels comfortable for you both and if you decide on some sort of shared arrangement, you don’t need to go all-in, overnight. Try opening a shared account and contribute a small amount each month. If all goes well and you’re both happy with how things are working out, you can begin to increase your contributions from there. Good luck!

For more relationship content:

Dating and Money: A Comprehensive Guide

Supporting a partner on Maternity/Paternity Leave

Wanting to be a stay-at-home mum

This is financial abuse

Four legal agreements for couples