Thinking About Merging Money With A Partner? Why It's So Hard
My partner wants to merge our finances, and it makes me very anxious. How do we approach this conversation, and how do I protect myself?
Merging money, or even just opening up the conversation, is not only emotionally challenging, but it can be legally challenging as well, says financial therapist Robin Norris. "Money tends to be banking, and banking is legal," she says. But, before we get into that: "Why wouldn't you want to? Why are you hesitant?" Norris asks. "Money is the biggest trust issue. People think it's sex, but it really is money. Money is intimate; it ties into our hopes and dreams and wishes and desires."
Extreme anxiety about merging money falls into one of two scenarios: You have emotional baggage, or there are trust issues present.
For the latter, "Do you not trust them, or rather, not trust their spending? Have they shown behaviors in the past that show they might not be great with money? It might be hard to come to terms with these questions, but if you don't trust them, you need to address that," she says—noting that just because you don't agree with how your partner spends money, it doesn't necessarily speak to something more sinister. "You could just have different spending values. I liken it to the love languages: We all have different ways of expressing our values; we all have different ways of spending money."
The former, well, that's a bit more self-awareness. "You might be bringing in the trust issues coming from your past. For example, did a parent leave your family with a financial burden? Experiences like that can, of course, make you wary about merging finances later on. You know, at this point it has really nothing to do with finances; it has to do with your own wounds," she says, noting that if it's a personal problem, it might require some internal reckoning. "But what I've found is that once the person is able to explain this to the partner, they respond respectfully."
OK, so, after you've done some self-evaluation, you can move forward with the practical end. First up: the conversation. As Norris explains (and a theme that often comes up with money topics like this), it's not a simple yes or no—nor is it confined to one simple conversation. When you are with someone, and discussing finances, it should be ongoing. "There can be a middle ground; it's not that you have to merge everything or not."
From there, how and in what capacity to merge finances is highly individual. Not only is it entirely dependent on your comfort level, but there are also legal factors at play. "It varies by state, but let's say you get married but choose to remain financially independent. There are some states that have a 50-50 rule, which means in a divorce you could be forced split everything 50-50, regardless of what agreements you made," she says. "So if that's something that concerns you: Get a prenup." Also, you need to consider where you're at in life: "Are you 30 and getting married, or are you 80? Because if it's the latter, there might be financial reasons not to merge."
And, the smartest way to keep yourself protected, especially if you have a complicated situation: Get a third party involved. "You might need someone—a lawyer, an adviser—to help you wade through these discussions and choices," she says. Not only can these people provide legal advice, but they can offer a more objective alternative to your likely emotional starting point. If yours is less complicated, and you don't feel you need a third party: Just make sure the dialogue is open, and honest conversation is encouraged. Maybe you don't want to have a joint bank account, but then when you are considering having kids things change: That's OK!
So, hypothetical: What if the discussions have been going poorly? Can you come back from that? "But it takes forgiveness, understanding, may take mediation. It doesn't have to be a deal-breaker, but with any partnership and relationship you are going to have arguments!"
And the final point: Even if you decide to remain financially independent, there is still financial overlap, says Norris; you should at the very least know the other person's finances, as well as relevant banking information, like pass codes and estate information. "I hate to sound dark, but if something happens, you need to know where your partner's money is and how to access it," she says. "You're partners: There should be full disclosure on everything health and wealth."