How to talk about money before saying 'I do'

  @melhicken June 13, 2013: 6:45 AM ET
Couples sound off on spending
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

While many engaged couples are able to hash out which photographer to use at the ceremony and who to sit Aunt Edna next to at the reception, they can't seem to broach the topic of their finances -- a discussion that could make or break their marriage.

Money is the leading source of disagreement for couples, whether they're just hitched or have been married for decades, and in extreme cases, tensions about household finances can even lead to divorce.

To prevent that from happening, couples need to have a serious discussion about their finances long before they say "I do."

Everything should be put on the table, from current income and debts to attitudes towards money and how to approach financial goals like buying a house or saving for retirement, says Gail Cunningham, a longtime financial counselor and spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. With many newlyweds entering marriage with piles of student loan or credit card debt, such financial honesty is especially important.

Related: How to tackle a spouse's overspending

"Like it or not, we carry with us financial baggage, and that baggage is not always negative, but it's there," Cunningham said. "Even positive differences can lead to disagreement."

Yet while many newlyweds will pledge to be with each other "for richer" or "poorer," they often dread talking about money matters.

Nearly 70% of adults in a recent National Foundation for Credit Counseling survey said they had negative feelings about discussing money with a fiancé, while more than 20% said the discussion would either lead to a fight, reveal unknown financial issues or even cause them to break off the engagement.

Many people simply haven't learned how to talk about money with others, said Dr. Terri Orbuch, a social psychologist and author of "5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great."

The way people approach money is often heavily influenced by the way they were raised, she said. For instance, someone who had an allowance or opened a savings account at a young age may be more used to sticking to a budget. Someone who was given many gifts as a child may view spending money as a way to express love.

Related: Get a co-worker to pick up the slack

By identifying differences in the way they approach their finances, couples can set ground rules as they merge finances. A spender who marries a saver will need to learn how to stick to a monthly budget and embrace savings goals, for example. An impulse shopper will need to strike a balance with a partner who is more deliberate about big-ticket purchases.

"We're coming from different families and households and neighborhoods," Orbuch said. "We are bound to have different meanings for money and that leads to conflict unless we talk about it."

Here are more tips from the experts:

  • Stay calm. Don't ambush your partner with a money talk. Instead, find a low stress time when you can approach the topic.
  • Be honest. Hiding income or debt from your partner now will only cause larger problems down the road.
  • Get detailed. There are many ways to merge finances. Figure out a banking situation and budget that works for you both.
  • Talk about family. From loaning money to a sibling to caring for aging parents, you and your partner should be on the same page with how you will approach all types of situations.
  • Talk regularly. Don't just talk about finances when times are tough.
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Are you engaged? Just married? We want to hear how you and your partner overcame your biggest money-related mistake. Contact melanie.hicken@turner.com.


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