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Navigating Finances as a Couple: A Comprehensive Guide to Financial Planning

By Royal Bank of Canada

Published May 8, 2024 • 9 Min Read

Merging your life with someone often involves many important discussions — from aligning your life goals to deciding whose furniture to keep. But determining how you’ll navigate your joint finances is one of the most critical conversations every couple should have. Whether you’re newlyweds, life partners or combining your finances in any capacity, understanding how to manage your money as a couple is essential for long-term financial and relationship success.

Studies reveal that money is a primary source of conflict for couples and the leading cause of divorce in Canada. But it doesn’t have to be. In this comprehensive guide, explore how you and your partner can navigate your finances together, exploring the crucial discussions, decisions and strategies to consider as you merge your money. From understanding each other’s money mindsets to navigating the tax implications of living together, there are early actions you can take to build a solid financial foundation for your relationship and life.

Make money talks a habit  

Talking about money makes many people uncomfortable. Most people learn early in life that discussing financial issues is taboo — and moving past that belief is often challenging. However, it’s time to destigmatize “money talk” and reduce relationship conflict by creating an open dialogue regarding your household finances. You can create a framework for talking about money so that it becomes a habit in your home. For example, you might schedule monthly or quarterly check-ins to review your joint financial goals and progress.

Understanding money mindsets

Diving into each other’s money mindsets is a great place to start. Your money mindset refers to how you think about money and how those thoughts influence your financial behaviors. Your upbringing, socio-economic status and job history can affect how you manage your money, what your financial concerns are and what you believe is financially possible.

Understanding each partner’s relationship with money enables you to learn what’s essential, address unhealthy habits and find common ground regarding how you manage your household finances. And just because you have different money mindsets doesn’t mean you’re not financially compatible. Knowing how to set yourself up for financial success based on your respective money mindsets is key. Also, it’s important to note that money mindsets can change and that couples can work on developing new money mindsets that serve their mutual goals.

Discuss your incomes and financial disparities 

Going from a one-income to a two-income household often opens up new financial opportunities. But before you can take advantage of combined earnings, you’ll want to discuss what you’re each earning. One partner may earn more than another, or you may be at different points in your career trajectory. That’s normal and okay. Managing your money as a team is what’s important.  

Talk about disparities in your earnings and address what that means for your finances to eliminate the potential for mismatched expectations or hard feelings. Some couples decide to divide their expenses equally, regardless of income. Others allot responsibilities for covering expenses based on each partner’s earnings. The key is to find a solution that works for your partnership and respects what each person contributes to the home, financially and otherwise. 

Consider combining workplace benefits

Merging your finances goes beyond income and expenses; you might also consider how cohabitating or getting married affects your workplace benefits. In many cases, you might find opportunities to save on benefits or access improved ones. For example, one partner may have benefits provided via an employer, and another may not. The ability to combine benefits may open up new plan options or benefits for them.

Align your financial goals

Once you’re on the same page regarding your daily finances and the ins-and-outs of sharing expenses, you can tackle your financial goals. This may include individual goals you have, like paying for higher education or changing careers, as well as joint goals like saving for a vacation or a down payment on a house. An easy way to understand the breadth of your financial goals is to consider what you want to save for in the near term and what you need to achieve your long-term goals.

Save for the short-term

Your short-term financial goals include saving for vacations, wedding plans, funds for home projects or other more significant purchases (a new bike or skis, new car, TV, etc.). Talk with your partner about what you both need and want in the short term — and consider what it will take to achieve those goals. You might establish a joint savings account for a shared goal, such as a vacation, or maintain separate savings accounts if you have individual goals. There’s no one right way to save for your short-term goals; you just want to ensure you’re aligned and working towards your short-term goals as a team.  Check in regularly with a cadence that works for you as a couple, either monthly or quarterly. 

Plan for the long-term

Similarly, creating a savings strategy for your long-term goals — such as saving to buy a home, send kids to University or for retirement — can ensure you progress toward them. Talk with your partner about their long-term goals and explore the nuance of what you each want and what you want together. For example, if one person plans to retire early, but the other partner wants to keep working, you’ll need to discuss how to fund the first and what it means for both. Merging your finances can increase your savings potential. Talk with an advisor to determine how to maximize your retirement savings and optimize your finances to achieve your joint goals sooner. And check in with each other annually to ensure you’re staying on track. 

Create an emergency fund

An emergency fund is a key component of any financial plan. Saving enough to cover three to six months of household expenses provides a safety net in the event of a financial catastrophe, such as losing a job or getting into an accident. Many couples opt for a joint emergency fund, giving each partner access to the cash when needed. You can make your emergency fund money work for you by leveraging a high-yield savings or money market account, both of which offer higher interest rates than a traditional savings account.

Recognize your risk tolerances

Smart investments can help maximize your earnings and speed up the progress toward your long-term goals. However, much like with money mindsets, everyone has a different risk tolerance when it comes to investing. Talk with your partner about their investment goals and comfort with bonds, equities, real estate and more. Spend time learning about your investment options together, and talk through a plan for your long-term investments that meets your joint goals and fits your joint tolerance for risk.

Decide on joint or separate accounts

Whether to combine chequing and savings accounts or keep them separate is often one of the first financial topics couples discuss. Again, there’s no one best practice. Instead, you want to find a system that’s right for your relationship. Some couples maintain separate chequing accounts and use them to contribute to shared expenses. Others merge their financial accounts entirely, sharing their financial information and assets. Still, others fall somewhere in between — perhaps maintaining separate chequing accounts but sharing a savings or investment account.

As you discuss approaches, consider how you each spend and how to balance privacy versus transparency. In addition, discuss the logistics of whatever approach you choose — who has access to what accounts and what that means in terms of usage, withdrawals and decisions about joint and separate funds.

Create a family budget

Your newly formed family has big goals and needs a plan for achieving them. Creating a household budget can help you achieve those goals. First, consider the 50-30-20 Rule, which recommends putting 50% of money toward needs, 30% toward wants, and 20% toward savings. This rule simplifies finances and provides a roadmap for increasing savings. Paying down debt is also a significant component of many people’s budgets. Prioritize paying down credit card and other high-interest debt can not only save you money, but it also frees up funds you can use for other goals. If one partner has more debt than the other, you’ll want to determine who pays it down and how. You may help your partner pay their debt or decide it’s an individual effort. Either way, as you move forward, establish spending limits for your relationship and denote what purchases should be agreed upon beforehand.

Understand the tax implications

Finally, merging your finances comes with tax implications, some of which may work in your favor. Consider the following: 

  • Spousal Tax Credit: You may be eligible for a non-refundable tax credit if one spouse has a lower income.

  • Canadian Child Benefit: Depending on your income, you may also be eligible for the Canada child benefit, which provides a tax-free monthly payment to help offset the cost of raising children.

  • Medical Expenses: You may claim medical expenses for your spouse or common-law partner when you file your tax return.

  • Child Care Expenses: You may also be able to deduct some of your childcare expenses when you file your tax return.

  • Pension Splitting: Couples may be able to split one partner’s pension to reduce the taxes owed. 

Build a bright future together 

As you determine how to create a financial system that works best for your relationship, a financial advisor can help provide expertise, support and guidance. Connect with one of our advisors for a free, no-obligation Financial Review, and set your relationship on a firm financial foundation. 

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.

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