Money is usually front and center in most lawyers’ work lives.
You bill your hours, negotiate financial terms, and typically earn a fair and generous salary. But money is also a necessary part of your personal life. Besides everyday living expenses, everyone must consider how much to spend on dinners with friends, vacations, and various luxuries.
This means that if you share your life with a partner, you need to be open to talking about money: How you view it, how much to save, who will pay for what, etc. People, though, are often uncomfortable with this quite fraught topic. But if you want to avoid misunderstandings, arguments, and debt, and want to keep your relationship healthy, the conversation needs to happen.
Do you eat out a lot? Do you get a monthly massage? How much do you typically spend on groceries? Going over these details with your partner can help the two of you to track expenses and is essential to be able to create a mutually agreed upon budget. Remember: Honesty is the only way this kind of conversation will work.
How much are your utilities? What does your internet bill look like? These expenditures are especially important to discuss if you’re negotiating splitting bills in some other way than straight down the middle. Here is where the desire and ability to be fair is most important, especially if the two of you earn different salaries.
Do you still have law school loan debt? Do either of you have large credit card balances? Debt is one of the biggest areas of contention among couples. It’s imperative—no matter how much you owe, no matter how embarrassed you may be—that you are fully upfront about how much debt you come into a relationship with. Keeping secrets is terrible for couples, no matter what the secret is and why you choose to keep it. You and your partner can only budget and plan your future properly if you know exactly what you’re dealing with. If your partner is the one with more debt, remember to be kind and sensitive to how uncomfortable it can be to discuss. Don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that all debt indicates irresponsibility or instability.
Do you plan on having a joint bank account? Are you going to share money or are you keeping everything separate? One method that works is to have a joint bank account for shared expenses and also separate accounts for each person’s sole use. Navigating this conversation can be tricky, especially if one person earns much more money than the other or has more expensive hobbies than the other. This is the time to decide what will be “ours” and what will be “yours.” Keeping an open mind and speaking with a spirit of compromise will serve you best.
How do you plan on spending your money five years from now? Ten years from now? If the two of you eventually want to own a home together or even if one of you might be thinking about a change of career, you’ll need to discuss it and make plans for every eventuality. Put all your cards on the table and make a concrete plan for how you would like to handle your joint future plans, and how you’ll handle a lower salary that might come with a career change, or the extra money available once loans are paid off.
How to Communicate
Even after you’ve discussed these topics and created a budget, you’ll need to commit to open communication about finances. Keep up the conversations about spending, expectations, and planning. Check in with each other regularly to make sure the budget is still working for both of you. And of course, if anything changes or you would like to make a change, discuss it. Open communication, honesty, and continuing to have a spirit of compromise will help you to maintain the health of the relationship.
Find a neutral and unemotional time to have finance conversations—that means not when you’re in the middle of an argument or after a financial transgression has already been committed. The goal is to have a calm, logical conversation when you’re both relaxed. Each person should have ample time to speak, and focus on laying out their financial priorities and goals. Be prepared for the two of you to disagree and realize that respectful disagreement is ok. You’re two different people raised by two different families, so it’s unlikely you’ll see eye-to-eye on everything.
Be as understanding and nonjudgmental as possible when you and your partner discuss your attitudes about money and spending. Even though you should both expect to compromise, don’t be dishonest about what your absolute deal breakers are. If you’re having trouble discussing money and making decisions, meet with a financial professional and/or counselor to help the two of you talk things out and come to some conclusions. A counselor can help each person better understand the other’s point of view and give you some pointers on how to deal with each other’s different approaches.