Forty-two percent of Americans have not discussed their retirement plans with anyone, and only 39 percent have talked to their spouse or partner about it, according to a survey done earlier this year by Northwestern Mutual.
Statistics like that don’t surprise family economist Cathleen Zick, professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah. Zick thinks that couples find it difficult to discuss financial goals because many people are in dire financial situations, and talking about things like death or failing health is uncomfortable.
But that doesn’t mean that couples should just ignore it; compound interest grows exponentially the longer money is invested, Zick says; so if you wait until you’re older, you’ll get less bang for your buck.
The weight of financial responsibility can be heavy though. So to help give you a place to start, here are five financial discussions you need to have with your spouse, based on advice from local experts.
1. How are we taking care of right now?
“Couples need to start by talking about budgeting,” Zick says. Not only what money should be spent or saved, but also who is going to manage it.
It’s a trade-off between consuming today and consuming way down the road.
“Who’s going to be responsible for making sure that they are living within their means,” Zick explains, “or if they’re not that they have a plan for getting out of debt in the long run?”
Jerry L. Basford, adjunct family finance instructor at the University of Utah, agrees. This conversation should not only cover financial commitments like insurance and phone bills, but how the couples plan to deal with debt.
“For instance,” Basford told the Deseret News in an email, “Are we going to work on a specific bill and pay it off or do we want to work on all the bills equally?”
2. How are we preparing for the future?
“Most couples have never sat down and even calculated what their retirement needs will be,” Zick allows, but couples “should be discussing a range of investment goals;” both how they’re going to save for retirement and their kids’ college, and also smaller things like a new car.
Of course, saving is also an important component of the equation. “Does the couple want to save to purchase a house? Go on vacation? Retire?” Basford asked, then they need to “talk about and prioritize savings goals.”
Talking about budgets and risk tolerance is easy compared to actually buckling down and foregoing current luxuries — or even necessities — in order to save for the future, Zick says. “It may mean that we don’t do the home repairs that we want to do right now, or we don’t take that vacation that we were planning on taking.”
3. What are our differences?
Of course, not every couple is on the same page financially. “One of the partners may be a spender while one is a saver,” Basford said. “[So they should] budget together to ensure money is being used to attend both partners goals.”
“Working through those discussions and coming to some sort of common understanding and respect for each person’s position in their willingness to undertake investment risks is also an important part of the discussion,” Zick says. “[For] some partners, there’s a huge difference in terms of their willingness to take risk,” and that should be accounted for.
4. What will the future look like?
Not only is saving for retirement an important discussion to have, but all the tricky situations that come with it. Are you the couple that buys the R.V. sticker saying “I’m spending my child’s inheritance,” Zick asks, or are you the couple that wants to leave something for future generations?
Along with estate planning, couples should discuss purchasing life insurance and living wills, said Basford. And make sure to plan for future health issues and long-term care, Zick adds, but timing is crucial.
“If a wife and husband are of different ages … [and] one spouse wants to retire at 60 and the other one plans to work until they’re 70,” Zick explains, “talking that through and then deciding what investment strategies they need to use in order to meet those goals is vitally important,” as is figuring out what will happen if one of them goes first, Zick says.
Traditionally, women live longer than men and men pay the bills, Zick says. But if a couple doesn’t “have the discussion and make those conscious decisions,” there may not be a survivorship guarantee and the wife “could end up being economically vulnerable” upon the death of her husband.
5. Can we figure all this out on our own?
Clearly, there is a lot to think about. But in all of the confusion, Zick says couples need to figure out if they feel competent investing for their future. Saving is all well and good, but if you want to grow your wealth for retirement or posterity, a good handle on investing is critical.
“It’s really vital … that at least one person feel competent in their financial knowledge and their understanding of how investments work,” Zick says. “And if there isn’t at least one person that does, then seeking the advice of a professional is really a wise thing to do.”
Admitting your flaws can be one of the hardest parts of financial conversations, but there’s no shame in admitting you need help. Especially when it could save you financially in the long run.