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Couples: How to meld money habits

By BRIANNA MCGURRAN, NerdWallet

Q: I'm pretty frugal, but my partner is a big spender. How can we get on the same page?

A: I hear you. I'm frugal, too, sometimes annoyingly so: Nothing gives me more satisfaction than getting a week's worth of leftovers from an enormous slow-cooker meal. But my partner is more spontaneous, and I remember feeling a flutter of anxiety early in our relationship when we went out to dinner twice in a single week. Who was I becoming?

Young adults are partnering up later, and we bring to our long-term relationships finely sculpted attitudes and approaches to money that can be hard to reshape. In 1965, the median age at first marriage in the U.S. was 22.8 for men and 20.6 for women, according to the U.S. Census. Fifty years later, it was 29.2 for men and 27.1 for women. Many of us now spend nearly a decade living independently, taking out student loans, using credit cards - often without a partner or spouse weighing in.

That can make combining finances with that special someone you met at Bonnaroo or on Tinder difficult, especially if your money quirks don't line up. Here's how to talk about it, and how to help your partner move from spending to saving.

Start With Empathy

First, work to understand where your partner is coming from. Does he focus on near-term happiness over long-term security? Did she grow up in a financially strapped household where there was no savings strategy? Recognize the motivators behind the behavior so you can start a hard conversation from a place of empathy.

In the process of understanding your partner, evaluate your own relationship with money, too. Extreme penny-pinching can be problematic if you're unwilling to replace broken items around the house or you're unable to live in the present. Your partner will appreciate that you bring that awareness to the conversation.

Next, make a plan to discuss the issue "in a spirit of teamwork and non-judgment," says Katie Bossler, a Detroit-based financial wellness expert at nonprofit credit counseling agency GreenPath Financial Wellness. Take a few deep breaths and open the discussion with something as simple as, "I'd like to have a conversation about our finances" she says.

Focus On Goals

Once you've started the conversation, explain how you see your current financial position and how you'd like it to change in the future. You can calmly express how you think your partner's spending is affecting your goals, but avoid accusations or pointing out specific examples of overspending if they won't be constructive.

Here's a potential script: "We've talked about taking a trip together next summer. But without any emergency savings, I feel it wouldn't be wise to make a big purchase like that. Can we talk about setting up a savings plan so we're in a better position to go on a fun vacation?"

Redirecting attention to savings might get a warmer reception than trying to place a moratorium on shopping. In addition to a vacation, money for holiday gifts can be another big motivator, Bossler says. So can a fund for a down payment on a house.

Accountability also can help build a savings habit. Consider opening a joint savings account you'll each contribute to; you can add either a flat amount or a percentage of your paycheck. Your partner might relish watching the balance grow month after month.

Even if you're unsure whether your partner is The One, you also should factor in retirement savings. According to a recent NerdWallet report, a third of survey respondents currently in a relationship weren't saving for retirement at all.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: bmcgurran@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

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