Should couples with different incomes and spending patterns combine finances?

·4 min read

I'm getting married next month and I'm a bit concerned about what's going to happen financially. My soon-to-be husband hasn't made the best financial decisions in the past and every time we've talked about money recently, he seems relieved that my income will be part of his life soon.

I make substantially more money than him, but I'm wondering how to combine my high income and financial discipline with his low income and lack of financial discipline. How do we even get started figuring this out?

– Kate, Marin County, California

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There are two primary economic resources: time and money. The fact is every single person on this planet has a different degree of resourcefulness when it comes to their use of time and money. Typically, another person's resourcefulness doesn't necessarily impact us. That is, until your life is intertwined in a relationship, like a marriage.

Financial decision-making is like any other skill such as cooking or dancing. A person takes their ideas, their knowledge and their resources into a given scenario and once they begin to combine those things, the result can be anything from tragic to magic.

In describing it this way, I'm trying to get you to separate the sinner from the sin. Most decisions or actions are typically more about the confluence of experiences than they are intent.

As you begin to approach the financial dynamics of your marriage, know that it's unlikely you chose a life partner who has ill intent. Maybe you did, but I doubt it. His previous decisions, while certainly informative, shouldn't necessarily feel daunting. Your goal shouldn't be to psychoanalyze him and fix him. Your goal should be to continue making wise financial choices while helping add new context to his financial decisions.

I used to believe people in a long-term committed relationship should always have fully integrated financial lives. In other words, I used to believe they needed one joint checking account, one joint savings account and all bills and goals were funded out of these accounts. I've since learned how absurd it is to expect couples to execute on this fruitlessly unrealistic vision. Of course, fully integrated finances work for some couples, but I've found forcing that issue does more harm than good.

Based on the situation you've described, it's unlikely a full integration is in your best interest at this time. However, that doesn't mean you should live separate financial lives.

Start with a planned money conversation. I highly recommend bringing up the fact that you'd like to have a conversation and then setting the date for a few days out. The goal of the conversation is to discuss the logistics of expenses and setting and achieving financial goals. If you haven't already combined household expenses (read: living together), there are natural savings that occur when you eliminate a household. Do your best to account for those dollars so you can assign them to the goals you're about to set.

Ask him what financial goals he has for the coming year. Acknowledge consumption goals like getting a new car, while also trying to stoke his interest in debt elimination and savings goals. Share your goals with him and show him how you're funding those goals directly from your income. Next, see which of your individual goals might turn into a collective goal. And if there aren't any natural fits, create new collective goals.

Now for the most important part.

Create a budget. Goals only get funded when you assign money toward those goals. That's what a budget is for. I prefer to fund financial goals first, prior to divvying up the rest of my income. Add up your fixed expenses; then assign dollars to meet them. Do the same with your discretionary expenses, too. Review your goals and budget religiously every 30 days, for the first three months of your marriage.

This plan will help expose your soon-to-be husband to positive financial experiences and go a long way in sharing views about the value of the resources you share.

Peter Dunn is an author, speaker and radio host and he has a free podcast: "Million Dollar Plan." Have a question for Pete the Planner? Email him at The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Marriage and money: Should couples with income gaps combine finances?