Penny For Your Thoughts

3 steps newly married couples should take to gain control of their finances

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Dear Penny,

My husband and I have been married for a couple of years and we now we have a baby, which means a whole new set of shared expenses. We have a joint checking account but have maintained our separate accounts as well. We both work, but my husband earns significantly more than I do.

What's the best way to align financial priorities, set budgets and streamline taking care of shared expenses, especially when partners have very different incomes?

Do you have suggestions of apps or spreadsheets that make sharing information and working toward shared goals easier? I feel like we are just treading water and not looking to the future with our finances. Thanks for any help you can provide!

Sincerely,
Stopped on a Dime

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Brendon Thorne | Getty Images

Dear Dime,

Figuring out the money part of marriage can be even more stressful than figuring out the sex part, since it also involves intimacy and vulnerability but doesn't often reward you with pleasure. Couples need to reward themselves for having hard conversations in whatever way works for them, whether by sharing some high-quality chocolate or by throwing back some tequila shots and watching a horror movie.

Do whatever it takes to create some positive reinforcement for yourselves so that you don't come to dread this process. Maybe you'll even start to enjoy it? At some point? Hey, it's possible. If the tequila is good enough.

Also, remember to lower the stakes. Yes, money matters. But, like your SAT score in high school, it doesn't usually matter as much as you think it does or for as long as you think it will. It's only one defining characteristic among many.

The great thing about these money-related decisions is that you can unmake them as needed. You only need to figure out how to begin; you don't need to plan out everything right now for the next fifty years.

So, some calm day with not a lot going on, sit down with your husband and some chocolate and go through these steps. Remember to reward yourselves liberally after each one.

1. Start small

Go through some basic, important facts about yourselves as individuals, making note of the past, the present and the future.

  • Past: Did you accumulate student loan or other kinds of debt? How much? How did your parents handle money when you were a kid?
  • Present: What's your credit score? How many credit cards do you have? Roughly how much do you spend a month, and how does that amount compare with how much you'd like to be spending?
  • Future: What do you aspire to? What are your plans for retirement? How do you hope to get there?

Make sure you cover not just facts but feelings — when it comes to money, you expect facts to drive the car, yet feelings take the wheel every time.

2. Start planning

Have some larger conversations about yourselves now as a couple. What are your goals? Your values? Are you workaholics or seekers of work-life balance, and how will that affect your bottom line? What does success mean to you?

Make sure you're on the same page about key issues such as saving for retirement, paying down debt, using credit cards, budgeting and prepping for the prospect of a financial emergency.

Then, given all that, figure out how can you best merge your financial lives.

Consider all options. If you were to go to one extreme as a couple — say, full transparency and 100% mixing of assets, throwing all your money in one big pot like you're making chili out of your financial lives — what would that look like, day to day? Does the idea seem tempting, or does it make one or both of you break out in hives?

If the answer is hives, that's fine. Chili isn't for everyone. Scale it back a bit and re-evaluate. Are you still grossed out by an arrangement in which you have a shared checking and savings but you each also maintain separate savings accounts: A "F--- Off Fund" for you, perhaps, and an "Executive Account" for him? Is that a better fit?

Examine the options until you find the one that you're both comfortable with, and then agree to try it for a set period of time, like a month or two.

"When it comes to money, you usually want or expect facts to drive the car, yet feelings take the wheel every time."

3. Start taking steps

Remembering that it's an experiment, put your plan into place. Maybe it'll turn out that you really are chili people after all, and maybe it won't. You only have to try. And then reward yourselves with a babysitter, dinner and a movie at one of those theaters with the cushy chairs.

Maybe agree to do some background learning together, too. Pick a relevant book to read together, a money-oriented podcast to listen to, or some educational, organizational or money-tracking apps to use for your individual and/or shared funds, like Mint, Personal Capital, Level Money and/or Albert. That will give you a pool of shared knowledge to splash around in.

You have your whole lives to get this money stuff right. For now, you just have to get started. Good on you for showing up — really.

Thoughtfully,
Penny

Do you have a question for Penny about your money and/or your life? Email AskPenny@cnbc.com. Letters may be edited gently for clarity and length.

Previously in Penny For Your Thoughts: Do Married Couples Really Need Joint Accounts?