Jeanne Sahadi Commentary:
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Before you say 'I do'
You know your betrothed better than anyone. But you might do well to know each other even better.
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money.com Senior Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – You know your fiancé(e)'s heart and soul and you know you want to be married to this person for life.

But there's a good chance you don't know enough about his or her money habits, financial history or goals ... even if you've lived together. And as any divorced romantic will tell you, marriage has a financial component that you ignore at your peril.

LifeInnovations in Minneapolis, which trains marriage counselors, offers a questionnaire for pre-marital couples to measure how in sync partners are with each other in several areas. Most couples score lowest in the financial category, said David Olson, the program's president.

No two people will ever be completely in sync money-wise. But putting your financial cards on the table from the get-go will go a long way toward building trust and establishing a money partnership that can enhance rather than undermine your marriage.

So why not ask each other these five questions:

Assets: How much bacon do we have for breakfast? You should know what the other makes, what assets you each have and what your top financial goals are. You can't work toward goals together if you don't know what they are or what resources you have.

Don't forget to include pension plan contributions, stock options and insurance policies, said financial planner Michelle Hoesly, a member of the Million Dollar Roundtable, an international association of financial professionals.

Likewise, know how much each of you has in savings and investments.

Lastly, ask each other what you most want (or expect) to do financially -- for example, buying a house, sending your kids to college or retiring early.

Debts: Shall we clear the table before eating? It's hard to have a relaxing meal when you're surrounded by dirty dishes. Likewise, it's hard to work effectively toward joint goals when one or both of you is saddled with debt.

So be frank about what you owe. You might even review each other's credit reports as well.

If your fiancé(e) has debt, it may be his or her legal responsibility to repay, but it can affect you in several ways. That's why you both need to agree on how and when to pay off that debt.

Otherwise, you might grow resentful. That's because money to pay off debt is money that will not go towards a down payment, a college fund or anything else you want. And it may force you to scrimp on other things as well.

If casual spending is the culprit, your fiancé(e) may be inclined to rack up debt again -- only next time he or she may use your joint accounts. (And those are debts for which you are legally responsible.)

Money habits: Why do you fold napkins that way? The answer may be "because that's the way my parents taught me." The same might apply to your partner's money style and values. That's why it can be useful to learn about in-laws' money habits, Hoesly said.

And find out whether there are any expectations that you will help your in-laws financially, since that's something about which you both need to agree and for which you need to plan.

Marrying money: Do we want to share a dish? Deciding how you're going to manage money together will be a work in progress for at least the first few years of your marriage. But you need to think about how much each of you will pay toward joint expenses and whether you want to pool some, all or none of your money in joint accounts. (For help with this question, click here.)

Estate planning: Who should get the leftovers? If one or both of you has children, in addition to discussing how their expenses will be paid if the kids are young, you might also discuss your beneficiary designations on your estate, retirement and insurance plans.

There are sometimes good reasons not to name a spouse as beneficiary on a policy or account -- for instance, a spouse may have plenty of money and more would simply increase his tax burden, or you want to insure some money is earmarked for your kids from a previous marriage. But discussing those reasons is important. Otherwise your spouse's feelings may be hurt.

Outside parties can help

If you're having trouble getting through these questions -- or getting through to your fiancé(e) -- you might benefit from a few sessions with a financial planner.

An objective, third party often can get across to both partners what they need to hear in an unemotional way and help them come to agreement on key issues.


Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for CNN/Money. She also appears regularly on CNNfn's "Your Money," which airs weeknights at 5 p.m. For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at everydaymoney@cnnmoney.com. Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.