February is the most romantic month of the year. Valentine’s Day ranks as the second-most popular day for engagements (behind Christmas), according to WeddingWire.com. Celebrating a relationship is fun, but a great relationship takes work.

On Valentine’s Day, most couples don’t talk money and finances. Maybe that’s because no other topic causes more arguments. In fact, finances are the leading cause of stress in relationships, according to a SunTrust Bank survey.

Now is the time to change the conversation. And we have good news: With the proper approach, financial conversations that typically challenge relationships can actually help strengthen them. Those talks will differ at various stages in the life of a couple (see below), but it’s always critical to have them the right way. Here’s how to do it.

Lesson from the pros

Honest Conversations

Far too many couples don’t have that honest conversation…ever. They talk about needing to have the conversation, but they never do. They might put it off so many times because, let’s face it, it’s difficult. Even when they do talk, many wait until it’s too late and their financial situation is beyond repair. All they are left with is resentment and regret.

Alternatively, starting to have honest conversations about money early in a relationship — like when you first become “serious” — has multiple benefits that can strengthen the relationship and boost the balance in each partner’s bank account. Talking openly and freely about money helps couples unlock the opportunity to combine the financial benefits of two distinctly different brains. Just as two people bringing their strengths and weaknesses to the table can make a relationship better, their different views of money and finances can benefit them. The key is communicating so the couple can leverage their differences to create a successful partnership.

While stereotypes don’t apply to everyone, we’ve observed gender and personality differences in our students. Often, one partner comes in thinking he or she is already a financial guru, so they may make mistakes because of misplaced confidence. In others, we see more thoughtful tendencies and careful investment philosophies.

Of course, this isn’t always the case, and sometimes the stereotypes are reversed. But combining these two very different brains into one approach can have lasting and positive effects on a couple — and their financial future. That honest conversation is important no matter what stage of the relationship, but the topics to focus on should be different depending on age. Here is how and, most importantly, why:

Young Couples Just Wanna Have Fun…For a While

At the beginning of a relationship, everything is fun. When Sinatra created the album “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,” he didn’t call one of the songs, “You Make Me Feel So Old.” But at a certain point, fun turns into a bigger word: commitment. Once a couple commits to each other, their responsibilities to one another increase exponentially — with money often at the center. Because the foundation for the relationship hasn’t been built, sometimes money and finance issues can spell doom for a couple long before a split is warranted.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If young couples make it a point to talk early about how they will ideally work together, they can begin to understand how differently (or similarly) they view money. These hypothetical discussions can actually be enjoyable. Hint: It’s okay to not be perfect and it’s alright to not have a lot of money; most people don’t. It’s even okay to have debt; most people do.

From early on, both partners can take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of their respective brains. Being able to match one person’s positives with the other person’s negatives can build trust.

In the long run, that discussion can help grow income and total net worth, and set up a couple to achieve the life they choose to live and how to change their path if they desire.

Tons of Money, Tons of Bills

Couples in their mid-30s to mid-50s usually have a lot on their plate. Paying for children’s needs, saving for college, funding a college student, saving for retirement — this is when money is often tightest. Yes, income is as high as it will ever be, but because of the bills, it’s critical to make smart spending, investing and saving choices.

The most common problem for these couples is that one partner doesn’t have a good sense about the family’s financial situation. This leads to fear and a lack of trust, which can cause lasting damage to a relationship. Overspending is often a problem because the partner who doesn’t understand the finances has no idea of the income-to-expense ratio. Here again we usually see a couple periodically bring up the notion of getting on the same page, but they don’t actually talk until it’s too late.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Couples at this stage must come to a mutual understanding of their financial needs, and do so with input from both sides. A basic understanding of how much income is coming in versus how much is being spent is a great foundation on which to build the conversation. Getting a handle on the plans behind checking, savings and investment accounts, retirement savings, life insurance and other important financial products is an essential next step. It all starts with listing these accounts on a spreadsheet or just on paper. From our experience, the more couples do this together, the greater the trust and the better the outcome.

Many couples in this stage include one (or both) partners with a previous divorce. One extra piece of advice for them is to get rid of the “Uh oh, how is this going to work?” mindset and replace it with real honesty. Admit you’ve made some really good choices and some bad ones, and focus on the good choices. Figure out how you can make more of them together.

It’s Never Too Late

For Baby Boomer couples, the conversations become trickier. It’s a simple fact that most women will outlive men but this is true in all relationships. In older couples, one partner often knows very little about family finances. When one partner dies, the other asks, “What do I do?” and this lack of knowledge breeds a lack of confidence. For example, a widow may be incredibly financially conservative, as much as three times more than the average investor. This can hinder her income at a time when she most needs it.

Older couples should share all basic financial information — a list of financial institutions, account numbers and balances. They also need wills and any necessary trusts to determine what they want their money to do now and where it will go when they pass on. When a loved one dies, the last thing the surviving partner wants to untangle is a complicated financial situation. Building this plan together early on can alleviate that necessity and strengthen the relationship.

For these couples, understanding is the most important element. The conversation should begin, continue and end with understanding. After all, you’re two unique people who have been one for so long, and your financial situation should reflect that.

Final Thoughts

There is an old adage that talking about and making financial decisions together hurts relationships. It is a hard one to debunk, because many people feel pain and negativity when they talk about these issues. But for couples who have the money conversation the right way, the relationship gets stronger – and so do the bank accounts.

When we observe couples who take Online Trading Academy courses together, we don’t see people fighting all the time. In fact, it’s the opposite. These couples respect one another as they build something together and work toward shared goals. Most important, they get the chance to spend more time together. As a bonus, they get to do what they want with their time because making the right financial decisions together leads to a life full of choices.

Sometimes we like to say that it all starts with a plan. But it truly all starts with simply having the right, honest conversation. When you have honest money discussions early, smart choices typically follow that lead to a life that you as a couple chose to live.

When you don’t, the financial system makes those choices for you. That’s not living life on your terms. This February, get together with your significant other and start the conversation. See how financially powerful you can be when you combine your strengths. A wise, Grammy winning singer/songwriter named Jason Isbell says it best: “Are you living the life you chose? Or are you living the life that chose you?” Start living the life together that you as a couple chose to live.

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