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Financial planning for couples

It's summer, and traditionally the busy season for weddings. Whether you're getting married, planning your life with a partner or celebrating decades of bliss together, successfully handling money is an important part of successfully managing any long-term relationship.

Personal finances are a big part of our lives. When we commit to sharing our lives with another, we also commit to sharing financial decisions, at least at some level. Here are some important money tips I recommend all couples heed. These apply equally well to couples at any stage of a committed relationship, including those who have been together for a long time.

Talk about money. Discussing finances can be uncomfortable. But couples who tackle the issue head-on have a better chance of avoiding even more uncomfortable surprises that can become a series of obstacles.

Understand your partner's financial goals and spending habits. While you may have different long-term plans for how you want to use money, as well as different day-to-day approaches for handling money, this conversation will help keep you aware of each other's needs and desires — and ultimately help develop an approach that works for both of you.

Set a budget. If this sounds like familiar advice from a banker, it is. But for good reason. After assessing your finances together, figure out how you'll spend your money every month. Should you cut back on certain expenses to create a pool of money you can save? Is a big-ticket expense, such as a house or a car, in your immediate future or a little further down the road?

Setting a budget will put both of you on the same page when it comes to how much you can spend and how much you should save. A budget is the next logical step after you have had the money conversation. It should exist as a mutually agreed-upon plan both of you respect at all times.

Manage your accounts. Whether this involves merging finances into joint accounts, keeping them separate or some combination of the two, you need to have a plan for how you will handle your accounts, including checking, savings, retirement and credit cards. There is no "right" way to do this. Every couple needs to decide for themselves. But talk about it and determine your approach.

Plan for emergencies. Life is full of surprises, from a washer or dryer conking out to a major medical expense. Have a plan, and a fund, ready for when emergencies and bills hit. This not only will prepare you financially, but it also will give you and your partner relationship-enhancing peace of mind. A traditional savings account or money market account at your local community bank is a great way to get started.

Spend respectfully. Establish guidelines with your partner for when big spending requires a big conversation. It's simply a matter of respect, and it can avoid a hurtful situation that can damage your relationship.

Update your beneficiaries. Make sure you have updated your wills, life insurance policies, retirement savings plans and bank accounts to reflect your relationship. Do you want your partner to be the beneficiary of all of your finances? Now is the time to make those changes, rather than waiting to do so in an emergency.

Our relationships involve money, and money can dramatically affect our relationships — positively and negatively. Talking about money issues with your partner and figuring out your money matters together not only is the right thing to do financially, but it also can strengthen your bond.

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