PhotoMarried or unmarried, when a couple moves in together there is more to the arrangement than who takes out the trash. Money is woven throughout the fabric of modern relationships and it's important to the relationship for both parties to be on the same page, right from the start.

Andrea Browne, channel editor for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, says it starts with a clear understanding of who has a right to live there. It's especially important for unmarried couples.

“When you have a shared lease you definitely want to make sure that both names are listed,” Browne told ConsumerAffairs. “If a break-up occurs, and only your significant other's name is on the lease, you run the risk of being thrown out.”

Break up? Us?

Of course, couples rarely think about that while in the full bloom of their relationship. But things can change and that's why Browne suggests unmarried couples take the additional step of drawing up a cohabitation agreement – something like a prenup for singles.

“It's a good idea because it clearly states the living arrangements the couple has agreed to, including who pays for what,” Browne said.

She says the agreement should also address banking issues. If there is a joint bank account it should spell out how much each couple contributes to that bank account. Couples don't necessarily have to consult a lawyer to draw up a cohabitation agreement. Browne says an informal document, signed and notarized, will do just fine.

“If you do break up you have a piece of paper that says 'this is what we've agreed to,' and it takes the emotion out of the situation when it really should just be about the finances.”

Wedding bells

Once a couple decides to get married, it's doubly important to have “the money talk.” If you don't already know your partner's financial standing, you'd better learn before the I do's.

“You don't want to get surprised after the fact,” said Browne. “For example, if your spouse has a low credit score and you both are trying to qualify for a mortgage or car loan, that's not the news you want to hear when you're doing those types of things.”

For example, a recent survey commissioned by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) found couples view debt as a highly undesirable characteristic for a potential mate. According to the survey, 37% of respondents would not marry someone until their debt was repaid. Ten percent would marry but not help pay the debt while seven percent would take the somewhat extreme action of breaking off the relationship.

Two bookkeepers

When two individuals decide to become a couple, they often combine their financial resources. But a mistake many couples make, says Browne, is assigning just one person to keep the books.

“The person who has been tasked with being the family money manager may feel burdened by a thankless job,” Browne said. “The other person may feel they are completely out of the loop.”

Browne recommends each partner take turns each month managing the bank account and paying bills. That way both parties are well acquainted with the couple's financial situation – what's coming in each month and what's going out.

Once married, Browne says couples should immediately start planning for their retirement. In fact, she says that planning should actually start before the wedding. Once marriage is a real possibility she suggests both parties discuss retirement and how they plan to fund it.

Keep talking

In other words, money should be an ongoing theme of what couples talk about right from the start.

“Just to make sure everyone is on the same page and there aren't any unanswered questions,” Browne said. “You just put it all out there.”

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