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What to talk about with your significant other

Some “must-have” financial conversations by age, although most are useful for everyone.

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Here’s a conversation starter with your significant other: “What do you want to do in retirement, my love?” Believe it or not, about four in 10 couples don’t agree on the lifestyle they want in retirement. But talking is the first step—and realizing a common dream is your ultimate reward.

According to Fidelity’s fourth Couples Retirement Study,1 many couples are disagreeing about more than just the future. More than half admit to arguing either frequently or occasionally about money—and more than one-third never resolve these arguments in a mutually satisfying way.

Even if couples rarely fight about money, that doesn't mean they are truly in synch either. In more than one out of three couples, only one member knows where important financial and legal papers are kept. And roughly a third disagree about who the primary beneficiary is on their life insurance (31%) and retirement accounts (27%).

"The fact that many couples disagree about money isn't surprising, but the realization that so many don’t actually resolve their financial squabbles is cause for concern, and the findings suggest that even the closest of couples have opportunities to get on the same financial page," says Lauren Brouhard, senior vice president of Retirement Strategies at Fidelity. "Just as you plan for vacations or even where to go for dinner, it’s important to make financial planning a regular part of your conversations, and try and reach agreement whenever possible. In some ways, the greatest gift of love you can give is to set aside your differences and ensure that your other half is fully equipped to keep the financial house in order, should something unexpected occur."

Couples should make it a point to discuss financial matters. It doesn't have to take too much time, either: perhaps 90 minutes, roughly the length of a romantic movie. Here are some “must-have” financial conversations by age—although most are useful no matter what your age. We've named them after some romantic movies.

Financial basics so your money isn't gone with the wind

  • Figure out what kind of financial decision maker you are. Are you the head chef, with a hand in every dish? A line cook, with special knowledge of one part of the process, or the diner, happy with whatever the kitchen serves up? No matter what your role, make sure you know what to do to keep the financial recipe for success going, in case anything happens.
  • Make sure you have the right mix of investments and accounts when you are saving for retirement. Take the time to make sure both of you know what you own, how each account works, and how they fit together.
  • Have a “just in case” plan for handling finances. This might be a tough conversation, but it’s an important one. If one of you has to pass on the financial baton, would the other be able to complete the race? If not, it’s time to bring that person “up to speed.” Fewer than one-half of couples surveyed were completely confident that their spouse could assume full financial responsibility of retirement finances, if necessary.

If you're a boomer (born 1946–1964): Love me tender

  • Talk about where you might live in retirement. Do you plan to keep the house the kids grew up in, or downsize once they are on their own? Do you want to live in a different part of the country? Nearly two in 10 couples disagree as to where they want to live in retirement.
  • Run the numbers to see if you have enough savings to last in retirement. If you stop working, will your financial reservoir be enough to support your retirement goals? To see where you may stand, use our Retirement Quick Check.
  • Share your vision of retirement. Are you looking to travel the globe, or simply tend the garden at home? Believe it or not, many couples don’t talk about retirement. If you are not in agreement about your goals, it’s difficult to put the right plan in place.

If you're Gen X (born 1965–1977): When Harry met Sally and her finances

  • Know your insurance policies and retirement accounts. It’s as unromantic as it gets, but do you know who the beneficiaries are on your life insurance policies? Do you have enough homeowner’s and life insurance protection? Do you have the right beneficiaries on your retirement savings accounts? And, just as important, do you know where all the paperwork is? Approximately three in 10 couples disagree about who the primary beneficiary is on their life insurance (31%) and retirement accounts (27%).
  • Talk about saving for tomorrow. Between school supplies for the kids, saving for college, and family vacations, are you still setting something aside for retirement through a 401(k), an IRA, or other saving vehicles? Are you preparing for potential health care costs in retirement through a Health Savings Account (HSA) or other savings strategies? 
  • Take advantage of resources at work. Are you both making the most of your employer’s retirement plan—at least up to any company match—and other benefits like HSAs and flexible spending accounts?

For Gen Y (born 1978–1988): My big fat joint bank account

couples_finances_quizgraphic.fw
  • Get to know your partner’s investments. Sure, you know his or her favorite color, but when it comes to building a life together, do you know what your other half’s investments are?
  • Have a joint plan to save. Only 45% of Gen Y women say they are a joint decision maker when it comes to retirement savings, compared with 58% of both boomers and Gen Xers. Gen Y-ers are also nearly twice as likely as boomer women to say their spouse/partner is primarily responsible for decisions regarding their retirement savings (36% vs. 22%). Gen Y-ers have the power of time on their side, and the ability to build a solid retirement savings account by starting early and saving as much as possible. The time to start saving is now, so make sure each of you, if eligible, is contributing to tax-advantaged savings accounts, such as your company’s workplace savings plan or an IRA. 
  • Talk about big-ticket items. Is a house on the horizon? Will you start planning a family and saving for college? Planning together and early and making decisions jointly can make life a lot easier.

Know where you stand

For couples who want more information on making their joint money decisions a financial affair to remember, take our Couples Quiz. You can find out your financial personality and get a detailed checklist of next steps.

Learn more

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Retirement Quick Check is an educational tool.

1. About the study: Fidelity’s online, biannual study, which was launched in 2007, is unique in that it tests agreement of both partners in a committed relationship on communication, as well as their knowledge of finances and retirement planning issues. The 2013 Fidelity Investments “Couples Retirement Study” analyzed retirement and financial expectations, and preparedness among 808 couples (1,616 individuals). Respondents were required to be at least 25 years old, married or in a long-term committed relationship and living with their respective partner, and have a minimum household income of $75,000 or at least $100,000 in investable assets. The 2013 study expanded on studies of prior years by including 109 Gen X couples and 109 Gen Y couples, in addition to retired and preretired couples ages 47 and older. Gen X couples were between the ages of 35 and 46, while Gen Y couples were slightly younger, between the ages of 25 and 34. The 2013 study also included 110 couples who were not married but reported being in a long-term committed relationship. Fidelity Investments was not identified as the sponsor. GfK’s Public Affairs & Corporate Communications division executed the study, which fielded in May 2013. For more information on the Fidelity Investments fourth “Couples Retirement Study,” an executive summary and infographics can be found on Fidelity.com.
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