How to talk about finances with your partner: a conversation with Brian Page from Modern Husbands

Mar 22, 2024

Silvia de Denaro Vieira

Navigating financial conversations in relationships isn't just about dollars and cents — it's about aligning goals and making sure both partners feel empowered and supported. 

We recently sat down with Brian Page, founder of Modern Husbands, to delve into best practices for managing money as a team. With over 20 years of experience in the personal finance space and a background as a visiting scholar at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Brian has invaluable insights. He shares with us the importance of approaching finances practically, particularly in today's landscape where both partners often have full-time jobs outside the home. 

Join us as we explore open communication, equitable division of tasks, and various approaches to splitting finances to help set a strong foundation for marital financial harmony.

Silvia: Brian, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. Could you share a little bit about your background and what you’re working on right now?

Brian: I'm thrilled to be here! So, I spent about 20 years in the personal finance space. I was a visiting scholar at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the Office of Financial Education, and I'm the founder of Modern Husbands. We share ideas to manage money and the home as a team. 

I'm a proud husband - I love my wife, she's wonderful - and I have three children. I strongly believe that in the 21st century we need to approach how we manage money in the home with a more tactical vision in mind and understanding that when two partners are working, you need an approach that's far different than what we saw from our parents. 

Right now, we’re finalizing a product called the Transition to Marriage Toolkit. It's designed for engaged or newly married couples, and it's a digital buffet of the most pressing topics for couples to discuss and make sure they start their marriages out with really good habits.

Silvia: I love that your focus is on helping couples work as a team at home. Coexist is huge on that and we’ve focused a lot on household responsibilities, not as much on the finances, but those things go hand-in-hand. Our community has a lot of questions around that, especially the guilt that comes with one partner making more or being more present at home. Why do you think it’s so important to be having conversations about money as a couple?

Brian: There's a lot of reasons, but I want to start with a 50,000 foot view of the modern-day marriage, where it's highly common for both people in the couple to have full-time jobs. Women are actually outpacing men as college graduates at every level now. Under the age of 30, women are out-earning men. One of the challenges men face is that throughout history, money and masculinity have been married. That's not a fair representation of what a modern-day partner is looking for anymore. Sure, earning income is important, but if your partner works really hard as well and they're ambitious, they need more than that. They need to make sure they have someone who can provide them with the teamwork that's necessary for the home to operate. 

It's especially important to have regular conversations about money because so much of our own money stories, our values and our beliefs around money, are shaped from our childhood. There are different levels of understanding money and how to put those money conversations into practice that are simple. Or at least on the surface it might look simple. But when you start to dive deeper into the role that money plays in a relationship, it's not simple. 

Take, for instance, retirement. The basic advice in a personal finance class would be that you need to make sure you're contributing enough to at least get your employer match. So you have a lot of folks who really get into the details of what to invest in and how much they should contribute. Should I put it in a traditional IRA, a traditional 401k, or a Roth 401k? What the research has found is that the conversation missed by a lot of married couples is simply asking your partner: “how much are you contributing to your retirement?” In one of four instances, one partner is contributing more than is necessary to be able to earn the company match - which is good. But because money's tight, the other partner isn't able to contribute enough to get the full company match. If they were to simply have a conversation, they could change their contributions and, on average, they would gain $700 a year in employer matched money while contributing the same amount collectively. Over the course of 25 or 30 years, if it earns the market average, that's a couple hundred thousand dollars!

That's just one simple example where if you didn't have that conversation, you're both working through the problem independently. That's not how marriage can work. You can't make these compartmentalized choices because your choice impacts their financial choices.

Silvia: Absolutely. Sometimes we have triggers, stressors, or stories that we tell ourselves about money. Especially around masculinity and money. It can be really hard for some people to have the initial conversation and set up a healthy financial foundation. What advice do you have for kicking off that conversation about money in a marriage?

Brian: I want to preface this by saying that everything I share is, in most instances, somebody else's great research-backed idea. I give credit to this suggestion to Dr. McCoy from Kansas State, who runs their financial planning program.

The first and best step would be to schedule a money date, which is not uncommon. This should be something you do regularly with your spouse. Make sure that you have your money date in a place where you're relaxed and won't be interrupted. So, if you have children, make sure it's at a time where they're not around or you have somebody there watching them. At this money date, bring a lottery ticket - just one lottery ticket. Spend two bucks on the Mega Million or Powerball and discuss what you would do if you won. That unlocks conversations about some of the things we value most, dream about, aspire to accomplish. It creates a spirit of happiness and joy and gives you an idea of what success would feel like if you were financially free that would make you happiest. And work backwards from there. 

Connect with the little parts of the conversations where you realize, oh, so what you value is experiences or freedom, whatever those things may be. You're just looking for ways to find the commonalities with your spouse. Through that, you can start constructing a spending plan. It doesn't have to happen all at once, it's okay if you go seven cents over a budgeting category. I want to stress to people that money's fluid and if you have a spending plan, it's a guideline and you're gonna go outside of the lines every once in a while, that's normal. 

Let's say you establish guidelines and decide, one of the things you value is experiences. So let's set a savings goal to go on vacation next year and a savings account specific to that separate to where we do our regular banking so it's out of sight, out of mind. Then let's each set a percentage of our paychecks to be automatically deposited into that savings account. So by the time we go on vacation, it's all saved up. We don't have to borrow money and we can have that experience together.

Then you build from there. Obviously not every conversation about money will be joyful. It's going to be stressful in many instances, particularly if your partner has experienced financial trauma. In that case, it can get pretty tough for people.

Silvia: I love that idea. Do you have any advice for people who are starting to think about how they should divide up finances? What are some common techniques that people use and what is recommended?

Brian: I want to start at the 50,000 foot view again. Finances are only one part of many parts that are entailed in operating a household. So I think that from the outset, it's important to recognize that the time that will be spent by somebody to do that part of managing a household should be considered when you're looking at the other responsibilities. You're trying to create some sort of equitable division of labor or ensure both partners have an equal amount of leisure time. 

Once you've established that, it goes down to something as simple as a checklist of what's required to manage money in a household. That checklist created by us at Modern Husbands is included in the Coexist app and I was super excited you included me. It's comprehensive and covers everything you should consider when you're trying to figure out how to make sure you are financially healthy. When you're looking at that, look at it through the lens of what you enjoy to do and your partner enjoys to do. Then what skills can you bring to the table that you're naturally good at, or perhaps it's part of your profession, and vice versa.

In some marriages, that means that one spouse might manage all of the finances. However, they still meet regularly to discuss their financial goals to make sure that the money's being managed in a way where that team can achieve their goals. Just because somebody manages all the money doesn't mean they control it, there's a big difference. Control should be something you do as a team, managing it is the task required. 

Let's talk about my household as an example. Personal finance is my background, but it's also my wife's. So I handle saving and investing in large part because with my money story, I'm a borderline tightwad. This means not only do I enjoy saving, but that spending can cause me pain. When I walk into a shopping mall I literally get a migraine. That's how much I hate spending money on some things. It's just a part of who I am. My wife is normal, she can walk into a mall like anybody else and not need prescription medication. So she handles a lot of the spending side because she's going to be able to make responsible decisions.

However you decide to do it, you're going to break those tasks up, and then you have to own it. Meaning if, let's say, my wife is managing all the bills, I can't tell my wife "here's when the bills are due, you need to pay them." Because now I am shouldering the mental load of managing all of the money and she's just simply paying the bills. I don't have the mind space for that. So if she's handling the bill paying, she has to own it and come up with her own system. I can't tell her what that system is because if she owns it and we have an acceptable level of care of paying bills on time, how she goes about doing that is on her. Nobody wants to come home and get micromanaged, right? 

The last thing I want to say, and I know I said it before, it doesn't matter who's managing the money. What matters is you are both transparent about it and you're having regular conversations about it. So if something happens, both partners are well aware of the financial circumstances. They know where to turn for passwords. They know how to manage the money and carry forward if something tragic happens.

Silvia: I couldn’t agree more. Could you talk a little bit also about the three approaches to splitting money from the amazing template checklist you wrote for the Coexist app?

Brian: One of the most common questions we get is "how do you decide how to split the money up?" Meaning, should you have shared accounts? Should you have joint accounts? Should you keep it separate? How do you do it? 

I am not a believer in a dogmatic approach. It's very frustrating when people tell me there's only one way to do it. I think it's disrespectful of people's individual circumstances. I don't know what nuances go into your relationship - everyone's different. 

So I'll share the research. What the research says is that for couples who are engaged or early in their first marriage, that on average, pooling all of your money together is what's most appropriate. Dr. Olson at Indiana University conducted an extensive study on this topic because up until that point there's always been a correlation that when you pool your money together, there's more marital satisfaction. They wanted to see if there was the causation, and there is.

What they did was split participants into three groups: one group was told to manage money by pooling it all together, another was told to keep it all separate, and another was told to choose their own adventure and do whatever they wanted. What they found was that for the group who pooled their money together after getting married, they found that the typical dip they saw in couple happiness after marriage for the other groups was buffered. So this approach of pooling all your money together should be the go-to. 

However, that's not always best. Let's say in a couple one person is a spendthrift and the other one’s a tightwad, meaning they're complete financial opposites. The approach Dr. Rick from the University of Michigan recommends is for your paychecks to go into a joint account first. That's important, the order is very important. The paychecks don't go into your individual accounts first, they go into a joint account first. Then in that joint account, they're psychologically money-laundered, right? Then you're paying your bills from there, right? Money is then deposited into individual accounts. It could be a nominal amount - it might be 50 bucks, 100 bucks, 200 bucks. Then that money you can use to spend without having somebody looking at every transaction. That is not a green light to do bad things with it. It's simply an opportunity for somebody who likes to spend to be able to do so without having the tightwad, like me, criticizing them for it. It prevents unnecessary fights. You shouldn't be squabbling over 5% of the purchases of your overall income. So that would be the second approach.

The third approach is to keep it separate. One caveat I want to add is that there's been research done on blended families and if you are in a second marriage, particularly if you're in a second marriage and you're both bringing children into that second marriage, it actually is helpful to have a yours, mine, and ours to simplify that new family dynamic. It can compartmentalize previous expenses that are continuing such as alimony child support, while also having money that goes into the new family.

Silvia: That makes a lot of sense. And obviously there are extreme scenarios, right? Where maybe somebody experienced things like financial abuse?

Brian: I'm glad you brought that up. That's the dark side of things where unfortunately some people are victims of financial abuse or it could have been financial infidelity which is extremely deceitful. It's used as a method of control or secrecy to hide affairs. More often than not, historically speaking, women have been more victims of this than men. That's not always the case, but that is the data. 

If you grew up in a house where you saw your mother or your father experience that, there's gonna be trauma that comes with it. So that would be an example of why you should never have a dogmatic approach of telling people you must do this, because if you're in a house where you had serious financial trauma because of financial abuse, it is entirely rational to want to have some autonomy in the family finances, to have a sense of protection and security. 

But also, even in saying that, it's just as important to have complete transparency, regardless of who is managing the money, to prevent people from having to feel that way. Over time, if you are always transparent and meeting regularly and talking about money, you might be able to work past that distrust that was created by a father or a mother. But initially, that might be something they need to do.

Silvia: Brian, thanks so much for chatting with me today. I learn so much from you every time we talk and I'm so excited for your transition to marriage toolkit.


Modern Husbands empowers couples with winning ideas to manage money and the home as a team. The organization was founded by Brian Page, who has over 15 years of experience teaching personal finance and economics. Modern Husbands works with national financial therapy and financial planning experts to build their educational platform content.