Five money questions you should ask your partner
What's your favourite film, what kind of music do you like, what are your views on politics? – these are the sort of questions you'll probably ask a prospective partner on a date.
Suddenly launching into a financial quiz about money arrangements might be enough to cut the date short. But as a relationship gets more serious, the money issue needs to be addressed.
Money is the topic couples argue about most, according to relationship support service Relate. "Financial secrets are the same as any other secrets," says Christine Northam, a counsellor for Relate. "They undermine a relationship and lead to a lack of trust."
Some of us may not even realise that money is an issue until it's too late. Laura Stadler from north London recently hit the headlines after discovering that her husband of 30 years, Michael, had been hiding £850,000 of debt, maxing out 30 credit cards and remortgaging the family home in the process. The house was repossessed and, although Laura eventually got half of the sale proceeds, her marriage was definitely over.
So whether you're about to move in together or settled down with kids and a mortgage, see if you can each answer the following five questions about your partner.
1. What's their attitude to money?
Any financial skeletons lurking in your partner's closet are more likely to be the occasional pair of shoes smuggled into the wardrobe or a new gadget bought on the sly, rather than massive debts or lack of a pension. But it's equally important to share the small stuff.
Compatibility tests on dating websites ask about your likes and dislikes, but what about money habits? Could a serious saver really be happy with a reckless spendthrift? Relationships work on trust and understanding, and this applies to your financial arrangements too.
"Money can cause serious or even fatal problems in relationships," says Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, who cites his partner's previous marriage as an example of financial incompatibility.
"While she hated owing money, her then-husband was continuously living in debt and was encouraging her to do the same," says Hodson.
It's worth having a frank discussion about money pretty early on in the relationship to find out each other's views and financial goals for the future. It may make sense, for example, to have separate bank accounts for your own individual expenses and open a joint account where you can both transfer money for shared household costs.
2. How much debt do they have?
Indra Weight, 46, from Bristol, had no idea her partner of two years, David*, had hidden debts.
"He was using credit cards to maintain his lifestyle, and he'd amassed £30,000 worth of debt," she says. "One morning he simply showed me all his credit card statements. It felt the same as if he'd had an affair: I felt betrayed."
Fortunately, as all David's debts were unsecured personal loans and credit cards solely in his name, the creditors couldn't chase Indra for the money – so her home and car were safe. (This would have been the case whether they were married or not.) But with all of David's income going towards repaying debts, Indra was still left to pick up the mortgage and household bills.
Whether or not you find yourself liable for debts your partner has racked up, like Indra you could still suffer financially by trying to cover joint financial commitments on your own and inadvertently fall into debt. Your credit rating may also be damaged because you share the same address as someone who is in debt, or have a joint account.
If your partner is in debt, encourage them to seek free help from a debt charity. They should contact creditors as soon as possible to let them know they are struggling, and try to make alternative repayment options.
While David's spending secrets didn't end their relationship, Indra concedes it made a difference. "Our relationship did change for the worse," she says.
3. What are their pension plans?
Nearly a third of the over 40s don't know the details of their partner's pension plans, according to Prudential.
Keith Charterhouse, financial adviser and author of Addicted to Wedding Cake – The Journey of Divorce, says he regularly encounters this problem and has met countless couples where one partner is responsible for the household finances, while the other is left completely in the dark.
"I look after a lot of older ladies whose husbands have died," he says. "All they know is that there's a big pile of paper containing all the financial details, and they're often horrified to discover that there's very little left over for them."
"I also often see pensions nominated to an ex-partner or relative, instead of the current partner," Charterhouse adds.
Even if one partner isn't working, their spouse can still make contributions of up to £2,800 a year on their behalf, which is then boosted by tax relief at the basic rate, so the maximum gross contribution is £3,600. This is especially important for stay-at-home mums and women who don't work or only work part-time.
For older couples who are close to retirement age, a joint life annuity can offer a better provision.
4. Do they have life cover?
Asking your loved one if they have life cover might not sound particularly romantic but it's a topic that needs to be broached - particularly once you start a family. It's important to ensure that your children will be provided for in the worst-case scenario.
Unlike annuities, it can pay to have two single life insurance policies rather than a joint one because joint cover will, in most cases, only pay out on the first death. Unmarried couples should also ensure that their partner's name is included in the policy.
If you start paying in your early thirties, when you're young and healthy, monthly premiums can start from as little as £20.
5. Have they written a will?
Over 30 million Brits are currently without a will, according to IFA website unbiased.co.uk, yet 92% of us know exactly who we'd like to leave our assets to. Without a will, however, your estate will be divided according to the rules of intestacy, which may not match your wishes.
If children are not named in a will, they will only be entitled to an inheritance if no spouse survives the deceased or if the estate is worth more than £250,000. Unmarried couples have no inheritance rights without a will in place.
Contact a solicitor or the Institute of Professional Will Writers (ipw.org.uk) to draw one up.
* Name changed to ensure privacy
Generally thought of as being interchangeable with life assurance, but isn’t. Life insurance insures you for a specific period of time, at a premium fixed by your age, health and the amount the life is insured for. If you die while the policy is in force, the insurance company pays the claim. However, if you survive to the end of the term or cease paying the premiums, the policy is finished and has no remaining value whatsoever as it only has any value if you have a claim. For this reason, life insurance is much cheaper than life assurance (also called whole of life).
Changing mortgages without moving home. Property owners chiefly remortgage to get a better deal but some do so to release equity in their homes or to finance home improvements, the costs of which are added to the new mortgage. Even though you’re not moving house, you still need to engage solicitors, conveyancing and the new lender will require the property to be surveyed and valued.
A financial adviser who is not tied to any financial services company (such as a bank or insurance company) and is authorised by the Financial Services Authority (FSA). They can advise on financial products to suit your circumstances. All IFAs have to give consumers the choice of paying by fees or commission and have to explain which would best suit the customer in that particular instance. Also, if commission is paid either by the client or the financial service provider recommended by the IFA, the IFA must disclose what that commission is.
Everything you own: all your assets (property, cars, investments, savings, insurance payouts, artwork, furniture etc) minus any liabilities (debts, current bills, payments still owed on assets like cars and houses, credit card balances and other outstanding loans). When you’re alive this is called your wealth; when you’re dead, it becomes your estate.
Used by the holder to buy goods and services, credit cards also have a monthly or annual spending limit, which may be raised or lowered depending on the creditworthiness of the cardholder. But unlike charge cards, borrowers aren’t forced to pay the balance off in full every month and, as long as they make a stated minimum payment, can carry a balance from one month to the next, generating compound interest. As the issuing company is effectively giving you a short-term loan, most credit cards have variable and relatively high interest rates. Allowing the interest to compound for too long may result in dire financial straits.
In exchange for any lump sum – usually your pension fund – an annuity is “bought” from an insurance company and provides an income for life. When you die, the income stops. Annuity rates fluctuate daily and depend on your sex (although from 21 December 2012 insurers will no longer be able to use gender as a factor when calculating annuities), age, health and a number of other factors, so you have to pick the right one and, once bought, its terms cannot be altered, so seek financial advice.