How to Navigate Tough Situations in Marriage—Without Going Broke

You can't predict everything in life. But you can plan ahead.
couple looking at papers sitting in kitchen
Terri Williams
by Terri Williams
Updated Jun 25, 2021

Money can't buy happiness, but it can have an impact on happy relationships. According to a Harris Poll online survey, 36 percent of married Americans listed money as the top issue that caused the most stress, almost double the second biggest stressor (health, 17 percent). When you're tying the knot, wedding planning can quickly take the front seat, but financial planning is just as—if not more—important for your long-term success as a couple, especially when life throws you a curveball. To avoid being blindsided, we talked to several experts about some of the biggest life challenges that may come up during your marriage, along with tips to prepare your finances for each scenario.

You face a big job change.

Whether it's losing a job, changing careers or going back to school, a shift in your main sources of income could mean major lifestyle changes if you're not properly prepared. "Get ahead by first building an emergency fund to ensure your bills will be covered for at least six months," advises Leslie Tayne, founder and head attorney at debt solutions law firm Tayne Law Group in Long Island, New York.

If this does happen to you, consider ways to create additional streams of income. "Driving for Uber or Lyft, working as a childcare provider, or even finding contract work could bring in more money," Tayne says. However, she suggests the most important thing is to create a budget so you can determine your needs. (Mint and Simplify are two budgeting apps to try.) "Knowing what you'll need to survive on and what, if anything, needs to be sacrificed during that time will make for important discussions," Tayne says.

You have an unplanned pregnancy.

If you're not thinking about kids right now, this kind of surprise can put some stress on your finances. "You have nine months to get a financial plan together," says Birmingham, Alabama-based financial expert Tae Lee, who created "Game of Fortune: Win in Wealth or Lose in Debt," a new financial literacy game designed to bridge the gap in education. However, it's a lot less stressful to start by planning ahead. For example, Lee recommends contacting your insurance provider to find out the costs for prenatal care, labor and delivery. "Also, find out how much time you and your partner get off work and whether you'll be paid during that time," she says.

And whether the pregnancy is planned or not, Tayne says you should start discussing how you'll cover childcare costs and higher education. "Opening child savings accounts or education funding accounts often offer rewards that other savings accounts do not and can be done even before your new addition arrives," she says.

You have to move suddenly.

Moving is always hectic, but if you need to clear out of your house or apartment in a hurry—say, if your landlord doesn't renew your lease or if they decide to sell the property—it can be even more chaotic. "This is a prime example of why you need an emergency fund to cover three to six months of expenses for unexpected or unplanned events," Lee says.
If you're ever in this situation, look for ways to save money on your move. "Ask your office or local store for moving boxes instead of purchasing them," she recommends. You can also save money by asking friends and family members to help you pack and move instead of hiring a moving company. Or "barter your services. For example, offer to design or update the mover's website in exchange for the use of a moving truck," Lee says.

You have a medical issue or accident.

Regardless of how healthy you are, a medical emergency or accident can happen at any time—causing big financial problems if you're not prepared. And we're not just talking about senior citizens. "Consider that the Social Security Administration reports 25 percent of 20-year-olds will encounter a period in which they are disabled for 90 days or more before they turn 67," says Tanya Peterson, vice president of brand at Freedom Financial Network in San Mateo, California. Most employers offer disability insurance (or it's available to purchase separately), which covers a portion of income if something happens—such as an illness or injury—and you can't work as a result. However, Peterson says it's only designed to help cover basic living expenses, not extras like medical bills or the cost of long-term care.

In fact, since accidents can take so many different shapes, Tayne advises covering all your bases: "Make sure you're prepared with life insurance, disability insurance, medical insurance and accident insurance to handle any hefty medical bills." She also recommends finding out what is and isn't covered in your policies now, so you will be aware of what you're required to pay.

Your extended family has an emergency.

When two become one, you're also joining your families together. And when they have an emergency, you have an emergency. "If one of your parents becomes ill and requires assistance, it might fall on the two of you to figure out a course of action," Tayne says. "This could mean uprooting and moving in with them or moving them in with you to help, or them just needing your assistance financially, which could change the financial dynamics."

For example, you might need to pay for nurses, medication or installing ramps and safety railings. You might also need to assist with the costs of a nursing home or a long-term living facility. "It's important to talk to your partner now to make sure you know what types of financial assistance (retirement funds, pensions, long-term care funding, etc.) your parents or other close relatives receive, so you'll be better informed if an accident occurs—and also know if you should be adding more to your savings, just in case," Tayne says.

You experience an unexpected death.

Another topic no couple wants to think about is death—but it's inevitable. "This is why life insurance is important for all married couples," says Neiko Johnson, cofounder and managing editor of a personal finance blog called Secret to Finance. "The household income will decrease dramatically if one partner passes away and there's no life insurance in place." A life insurance policy can protect the surviving spouse and ensure they can maintain their current lifestyle. "The main issue most married couples face is starting this type of discussion: It should be had as early as possible and preferably during premarital counseling," he advises. "You don't want to get years into the marriage and still not agree on how to handle situations like this."

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