This is the second of a two—part series that explores how to navigate a couple's finances when one person handles everything. Up first: how to handle the pitfalls, and here: how to make sure there's a plan for the other person to take over if needed.
Are you the money person at home? Some of us are just better suited than others when it comes to making sure the bills are paid, so it's not uncommon for one person to end up in charge of all things finance, certified financial planner and host of Millennial Money Podcast Shannah Compton Game told NBC News BETTER.
Not surprisingly, she's that person in her relationship. And while it can be tricky to navigate this situation, there's often a big elephant in the room. What happens if something happens to the money person?
Florida-based artist and gallery owner Bryce Hudson (and my former co-worker) went through the worst case scenario when he lost his partner several years ago. Hudson was only 35 at the time, and naturally hadn't made a lot of plans for what would happen if either of them died. But the couple actually had an appointment scheduled in just a few days' time to meet with an estate planner. Before they could make that meeting, his partner unexpectedly died. “When he died, it was like everything was up in the air,” Hudson said. Without financial details settled, he was left trying to sort through mortgages and more, all while coping with profound grief and shock.
“I've had a lot of couples say 'if something happened to my spouse I'd be so upset that I wouldn't pay or do anything,'” Game said. “That starts hurting you.” And it doesn't even have to be a death or a partner being incapacitated. “Maybe you're stuck out of the country.”
So she urges couples to have everything clearly documented and accessible to the other person. “There's so much information you take for granted when you handle the money all the time,” she said. “The idea is that anybody could step in and figure out what they needed.”
I don't want to leave my husband left to unsnarl our finances if something happened to me, so we've made a small start at getting things in order with a spreadsheet that contains all our accounts. That's just the beginning, though. Game has an entire game plan, and she shared her approach.
Create a game plan
“My husband is not in the bills at all,” she said. “So when we got married — this was my second marriage — I said I want to do this differently so if something happened to me he could pick up and figure everything out, so I spent time figuring out how would I do this safely.”
“On my computer I use a program called LastPass, a free program that enables me to auto-populate password and emails,” she said, so that he only needs to know one password to gain access to everything on her computer. “The other thing we did, this may be antiquated but we have an Excel sheet that's password protected and stored in Dropbox.” The sheet contains information on all their bills, including notes on auto-paid bills and due dates.
In addition to the online version, Game keeps a copy of the document on an external drive that's also password protected — and stored in a fireproof safe. The safe holds copies of important documents like life insurance policies and wills, as well. This precaution comes with her experiences as a financial planner. “After 15+ years I've seen every scenario with couples,” she said.
The system you choose isn't what's important, Game said, so much as making sure your partner is in on it. “Whatever works is fine as long as it's communicated.”
Make a one-page instruction sheet
Now, “If someone … is not in the money day to day and they open this Excel document they're going to freak out,” Game said. So she made a one-page instruction sheet. “I call it the treasure map. I really want it to be completely like — not that he's a dummy — but that it's dummy poof. So someone can pick this up and step in and feel comfortable they know where everything is.”
Granted, it was “a super involved process but it didn't take me long to set up,” Game said. “And there's little maintenance. … Anytime we pay off something, like car loan, I go in and take that off so it's not confusing,” she said.
Schedule a fire drill
Game shares this strategy with almost every couple she works with. Even if you don't take it to her level, “Anything you can set up is better than nothing,” she said, “even if you — God forbid — write it on a piece of paper and store it someplace you can find it.”
That said, a lot of couples will start with something simple, she said, “and realize, 'we should do more.'” It comes down to “figuring out how that person who would be left behind, how do they digest information best? I tell couples sit down together, pretend something happens, it's almost like a fire drill: what would you do?” This drill helps expose holes in a plan.
“When couples do that exercise they realize 'we need to create something to do this and this,'” Game said. “It works out some of those kinks where the person doing the money just automatically knows.” And beyond the practical applications? “It helps people feel better.”
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