Money is one of the elephants in the room when it comes to relationships. It may not be a large elephant for some couples to address, but it certainly cannot be ignored.

The reason money receives the elephant label is because it is inextricably linked to people’s place in society. Half of all Americans say that personal finance is the most difficult topic to discuss with others, ahead of heavy hitters such as death, politics, or religion.

Couples must cross broach that subject in an especially thoughtful way. Unless a couple is living outside the range of civilization entirely, it will have to mutually deal with matters like living expenses and other consumer goods. When one partner occupies a different income bracket than the other, or has different spending priorities, it can easily lead to friction in the relationship. A 2015 survey of people in partnerships revealed that 35 per cent of respondents who were experiencing relationship stress felt that money was first on the list of causes behind it.

But even the most financially sensitive of couples can find a way to talk money without everything falling apart. All it takes is some savvy strategizing.

Break the ice early on

There’s one financial hurdle that a lot of couples face almost immediately (so immediately, in fact, that they aren’t even technically couples yet): payment on the first date. On dates where only one of the participants identifies as a man, there is a traditional expectation that he should pay for both of them. A recent survey found that 85 per cent of male respondents and 72 per cent of female respondents still felt that way.

Rather than follow that template blindly without addressing the options, it could be a good opportunity to open a dialogue on money-related matters. Not only will it lead to a more mutual resolution in that specific situation, it will break the ice for future money conversations and give both people a basic sense of where the other person may stand on payments. Same goes for dates between non-heterosexual people; the payment expectation is different, but the discussion is still worth having.

Casual dating means casual conversations

Before a relationship moves beyond the casual dating phase, it’s a good idea to keep discussions about finances light in nature. Don’t make the other person uncomfortable by grilling them on their saving habits or salary outlook. If a conversation heads in that direction organically, and in a way that makes both parties comfortable, then that’s a different story. Feel free to go down that road. But it’s unfair to ask that of someone who hasn’t yet indicated that they want a serious commitment. The only exception would be if a finance-related matter is an absolute deal breaker for one of the people involved. If that were the case though, it would probably be nipped in the bud before the end of the first date.

Develop a system for living expenses before moving in together

Doing this is crucial for the viability of a relationship. Without settling some key financial questions before entering into a joint living situation, couples risk having their relationship undone by avoidable money grievances. A good financial system should answer all of those questions. When it comes to expenses, neither person should be unclear about the conditions surrounding them.

There a few basic models for how that sort of arrangement should work. The first is one in which each person contributes equally to all shared payments. This includes rent/mortgage funds, food payments, and whatever else is being bought with money from both parties. The second method is to do a proportional payment system for all shared expenses. Rather than paying based on a 50-50 divide, the percentages will be based on how much each person makes; which could lead to a 30-70 split, an 80-20 split, etc. There’s a hybrid of the two models as well where payments themselves are divided up proportionally (but not based entirely on salary) and/or individually (one person covers rent; another does utilities, food, etc.). Or a couple could think outside the box and develop a system of its own choosing.

It doesn’t really matter which one is used. All that matters is that there is a system in the first place that is being followed.

Consider opening a shared account

One of the best ways for a couple to easily enforce their rules is to open a shared bank account. While a shared bank account could mean sharing everything entirely, the more common occurrence of it among unmarried but cohabitative couples is as an account that is used solely for shared expenses. That way, everything can be viewed and tracked by both people without having to ask for permission to see the other’s account. Also, each of them retains their autonomy on non-shared purchases, keeping an account that is entirely their own.

The pre-marriage shared expense account is a bit of a new phenomenon. Millennials are much more likely to go with it than older couples are, or have been in the past. That’s a product of people getting married later in general, but it also just makes a lot of sense. There’s really very little risk involved; if the relationship ends unexpectedly, the account can just be terminated and each person’s funds returned to them.

Budget for long-term goals

When a couple is at the point where it’s living under the same roof and is presumably in it for the long haul, it’s time for the two partners to start budgeting for long-term goals. This will probably have already happened to some extent individually. Each partner may been diligently investing or saving for something big on their own, well before the other came into the picture. And there’s nothing wrong if that continues to happen on an independent basis in some capacity. But it’s important that a couple at least sits down to discuss mutual priorities and reaches a consensus on how they would like to go about achieving those things. Common examples of mutual budgeting include saving for weddings, houses, cars, college education funds, etc.

Think about seeing a financial planner

There’s something undeniably satisfying about handling important matters without hired help, but sometimes it’s best to leave certain tasks to the pros. Seeing a financial planner can make an enormous difference for a couple that wants to sort out its finances but isn’t fully confident on how to do so. It not only leads to better money outcomes, it relieves stress by preventing the couple from potentially bickering and going down one of the roads that make money so stressful in the first place.