Money management is one of the most common challenges in a marriage. When I am asked to consult or assist with money problems in relationships, it’s often because one of the partners is overspending, or not producing enough, or not sharing enough where there is perceived fair exchange. So I have the following advice to couples who are about to get married.

When Both Partners Have Equal Incomes

When two people have equal incomes, and they get married, there’s generally a mutual economic respect. It’s usually wise to set up three financial accounts: his, hers, and a joint account. The couple needs to negotiate and agree on whether the third account will be used to pay all the bills, save for mutually agreed future goals, or whether each partner is going to pay the bills from his or her own account.

In one scenario, the third account is for things that both agree on. It could be children’s education, a home, or travel. Their independent accounts are for their two separate value systems and are used for paying their portion of the bills and for money for their own desires.

In another scenario, they each have separate accounts with which they do exactly what they want, and a joint account through which they pay the bills.

When Incomes Are Unequal

The previous scenarios work well when both partners are earning the same amount. But if one partner is the breadwinner and the other is rearing the family, that’s another situation entirely. In this case, the partner who is rearing the family has to work out the replacement value of those activities or services.

For this type of situation, I recommend that you have the same three accounts. Since one partner is providing the income and the other is doing household activities and rearing the family, the amount going into that person’s account would be the most accurately estimated replacement value of those activities. In some cases, husbands may not be able to afford their wives’ replacement value. In other cases it would be wise for their professional wives to work part-time.

If both partners are working but are making unequal salaries, that is an unequal exchange from a purely economic perspective. If there is a huge disparity in salaries, the partners will have to negotiate, as this could be a source of resentment. Perhaps the person making the most pays two-thirds and the other person pays a third. Reassess as needed when tension builds up or when it’s not perceived as fair.

Calculating Fair Exchange

Larger discrepancies in income may require more negotiation. It would be wise as part of the couple’s financial negotiations to ensure that the so-called perceived financial underdog makes the other person aware of all the value that they add. If you’re the financial underdog, it’s your responsibility to keep the equation in check. By bringing all the other assets to the negotiation table you can negotiate more effectively and fairly.

These other assets may fall under any of the seven primary areas of life, such as

  • spiritual / inspirational
  • mental / intellectual
  • vocational / business
  • familial / relational
  • social / cultural
  • physical / attractiveness.

All of these other assets can be converted into financial assets so that there can be a fair exchange.

Now if there is a vast discrepancy in economic assets, if the other partner is not providing assets in the other six areas of life, that’s a vulnerable relationship. If they are providing equal amounts of overall value, as long as they maintain this, it can be a stable relationship. But if they let all those other powers slide, then the relationship may begin to become unstable. Regardless of romance, after the infatuation phase is over, people are striving for fair exchange. If they don’t get it, there will be problems and others may just come into the equation.

You can’t live in a fantasy about your true contribution to the relationship. It has to be consistently renegotiated. Although fantasy books like to think otherwise, one person is not committed to another; they are committed to the fulfillment of highest values. If they don’t get their highest values fulfilled, their eyes can wander. So you have the responsibility to constantly make sure that there’s equanimity and that what you’re offering is equal to what they are offering in one or all of those seven areas, not just financial.

Prenuptial Agreements

Where financial situations are extremely different, prenuptial agreements are usually wise. Many of them can be done on a pro rata basis — the longer the marriage, the more the previous economic imbalances can become more evenly balanced. In a marriage, there is a negotiated percentage of outcomes. It must be perceived as fair exchange. If there’s a pro rata arrangement, you deserve something if you have been in the relationship or marriage for, say, 10 years.

The bottom line is that there has to be fair exchange. If fairness is not maintained at least in perception, resentments can occur. All relationships strive toward equality — and any time a relationship is unequal or not in fair exchange, partners store these imbalances in their memories and build up resentments until they are rebalanced.

Couple with money photo available from Shutterstock