Whether you’re planning to marry or have already tied the knot, it’s very important to discuss money. Yes, it may feel awkward and unromantic. But in the long run, it’s worth it, as the examples later will show.
Before marrying, here are a few topics it is helpful to discuss:
Who will pay for the rent or mortgage? Electricity, vacations, entertainment, and so on?
Will each of you have discretionary money, an amount you can spend on whatever you wish without having to justify what you buy to the other? Or will you need to agree on where every dollar goes? Will you collaborate regarding financial decisions? Or will one of you, explicitly or implicitly, be in charge of finances?
Although we cannot anticipate every contingency, here are a few more questions to consider:
- Will you have a joint checking account, separate ones, or both?
- If you have a joint account, who puts how much money into it and when?
- Will you hold savings accounts and other funds individually or jointly?
- Will both of you earn income by working?
- If a baby arrives, will one of you be a stay-at-home parent? If yes, how might your approach to financial matters change?
- What other income, savings, and investments does each of you have?
The more you clarify in advance about finances, the fewer unwelcome surprises are likely to surface. So communicate your feelings, wants and needs about money constructively, first to yourself, and then to your partner, calmly and confidently, before marrying and after too, as needed.
Andrea’s Story: Saying What You Need
While it’s not easy for many of us to discuss money with a marriage partner, it’s vital to do so. Otherwise, bigger challenges loom.
Andrea and her husband Louis, both 38, did talk about money before marrying. They agreed on how much of each of their incomes would go into a joint checking account. They decided to keep their separate assets, acquired while single, in their own names. All was fine until after their baby arrived. Louis and Andrea agreed that she would quit her job to be a full time mom.
Andrea loved being home with the baby. But when she realized that she wasn’t going to return to work for several years, she began to feel uneasy about the growing difference between her husband’s and her own net worth. While Louis was increasing his savings and retirement accounts, she was no longer able to add to her savings.
Andrea tried to share her uneasy feelings about this with Louis a couple of times. He dismissed them, saying she had nothing to worry about.
She feared he would think she was being greedy if she mentioned her concern again. She felt some shame, thought she might be being petty to dwell on financial “unfairness” when, all in all, she had a wonderful life and a great husband.
So she stopped trying to talk to him about it. As a result, she began feeling distant from him. “He doesn’t love me,” she thought. Her resentment increased because of his “insensitivity.” Finally, she asked Louis to see a couples therapist with her.
During this session, both were able to express their concerns and hear each other’s. Andrea talked about her insecurities, which resulted mainly from her parents having divorced when she was twelve. She hated to think this way, what if their marriage didn’t last? She wanted to be financially self-sufficient — just in case.
Louis murmured about women who divorced their husbands and wiped them out financially. “He’s frightened too,” Andrea realized.
In the perceived safety of the therapy office, each heard and gained empathy for the other. Both now trusted that the other was committed to their marriage. By the end of their session, they created a solution: Andrea had fearfully asked for what she really wanted, which was for Louis to contribute some of his income each month to her separate savings account, and Louis agreed.
Is the Conflict About Money or Something Else?
Although conflicts about money and sex are often cited as two main causes of divorce, the real issue is likely to be the spouses’ failure to communicate about what they want and need, concerning money as well as sex and other concerns.
As explained in M is for Marriage — or is It Money? , money can represent love, power, or security. Can you see how money represents all three for Andrea? What do you think money represents for Louis?
As the example shows, it is not money issues that stress a marriage, but what we tell ourselves about — how we interpret — our partner’s way of dealing with money, which can strengthen or weaken a relationship. Fortunately, Andrea and Louis were able to deal with their conflict constructively.
How to Talk About Money
When considering how to talk about money — in dating and in marriage — three main principles apply: Fairness, Feelings and Beliefs.
How do we decide what’s fair concerning money? If he earns twice as much as you, should he pay twice as much toward expenses? What if you earn more?
If married, should you and your partner share all money each earns? If one of you quits her or his job to be a stay at home parent or homemaker, does the “breadwinner” get to make the financial decisions?” What might it cost to pay someone to do all the tasks of a stay at home partner who may have sacrificed or postponed a career?
What if one spouse enters the marriage with significantly more assets, which can legally remain that person’s separate property afterwards, depending on the law in your state or country.
A husband who grew up in a patriarchal culture may think it’s fair that he make the big financial decisions, even if he’s not the main breadwinner. If his wife disagrees, she may argue futilely or become secretive about her spending. When either partner withdraws instead of talking about difficult feelings, the relationship will suffer.
If you want a loving and caring marriage, avoid dwelling on what’s fair because that tends to cause fruitless arguments. Instead, calmly and respectfully, say what you need in order to feel loved and secure in your relationship. And, of course, hear your spouse say what he or she needs to feel happy in the relationship.
By identifying your own and your partner’s beliefs about money, you’ll lay the groundwork for constructive discussions.
Here are a few examples of beliefs, which may not be conscious, which can affect marital relationships — for better or worse.
- A wife might believe that both partners should agree on all major expenses. Her husband thinks otherwise.
- A husband believes he needs to keep his wife financially dependent on him. The wife thinks she should not need to account for every penny spent.
- A wife thinks her husband should the breadwinner and she should be a homemaker. He view women with no outside-of-home interests as dull or clingy.
- A wife feels fine about earning more than her laid back husband; she thinks his approach provides a good balance to her intense nature. He finds her exciting.
Let’s see how such underlying beliefs influence different relationships:
Example A: Wife thinks spouses should agree on all major expenses; husband thinks otherwise:
Johanna assumed that her husband, Cal, shared her belief. So she was shocked when, without consulting her, he’d paid more to replace a car’s transmission than the car was worth. His view was, “It’s my car, I drive it and I want to keep it.”
Example B: A husband believes he needs to keep his wife financially dependent on him; she thinks she shouldn’t have to justify every little expense.
After they married, Joline moved into Parker’s apartment, which was close to his job. Because Joline’s commute to her lower paying job was exhausting, they agreed for her to quit, but without discussing in advance they would then deal with money.
Parker turned out to be possessive about “his” money and didn’t give her enough for basics like groceries. After their baby was born, Joline wanted a part time job so she wouldn’t have to beg him for money. Parker said no, the baby needed her. Joline’s resentment grew. She left him and moved in with her mother, who helped care for the baby while she worked.
Example C: A wife thinks her husband should the breadwinner and she should be a homemaker. He viewed women with no outside-of-home interests as dull or clingy.
Katharine was 45 when she married Harvey, then 51. After many years of holding high-stress, creative jobs, Katharine decided to be a homemaker. She liked organizing their place and cooking elaborate meals. When Harvey arrived home, she wanted to hear all about his day, but she had nothing to say about hers. What happened to the vibrant woman he’d married, whom he’d expected to continue working?
Harvey routinely works late. He doesn’t want sex with his wife and she suspects him of infidelity. He’s been wanting a divorce for some time, but feels social pressure to stay married.
Example D: A wife feels fine about earning more than her laid back husband; she thinks his approach provides a good balance to her intense nature, which he finds exciting.
Gina, 50, a highly successful software engineer, thrives in her work for Silicon Valley, California startups. Her husband, Ralph, 57, likes being a librarian. Their salaries and Gina’s bonuses go into joint accounts. They agree on major purchasing decisions.
During their twenty-five years of marriage, Gina has substantially out earned Ralph. Both are happy with how things have worked out.
Can you see how the couples above who experienced conflicts about money could have prevented them by talking over financial concerns early on?
Yes, it can feel awkward to talk about money when you’d rather keep the mood romantic instead of business-like. But if you want a relationship that remains intimate and fulfilling for a lifetime, make sure to attend to money — because it matters!