Marriage and money—two things that, on their own, are complicated enough. When put together, well, that’s when things get really interesting! There are couples who are involved in transactions as small as $100; some people keep everything separate and contribute a set amount to a household budget. Sometimes spouses keep secret credit cards or bank accounts, and sometimes a spouse dies leaving the other totally in the dark, without so much a clue as to where the checkbook can be found. As a wealth manager for the past 25 years, the two things I’ve learned is that (1) one size never fits all, and (2) money problems can weaken even the strongest of unions. Below are five suggestions I make to any couple who is struggling with money issues in their marriage.
- Be honest and open. One time, I was talking with a client who was upset that his wife had purchased a designer handbag without consulting him, only to tell me minutes later that he had purchased a large fishing boat without her knowledge! Both these scenarios illustrated to me that this couple did not know how to communicate honestly about money, so they resorted to hidden store credit cards and secret purchases. Honest communication about money requires judgment to be left at the door and reasonable expectations about what your individual needs and wants are in relation to what the budget allows. More often, however, lack of openness around money comes from a more benevolent place. I hear husbands say, “My wife just isn’t interested in this stuff,” or “I handle the finances, so why does my wife need to know?” Women have a longer life expectancy than men, so it’s important that they are up-to-speed on the entire financial picture. One of the most rewarding things in my career was having a longtime client introduce me to his wife and say, “If something happens to me, just call Brittain and she’ll handle the rest.” His wife doesn’t look at quarterly statements or read about investment decisions; instead, she knows that she can call if she needs me, and I'll be here to help.
- Don’t use money as a source of power or manipulation. I typically see this scenario when one spouse provides a disproportionate amount of the income. Most often, I hear a spouse say, “I’m the one who earns it, so it’s my money.” When one spouse controls the purse strings, it can create feelings of resentment, and, if one spouses stays home, inequity or worthlessness. Remember, Salary.com reports that it would take $114,000 annually to replace all the tasks a stay-at-home spouse typically performs.
- Understand that each relationship typically has a spender and a saver. Opposites attract, right? This old adage oftentimes proves true when it comes to money, as most relationships have a spender and a saver. Understanding this is a common starting point can help alleviate some of the tensions. It’s also important to remember that what constitutes a “big purchase” is in the eye of the beholder. To avoid conflicts, set boundaries with your spouse about spending limits before a conversation is warranted.
- Budget is not a four-letter word. Budgeting has gotten a bad reputation in our society, but it really shouldn’t. A budget isn’t something set in stone, but is a useful guidepost to help define spending limits. Instead of calling it a “budget talk,” I instead encourage couples to create a philosophy of wealth. Budgets devolve into line items for groceries, power bills, and childcare, whereas a philosophy of wealth helps couples create a bigger purpose around the money they’re accumulating. If both spouses want to retire early or send their grandchildren to private school, both will be aligned in how they want to treat their money. This will trickle down into everything from the weekly stops at Whole Foods to the decisions about what kind of car to buy.
- Issues surrounding money do not go away. Most couples prefer to sweep money issues under the rug rather than address them. After all, it’s uncomfortable and painful. However, issues do not simply vanish. For many couples, things get worse after retirement when income is no longer flowing in. Just as it's never too early to discuss money in marriage, it’s also never too late. Consider a joint meeting with your wealth manager or even a licensed therapist to learn effective communication methods around money.
Divorce is painful, messy, and expensive. Although money is the third-leading cause of divorce in this country, I try to help my clients avoid it at all costs. The five tips above are just some of the ways couples can alleviate money woes. Please reach out to me or my team if you would like additional advice on this topic.