Money and marriage. Like oil and vinegar, they don’t mix well unless you take the time to shake things up a little.
One of the earliest acknowledgements that personal finance was fraught with danger was by the Apostle Paul. He told his young disciple Timothy that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” And Paul was single, so maybe he was sugarcoating it a little. Dr. Phil (who is married) is more succinct, firing a warning shot over the whole institution of matrimony with “Money can ruin your marriage.”
Strong words that happened to be spoken 2,000 years apart. What are newlyweds to do? How can such dire warnings be addressed?
Communication and Expectations.
When you think about the sequence of events that occurs when two people fall in love, discussing a family budget does not even rank. This is not because the parties don’t consider family finance important, it’s because they consider it very important and personal. As everyone knows, “it’s personal” is a commonly used excuse for keeping a secret, but when committing to a new life with a partner, there can’t be secrets. How do two people confront this topic early, in an honest and non-confrontational way so feelings are not hurt and mutual cooperation is preserved?
The recommendation is pretty unanimous among marriage counselors, bloggers, and reporters, including Chris Arnold of NPR – make a budget.
In his March 8 story “How to Keep Money from Messing Up Your Marriage,” Arnold writes that there are deep-seated feelings to be addressed when two people combine financial forces. Maybe one person is handling more of the home responsibilities and working less. Maybe there are children involved and one career is being sacrificed more than the other. Or perhaps the split of household expenses has become unequal over time.
If something is bothering one party and the other doesn’t know, this is a recipe for problems. So hold a family summit and get all the financial issues on the table. Figure out how much your household expenses and other mandatory outlays are (a good exercise for everyone) and how they should be paid. List the non-mandatory but very important expenses (like contributions to retirement or savings accounts) and decide how to find these. Then, tackle what might be the most important category – personal expenses. Agree on how much of the monthly pot each of you gets to call your own.
It doesn’t sound that critical, but consider this, as pointed out in the NPR story. What happens when one party needs to approach the other for spending money? Is that a healthy way to maintain a life partnership, or have things suddenly gone parental?
There can’t be unequal partners in any sort of marriage, so decide on some basic rules. Each party gets a certain amount of money twice per month that is theirs and does not have to be reconciled. Either party can make purchases up to a certain amount without checking with the other. Then, agree on how credit card balances will be jointly handled.
Communicate with full disclosure, and then agree on rules so expectations are set. Commit to a periodic review of the rules to be sure to account for changes in circumstances.
Get this right, and Dr. Phil won’t be.