How to Keep Money from Wrecking a Marriage
It’s February, the month of love. Are you feeling the love or have your finances taken away your loving feeling? Many find the mid-winter doldrums particularly challenging as the holiday end and increased heating bills arrive.
“Money is funny,” mused Scott Post, vice president of Strategy and Delivery, Hanscom Federal Credit Union in Bedford. “It makes the world go ’round and is the root of evil. And while love is blind, marriage is an eye opener!”
Scott sees marriage beyond just a coming together of emotions, and he recommends conversations before the ceremony establishing an understanding around money. He even offers to have couples come into his office to review each party’s credit score.
“Understanding the elements and contributing factors of the credit score can often be the starting point in a financial conversation,” he said. “In the end, communicating to each other is very important.”
Once in a relationship, it is a matter of understanding the inflow and outflow of money to the relationship. Post recommends couples maintain separate checking accounts for personal expenses and establish a joint account for paying common expenses, with contributions to the joint account based on proportional income.
“Having your own account lets you save and spend for items of your personal interest, without building resentment for the other person,” he said.
Technology is a resource for better finances, with a myriad of financial tools available to consumers today, including those such as Quicken and online banking from your financial institution. Even simple things like balance alerts and identity theft protection are easy, effective ways to oversee your financial transactions. More sophisticated resources can be used to aggregate accounts providing a consolidated view of the entire financial picture and general health.
“Even with a wealth of tools at your disposal,” Post cautioned, “don’t move money without talking first. It really becomes a model of trust and verify.”
At the Northampton Center for Couples Therapy, Director/Founder Kerry Lusignan cautioned that money can be a manifestation of other issues in a relationship. The issues around money are often really around values, freedom, autonomy and power, and thus the reason some couples sign a pre-nuptial agreement.
Both Post and Lusignan agreed that getting ahead of issues is important.
“Talking openly about specific issues around money [like debt and income challenges] is almost a taboo of society. Couples often have tensions for six years before getting professional assistance. Frankly, they wait too long. All couples have perpetual and solvable ones,” according to Lusignan, a licensed mental health counselor
For example, a couple may have one person who is conservative and a saver, while the other spouse believes in spending it all before they die. Those opposing views may never be reconciled. However, during open discussion, couples can gain a better understanding of each other’s viewpoint.
“In a perfect world, we would all receive a partner’s manual…just like an owner’s manual….helping us understand the other person better,” Lusignan said.
Children up the ante and further stress financial resources. “Couples have less money due to paying for daycare, often causing couples to work more and making seeing each other even harder. Little things can become major items quickly!” she added.
In some counseling sessions, Lusignan even uses heart-rate monitors and works with couples to have “soft startups” to conversations. “The first three minutes of a conversation will often determine the outcome,” she said. “When issues are brought up harshly, 96% of the time an argument ensues. We encourage questions to seek clarity and encourage short breaks if the discussion is too intense. Often, one partner simply wants to be heard and validated, and we help make it happen.”
Mark Fantasia, vice president/financial advisor of Retirement Planning & Investment Center of Workers Credit Union in Fitchburg, echoed these sentiments and uses a financial plan or budget to foster communications and get a couple to align their thinking.
“Couples should develop a financial plan for both short- and long-term needs,” he said. “Before investing for the long term or making big purchases, they should have three to six months of living expenses in an easily accessible account. This safety fund may be needed for unexpected emergencies.
“Couples should also design a realistic budget for both short and long term needs both parties agree upon,” he continued. “Early warning signs can be seen in the budgeting process. If both parties strongly disagree on what items are important, a plan will never get developed.”
Most people don’t know exactly what they spend on a monthly basis for various items — important knowledge for developing realistic budgets. Couples should save all receipts for a few months to identify what they are spending on food, clothes, entertainment, transportation, etc. First they need to look at securing their basic living needs, such as what percentage of income they allocate to housing. (Fantasia recommends no more than 25% of gross income be spent on housing.)
Once a couple has identified what disposable income is left, they need to agree upon what will be saved for long-term needs such as retirement and childrens’ education savings. These figures vary greatly for each couple depending upon what is already saved and what employer pension plans may be in place.
“Once all the basic living needs and long-term savings have been secured, we can identify what disposable income is left for discretionary items such as vacations.”
“Couples should also take 30 minutes a month to review income and expenses,” Fantasia added. “Review credit card and bank statements together so both are well aware of what is being spent and where it is going. Don’t wait until it is too late to have these discussions with your spouse. If you find one spouse is not agreeing to the budget plan or is just not good at finances, agree to have the more financially capable spouse in charge of the budget.”
With planning and ongoing communications, it’s clear couples can brighten their financial outlook and keep the loving feeling year round.
Tips for successfully navigating challenging financial times:
• Communicate early and often.
• Set common goals.
• Have a common checkbook for shared expenses.
• Let technology be a resource.
• Make a budget and stick to it.
• Monitor progress along the way.
• Keep the conversations upbeat.
• Make this fun.
• Get professional help along the way as needed (for an unbiased opinion).
• Stay engaged in the process —understand where your money goes.