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It may make the world go ‘round, but for most of us, it also triggers negative feelings.
Shame. Guilt. Obsession. Blame. Fear.
It’s no wonder more than two-thirds of couples regularly argue about it and it’s one of the main contributing causes to divorce. Partners accuse each other of frivolous spending, out-of-control credit card debt, and debilitating frugality. You name it, if it’s a negative money-connected issue, it causes friction.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for you.
Healthy-Couple Money Rests on These 4 Pillars
Let’s tackle these in order, and then move on to a step-by-step guide on how you build them up.
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Do you want your partner to trust you around money? Then trust her and be trustworthy.
If you’re concerned about a money issue, especially if it’s around your partner’s behavior, bring it up in the context of a loving conversation. Start off by appreciating him or her and what he or she brings to your life. Then speak about factual occurrences and how they make you feel.
Don’t Do This
Don’t accuse your partner of anything. Blame and shame bring nothing more than defensiveness and resentment.
An often-quoted saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
There are few things more frustrating than trying to go for a goal only to have your partner pull in a different direction that makes it harder. The more important to you the goal, the more frustrating and infuriating it becomes.
Agree about your joint financial goals and the lifestyle choices they imply. Build a shared financial vision. Do you fantasize about spending several months a year in a destination city once you retire? Enroll your partner in that vision. Then figure out what you need to accomplish to enable the two of you to do that.
If your money personalities clash with one of you an over-frugal saver and the other an overly free spender, talk about your underlying money-related fears, preferences, and aspirations.
Accept each other’s differences and work them out from a place of love and understanding. You may need to agree on a certain level of savings and investment to allay the concerns of the more frugal partner, but also a set amount of “fun money” that the more free-spending partner can spend with no guilt or recrimination.
Remember that you’re a team, and while you’re not identical, you each bring complementary strengths to who you are as a couple. Treat each other with respect (and of course love).
Don’t Do This
Don’t undermine your partner’s goals. Don’t make light of his or her fears. Don’t dismiss his or her aspirations.
The Dalai Lama once said, “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.”
Can you expect to build a massive edifice of financial success on a foundation of distrust and insecurity?
Of course not.
How can you expect your partner to trust you or be able to collaborate with you on money matters if you keep financial secrets from her?
Be open about your shared finances. When you’re considering a significant purchase, talk about it ahead of time. Make sure you’re both comfortable with it and with its implications. When you’re deciding on how to invest your money, make sure you openly share your hopes and fears and figure out together how you can both be comfortable with any risks you take whether those are investing too aggressively or not aggressively enough.
Don’t Do This
Don’t open secret accounts. Don’t divert money from joint accounts to individual ones without your partner’s knowledge and assent. Don’t hide income, spending, and/or debt from each other.
As much as you love each other, you and your partner are still two individuals. You each need the space to be who you are with no need for permission or apology. This is as true around money as it is for other aspects of your lives.
Give each other this space.
It doesn’t have to be, and in fact, it mustn’t be absolute. But it absolutely needs to be there in at least some measure.
Whether it’s a dollar a day or $10,000 a month (depending on your income and resources), give each of you a set amount (or a set percentage of money available once all your joint needs are covered) as personal money.
While there need to be agreed limits (e.g., don’t spend the money to get a lover and pay for his rent), don’t ask each other how you each spend your personal money.
You’re welcome to share with your partner what you do with some or all of your personal money, but without the expectation that she’ll reciprocate.
That’s why it’s called giving each other space.
Don’t Do This
Don’t declare all money joint and required to address specific agreed needs or wants. Don’t insist on your partner telling you how he or she spent his or her personal money. Definitely don’t snoop into his or her accounts to try and figure out how it was spent.
10 Practical Steps for Your Healthy-Couple Money
Here’s a step-by-step guide that will help you create and maintain trust, collaboration, transparency, and space in the financial realm.
- Talk with each other openly about your dreams and goals, including what it takes financially to achieve them. Develop your shared vision.
- Whether with the help of a financial advisor or strategist, develop a plan for turning your vision into reality.
- Create a budget that covers all your joint needs and leaves at least some personal money for each of you. Make sure that beyond your joint checking, you each have your own personal checking where you put your personal money. This helps when you want to buy each other a surprise gift. And don’t forget to create a joint emergency fund to help the more frugal of you sleep better at night.
- Define what expenses will be joint and what expenses should be personal. For some of you, personal grooming (hair salon, nail spa, etc.) will be joint because you both enjoy it when you feel attractive, but for others, this is a personal expense. For some of you, books are a joint expense because reading expands your horizons to your joint benefit, but for others, it is considered a hobby and thus a personal expense.
- Define how you handle your income and joint expenses. For example:
- You may each chip in all your income into the joint account, cover joint expenses from there, and split the remainder by the percentage of total income each of you generated.
- You may each chip in all your income into the joint account, cover joint expenses from there, and split the remainder equally.
- You may each keep all your individual income and contribute half of the joint expenses.
- You may each keep all your individual income and contribute to your joint expenses prorated by your income.
- Define how you handle your savings and investment. For example:
- You may have just a single joint portfolio and/or savings account.
- You may have a joint portfolio, but then also have individual portfolios for each of you. This is especially likely if it’s a second marriage for one or both of you, and you have kids from your previous marriage.
- Define how you handle your portfolios and income in retirement. For example:
- You may simply continue with how you handled your pre-retirement income, counting pension benefits, Social Security benefits, and draws from portfolios in the same way you counted your pre-retirement income.
- You may continue with how you handled your pre-retirement income for everything except draws from your individual portfolios (if you decided to have such). You’d then count pension benefits, Social Security benefits, and draws from your joint portfolio in the same way you counted your pre-retirement income, and draws from individual portfolios as personal money.
- Define how you handle the bequest when the first of you dies, and if appropriate, set up an estate plan to make it happen. For example:
- You may leave everything to your partner.
- You may leave all joint assets to your partner, but leave your individual assets to your kids from a previous marriage (if any).
- Define how you handle the bequest when the other partner dies, and if appropriate, have your estate plan address this too. For example:
- Does everything go to your kids, and if so, how do you split it if more than one kid?
- Does some or all of it go to charities, and if so, which ones?
- Once you’ve handled all the planning work above, set up regular money meetings to discuss where you are currently, what the recent month looked like financially, and what changes (if any) are needed for the next month. Also, discuss any changes you may want to make in your longer-term financial plans.
Rules for Your Money Conversations
- Put your meetings on both your calendars or they won’t happen.
- Have a regular agenda (see step 10 above), but each of you is allowed and encouraged to add to the agenda whatever is on your minds.
- Schedule the meeting for a time you’re both fully awake, fed, and rested, and when you can find a place and time that you won’t be interrupted (at least not too frequently).
- If it’s your thing, set up some drinks and munchies to make the experience more pleasant.
- It bears repeating, no shaming or blaming allowed!
- If the conversation starts getting heated and either one of you feels it’s not going well, call a time-out until you can re-center yourselves and get back into a productive and collaborative mindset. At the same time, don’t call a time-out anytime you feel even a bit uncomfortable. The idea is to prevent it from devolving into a shouting match or fight, not to never stray beyond your comfort zone.
The Bottom Line
Money shouldn’t be your end-goal. It’s a tool. It’s what lets you bring to life your vision of a bright future.
Unless you inherit a lot of money, building wealth is a long-term undertaking. This means you need to do this as partners. Remember – “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Neither over-frugality nor over-spending will get you to your desired finish line. The point is to address your fears and your hopes for the future while at the same time also enjoying the present together.
The above plan will help you get there.
About the Author
My career has had many unpredictable twists and turns. A MSc in theoretical physics, PhD in experimental high-energy physics, postdoc in particle detector R&D, research position in experimental cosmic-ray physics (including a couple of visits to Antarctica), a brief stint at a small engineering services company supporting NASA, followed by starting my own small consulting practice supporting NASA projects and programs. Along the way, I started other micro businesses and helped my wife start and grow her own Marriage and Family Therapy practice. Now, I use all these experiences to also offer financial strategy services to help independent professionals achieve their personal and business finance goals.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to encourage any lifestyle changes without careful consideration and consultation with a qualified professional. This article is for reference purposes only, is generic in nature, is not intended as individual advice and is not financial or legal advice.