For Richer or Poorer
Let us continue on the theme of marriage. I am halfway through reading Timothy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. This insightful book acknowledges that it is difficult to gain a solid perspective of marriage since we have a distorted view grounded in personal experience.
Marriage may look “easy” to you if your parents had a loving relationship and rarely fought. Alternatively, if your married parents constantly argued or divorced, you could be overly pessimistic about marriage. The Meaning of Marriage helps us understand marriage as the deepest form of a Christian covenant.
In my prior article, I dissected the vow “in sickness and in health.” Let’s turn to the financial aspect of marriage: for richer, for poorer. According to Ramsey Solutions and Marriage.com, money fights are the second-leading cause of divorce. Let’s dive into why money is such a heated topic and how to communicate about money more effectively as a married couple.
Why Money Causes Stress
Are you and your spouse burdened by financial stress? You’re not alone. Below are the main culprits of money tensions.
1. Money temperament.
Are you naturally inclined to spend, save, or give money away to charitable endeavors? Money personalities emerge in childhood. My oldest son isn’t quite ten years old, and I am already aware of his money personality: spender. It doesn’t matter where we are. He will find something he wants to purchase, and it’s my job as a saver to remind him of wants versus needs.
When you self-identify as a saver and your spouse identifies as spender (or vice versa), relationship friction will likely ensue. People who are naturally inclined to spend are not bad people. It’s simply how they are wired. Gently reminding your spouse of long-term goals versus short-term desires is more helpful than yelling after he or she makes another frivolous purchase.
If you have a bad habit, do you want to bring it to the forefront? No. According to this creditcards.com article, about 20% of Americans in a committed relationship have secretly spent more than $500. Additionally, 6% of surveyed couples have a hidden bank account or credit card. Sexual infidelity is often cited as THE leading cause of divorce, but what about financial infidelity?
When two young people marry, it is common for the couple to have some level of debt. Student loans, credit card balances, and car payments are common. Problems are likely to form when one spouse carries significantly more debt than the other spouse. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve witnessed success when one spouse carries loads of student loan debt and the other spouse has none, as long as the mindset is right. Both spouses come together and craft a budget where they can still save for retirement while aggressively paying down student loan principal.
The stickier situation forms during a marriage when one spouse cannot adhere to a budget and accrues credit card debt. Frugality, or living below your financial means, is essential if you want to build long-term wealth as a married couple.
4. Earnings disparity.
Farnoosh Torabi’s book When She Makes More highlights the challenges faced by couples when the traditional gender stereotype is turned upside down and a woman earns more than her husband. If the marriage began in a conventional manner (i.e. husband earns more than wife), it’s especially hard for married couples to navigate a time when the wife out-earns her husband. Torabi recommends separate bank accounts, and I don’t think that’s the answer. I’ll elaborate in the next section on solutions.
On the other extreme, assume you have a stay-at-home mom and a father who is the sole breadwinner. The wife might feel bad “asking” for money that she didn’t technically earn – even though both spouses agreed that this arrangement would be most successful for the family.
5. Life gets expensive as your family expands.
The average cost to raise one child from birth to age 17 exceeds $230,000, according to a 2017 report from the Department of Agriculture. That excludes the cost of college. Raising four children will be more expensive than raising one child. Period. Prior to marriage, many of us spend money on things we want or need with little regard for others. When we get married and have children, our priorities must shift. We should consider the best interest of family members, and that may entail a personal sacrifice.
Or, let’s suppose your mother moves into your home for health reasons and you must quit your job or reduce working hours to care for her. Not only has your income decreased, but your family’s overall living expenses have also increased.
Solutions to Save Your Marriage
Problems are only one piece of the equation. We will switch gears and discuss solutions to your financial woes as a married couple.
When different money temperaments cause conflict, remember why you fell in love in the first place. You were attracted to your spouse for a reason and must have had some inclination of his or her spending habits prior to tying the knot. Honor and celebrate the wonderful aspects of your mate’s personality rather than looking for flaws.
Engage in open, honest conversations about money on a regular basis. It becomes far easier to hide something when there is no built-in accountability. It will become much more difficult for your spouse to hide a credit card charge or open a new account if you are having weekly money talks.
Regular meetings with your spouse are encouraged by most marital therapists, and they needn’t revolve around money all the time. In Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love, author Marcia Naomi Berger highlights four basic steps to a successful meeting: 1) express appreciation, 2) coordinate chores, 3) plan for good times, and 4) resolve issues. Berger suggests that couples begin with at least three meetings that exclude the 4th Issues section and thereby focus on the positive aspects of marriage.
Once you are ready to incorporate Issues into your weekly meeting, remember to lead with Appreciation. You could reinforce your enthusiasm for your spouse’s wise spending decision or explain how you appreciate that your spouse monitors the family budget each week. Discuss any money conflicts at the end of the meeting along with other issues.
Your spouse isn’t perfect. Neither am I. Acknowledge that we are all flawed and make mistakes sometimes. Just as an overweight person struggles with losing weight, a person deeply in debt may have a money mindset issue that she cannot tackle alone. If your spouse’s spending habits (relative to your family’s earnings) are out of control, consider working with a money coach who can help him overcome mindset challenges. Nicole Rule of Greatest Worth, Leisa Peterson of Mindful Millionaire, and Melissa Tosetti of The Savvy Life help their coaching clients to replace limiting beliefs with thoughts of abundance and to carve a new path forward.
Reflect upon Mark 10: 8 for a moment: “And the two will become one flesh.” Join checking and savings accounts if you have historically held separate bank accounts. Not only is this easier from an estate planning perspective, but it also allows you to budget as a family unit.
One of my first client families maintained separate accounts. The husband had relatively low living expenses and thus was able to contribute more to savings – even though he had a smaller salary. The wife earned nearly double but saved less. When they consolidated into a joint account, it changed the landscape of their finances dramatically. Both of them had a common vision for the future, and she eventually transitioned to a part-time role earning less than him. They made massive progress to pay off student loan debt, all while giving birth to their first child.
5. Be Prepared.
Before you have another child, discuss potential financial implications. Will one of you need to reduce hours at work? How will you jointly manage the expense increase and simultaneous income decrease? Also, assess the financial stability of your parents and in-laws’ household. Will any parent need to move into your home for health or financial reasons? Waiting to have the discussion until the baby is born or a parent moves into your home may be detrimental to your marriage. Plan ahead.
Forge a New Path
Regardless of prior or current financial mistakes, you and your spouse are worthy of a brighter future. With these suggested strategies, you are equipped to forge a new path. Read my book Redefining Family Wealth: A Parent’s Guide to Purposeful Living for in-depth, step-by-step guidance on building a financial plan in alignment with your personal values.