How to unFinance Your Marriage

How to unFinance Your Marriage

Marriage is an amazing thing which, when done well, can bring an incredible amount of joy in life. But if the statistics are correct, a lot of marital bliss is destroyed by disagreements around money. I remember my sixth grade math teacher challenging our class one day to name something that did not in some way involve math – and no matter how hard we tried, nobody could do it. Why? Because math is pretty much the fabric of the universe. In a similar way, money is so intertwined with nearly every aspect of our lives that it’s impossible to escape – and because of this, it’s a big part of a relationship to get right.

When couples are on the same page around money, the end result can be an incredible contributor to a stronger marriage. But, handling it wrong can break trust, cause pain, and take the romance out of the marriage relationship. A study conducted by Kansas State University found that arguing about money is “by far the top predictor of divorce” and “results revealed it didn’t matter how much you made or how much you were worth. Arguments about money are the top predictor for divorce because it happens at all levels.”

My Wife and I Have Never Fought About Money

As I write this, my wife and I are in our eighth year of marriage. We are far from perfect. We have our disagreements and issues and certainly are not the picture perfect couple (who really is, right?). But through living in three states, several moves, 4 houses, having a baby, different jobs, and a few unforeseen and expensive circumstances, we have NEVER had a fight about money. Some minor disagreements, sure. But in all honesty, money has never been the source of any real conflict in our marriage. I believe this is a big reason why we, eight years later, continue to grow closer and increase in love for each other.

Recently, we were talking about why it could be that we’ve not had a money fight before and here’s what we came up with.

One: We Created A Shared Vision

A lot of money conflict comes when two people have different visions for their finances, and that goes beyond simply having different personality types around money (i.e. one is a saver and the other is a spender). A shared financial vision is something a couple creates to answer the question “What do we want to achieve in life together with our finances?” and then create a road map to get there.

The vision has to be something you create together (which will probably require some give and take!), and from there it serves as a basis for your financial decisions – this is one important way you can reconcile differences in money personality. Once you have the vision in place, its a lot easier to frame discussions around a money issue in terms of whether or not it aligns with a shared vision than it is to simply tell your spouse you disagree.

Two: We Made A Radical Commitment to Fight Financial Infidelity

Financial infidelity is a very real thing, do a google search and you can easily spend an afternoon reading articles on the subject. Its affects can be as devastating to a relationship as any other type of infidelity, ending in broken trust and potentially a broken marriage.

According to this CNBC article, only 52% of people believe their significant other is totally honest with them about money! So, when my wife and I got married, we made a promise to each other to make our finances 100% transparent. What this means for us is…

  • We don’t maintain separate checking accounts. What’s mine is hers and what’s hers is mine. Of course, this is a general rule – not an absolute. There are times to protect yourself from a spouse who is cheating financially, but that’s a discussion for another day.
  • We promised to check with the other person before buying anything over $20 which was not already agreed on during our monthly budget meeting. This is not a control thing, but rather an opportunity to keep each other in the loop on our spending. For us, it also provides a great way to gut check purchases (do I really need this?) which helps reinforce our frugality and, moreover, spend in ways which are aligned with our shared vision.I’ve seen more than one instance where a person went home having made a large purchase without discussing it with their spouse – it rarely goes over well! This is how we break trust. Is $20 extreme? Probably – but it represents the level of our commitment to total transparency with one another. Again, this is not a way to control the other spouse – quite the opposite, actually (and recall, this is for stuff outside of our normal budget). But if $20 is too low for you, find a number which both spouses can agree on – the point is to foster communication, trust, and transparency in your finances.
  • We use tools like Mint.com to make sure both of us have full access to our entire financial picture.
  • We regularly review our finances together. It’s a quick meeting since our process is very efficient, usually a few minutes or less, but its something we do every single month like clockwork. Typically one spouse takes the lead on finances, so this keeps both in the loop.

Three: We Put Our Marriage First

This is one of the hardest things to do (because, let’s face it, we’re selfish!) but also one of the most important. When we made the decision to have my wife quit her job for family and personal reasons two years before having a kid, I knew it would hurt financially. In fact, the DINK status (dual income no kids) can be one of the best times to put away money for financial independence and I have no doubt that we’d have considerably more money if she’d kept working. But it goes back to what we value in life and using money as a tool to accomplish it. And its also about priorities – when it comes to decisions between money or my marriage, the marriage had better win that decision 100% of the time.

There is no material thing you should not be willing to give up for your spouse.

Four: We Still Have Autonomy

One of the best ways to prevent money issues in marriage is to work together on a budget you can both agree on. It’s much harder to disagree on something that has already been decided! And it’s a lot easier to have financial accountability in a relationship when you can say, “hey, we agreed to spend $[x] this month and I think this purchase is above and beyond our agreed budget – can we reconsider?.” However, it is still important to have some autonomy!

We each have a separate savings account from which we can spend any amount on anything we want without input from the other person. We call it our ‘blow money’ because we can blow it on anything we we want – and I think this is really healthy for us. I know my wife thinks it’s silly when I decide to spend money on some of my hobbies (and vice versa!) but these accounts give us the freedom to still enjoy those things without repercussion or judgement. We have an automatic deposit into each of our blow money accounts for a very modest amount each month and we deposit gift money from things like birthdays or Christmas into those accounts, as well.

Five: We Understand Each Other’s Money Stories And Values

Life is messy and we all have our own baggage we bring to the table in a relationship. Money is no different – most people’s upbringing has a significant impact on their financial beliefs and behaviors. Taking the time to understand your spouse’s background with money (and your own) can be a tremendous help in knowing how to approach money within the relationship. It’s always possible to be technically correct and still be completely in the wrong – especially in marriage! When we learn to approach our spouse through their own financial lens, it really helps prevent conflict.

Along the same lines, we need to realize that money disagreements often arise because everyone values different things in different ways. For example, my wife values pillow cases for our couch. I don’t get it, but it seems like every few months she is wanting to change those darn pillow cases. Meanwhile, I like electronics and new components for my bikes – she doesn’t get that.

But its OK to value things differently as long as we can appreciate the other person values it and communicate from such a perspective.

Problems arise if I were to tell her “pillow cases are a stupid waste of money” – because what she hears is “You don’t value the things I value, therefore you do not appreciate me.” Instead, approach things from the point of view of “I know this is something you value, so…“, or “I see this is important to you and so its important to me, but can you please help me understand your perspective so it will help me get on board…” See the difference?

And on the flip side, we need to realize if a spouse is saying something like “pillow cases are a stupid waste of money“, it’s best not to jump to the conclusion that spouse doesn’t appreciate the other. Instead, try a response like… “I know its not something you value but I also know you care about me. Can I explain why this is important to me?” Do you see how this sort of thing can instantly diffuse a looming money conflict? Try it out sometime!

In Closing

I’m certainly not a psychologist or a counselor, so I’m just speaking out of my own experience from almost eight years of marriage through thick and thin. It is a sad thing how many marriages are ruined by issues around money, but maybe some of these ideas could be helpful!

Create a shared vision together, make a budget you both agree on, put your marriage first, build trust and create an atmosphere of transparency, keep some autonomy, and approach things with the goal of understanding your spouse’s background and values. Of course, this is far easier said than done! But I sincerely believe doing these things is the reason why financial conflict has been kept out of our marriage.

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