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No Fights: Marriage and Money Survival Skills

One of my favorite aspects of working with a new financial planning client is seeing how the person handles their money, and that goes doubly so for a married (or long-partnered) couple. It’s always interesting to see what relationship skills related to money evolve over time, and conversely what doesn’t evolve or get better.

 

Differing Skill Sets for Money

 

There’s no one right way for a married couple to handle money. Some researchers say you should play to your strengths—if you’re the budgeting and money management type, do that, while your partner focuses on some other aspect (like investing). I’m partial to this thinking because:

  1. We all have different skills and experience levels and that applies to the money realm, too.
  2. You probably didn’t marry your spouse with an eye to their money management skills (hopefully it was based on love and more general compatibility/friendship), so chances are you have different abilities in this area and you may not even know much about their money personality coming into the marriage.

 

Both of you are bringing money skills to the table, and I think successful couples find ways to complement each other, just like you would with parenting or other big tasks.

 

Gender Differences in Money Skills

 

The one way I don’t see consistency, or a correct approach, is to fall back on any gender-specific ways to handle money. You know some of the beliefs: women handle the day-to-day shopping and budgeting, and men are better with investments and ‘big picture’ plans. There are certainly heterosexual couples who function this way, and who make it work successfully, but I don’t believe there’s any inherent, gender-based way we should split up money duties in the relationship.

Further, when a new couple comes in as a client, I’ve found that I can’t predict how they’ll handle money in their relationship based on their gender roles or any other clues as I get to know them. People are unique, and relationships are unique, and we should treat them that way as we go through the financial planning process.

 

No Fights: One Couple’s Approach to Money

 

Where does that leave us if we’re trying to navigate a marriage (or long-term relationship) and grow together in money management skills? I think we need to study some examples—couples who are working successfully in this part of their relationship—and see if there are lessons we can draw for our own lives. I’m hoping to use this blog as a continuing conversation about successful couples and we’ll start with one story today.

I recently spoke with one of my ongoing clients, Winston and Jane (not their real names) and asked them questions about their money relationship. I’ve paraphrased their answers and drawn a few conclusions (which they may or may not recognize in their relationship, but that I see as I get to know them better). The crux of my questions to Winston and Jane is this—warts and all, what does a couple’s money relationship look like? And I was pleasantly surprised to see how they’ve made it work.

Some background: Winston and Jane are in their early 30’s. They both work professional jobs and have one young child. They’ve been married for several years, and this is clearly a time of stress in most young couple’s lives. Winston and Jane seem to be handling day-to-day living together well, though they would likely acknowledge it’s not all smiles and sunshine!

The key points we discussed and that I think are relevant for other couples:

  • The financial decision-maker. For big purchases (the home, furniture, cars, etc.), they actually come to a decision together. Winston is the conservative one with money, and Jane has to prod him with the plan for a purchase. They give and take, and they look at pros and cons together. There isn’t one person who makes the final decision on a money matter.
  • The financial doer. Most couples need one point of contact for financial duties like paying the bills, looking up account options, communicating with the adviser (me!). In this case, it’s Jane and she does it willingly. I tend to think this item, who actually performs the financial tasks, really comes down to the personality of the couple and who most likes these kinds of tasks (and that it rarely conforms to some kind of gender role).
  • Do they fight? No, at least not about money! For Winston and Jane, they hadn’t really talked about money prior to their pre-marriage counseling, and they found that they didn’t disagree on fundamental aspects of how to handle money. That was lucky for them. They emphasized that they can see each other’s perspectives on money, and that it doesn’t cause them conflict in the relationship. I also think they are both savers at heart, and that can go a long way toward compatibility. As you’ve undoubtedly read elsewhere or heard, money is the number one reason for strife in a marriage. Do Winston and Jane have some secret to avoiding fights? I don’t think so, other than making sure you are fundamentally aligned with your partner on money beliefs and issues, which these two are.
  • A financial triumph. I like to hear if my clients have accomplished something big with money, a ‘triumph’, since it tells us a little about their lives together. For Winston and Jane, the biggest item so far in their relatively young marriage was paying off Winston’s college loan debt. Those student loans hung over their early married years like a dark cloud, and once they had the resources to pay down the debt, even when they had to sacrifice and “eat ramen for a while”, they aggressively worked to pay off the loans. Having triumphs like this early in a marriage are huge for promoting good habits and teamwork.
  • Lots of communication. Though they didn’t mention it specifically, I can tell that Winston and Jane have strong communication skills with each other. Is this the fundamental skill for being a couple with good money management? I wonder if the lack of money fights/conflict in the relationship is mostly attributable to good conversation and empathy for each other? I’ll definitely pursue this in future discussions with clients in this blog space, I’m really curious if there’s a ‘secret sauce’ for handling money well together (and if communication is it!).

 

There isn’t one set way that a couple should work together on their money. If there isn’t one model, it’s up to us to look to couples who are navigating this part of their relationship well and see what we can learn from them. I want to thank Winston and Jane for enduring my (amateurish) questions and sharing this part of their lives with us.

 

What do you think are the keys to good money relationships? Do you need an impartial third-party, a financial planner, to help you with these tricky issues? Setup a call today!

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