The Last Taboo
How talking about money can save your marriage
Meeting with a planner
If you decide to consult a planner, the process is pretty straightforward. She’ll ask you how many kids you’d like to have, where you want them to attend school, where you want to live, and when and in what style you want to retire. She’ll draw up a plan showing how to reach those goals and the various compromises you may need to make, such as postponing retirement, deferring a vacation home purchase or sending the kids to public schools. Her objective will be to get you and your partner to agree on what you two can live with and work toward.
Don’t be surprised if one of you is much more willing to take the lead in discussing financial matters. It’s a fairly common phenomenon, the result of each partner’s past family or personal experiences. Another reason for one partner’s reluctance may be fear of exposing a deep debt or a bad credit score. It’s human nature to want to avoid mentioning these things, but, says Newland, they’ll show up sooner or later. “If you talk about the skeletons in the financial closet honestly before you get married, you can start doing something about them.”
If you don’t, secrecy can kill a relationship. Bryson recalls a 25-year-old who wanted to keep his earnings secret from his wife because he made more than she did. Bryson sent him packing. “If you start off on that foot, you won’t be secretive in just that arena; it will affect other areas of your life.” Also, hiding wealth can backfire. It not only causes resentment, it can lead to divorce, which will probably trigger community property divisions despite your best efforts to keep monies separate and hidden. As Bryson notes wryly, “If you’re going to be that pessimistic from the beginning, you’re headed for divorce and divorces are terribly expensive-period.”
Once you have a plan, you should check in regularly with each other and your planner to see how you’re doing, ask follow-up questions and perhaps do some tweaking. An example of how a plan can evolve is the monthly clothing allowance Rebecca and David agreed to early in their marriage-before their earning power took off. “We each had a set amount we could spend,” says Rebecca, “and we stuck to our limits.” As they prospered, however, they found that only big-ticket expenditures required a serious sit-down consultation, and they no longer needed such a strict budget. “We’d built up so much trust over the years, along with our habit of checking in with each other, that we didn’t have to monitor ourselves so closely anymore.”
Exceptions that work…IF
Does every couple need a detailed agreement to avoid hurtful money issues in their marriage? Not necessarily. Linda, a Southern California school teacher who’s married to a contractor, says she and her husband, John, have kept their finances separate since they wed 20 years ago. For them, money has never been a bone of contention despite the lack of a formal agreement. “The closest we came to spelling something out was when I got pregnant soon after our wedding,” recalls Linda. “He said, ‘I’ll buy the house because you’re quitting work, and you pay for the kids’ college because at some point you’re going back to work.’”
Two things have helped them maintain a smooth financial relationship, says Linda. “First, even though we keep separate accounts and credit cards, our philosophies about them are the same: no living beyond our means and no carrying credit card debt. The second is simple generosity. John makes more than I do but he’s very generous. For instance, he pays for the groceries and never skimps on buying good food.” That may seem like a small thing, but it’s indicative of an attitude that can keep a marriage flourishing. “If both partners are generous with each other and make the other’s needs their priority, it should work out well,” Linda predicts.
In the end, says Newland, “Each of you has your own ideas about money. But if you want your marriage to succeed, you have to look out for your loved one. And that means being as open as possible about the last taboo—money.”