Marriage and Money – How to Make It Work

Marriage and Money: How to Make It Work, is part one in the Happy Marriage Series. This is a new series of blog posts I’ll be doing to coincide with the publication of my novel, The Marriage Pact. This week, we’re talking about the relationship between finances and a happy (or unhappy) marriage.

In the novel, newlyweds Jake and Alice join an organization, The Pact, that imposes strict rules for marriage. While The Pact’s rules and corresponding punishments aren’t something you’d want to experience in real life (trust me), a few rules (or at least firm guidelines) regarding finances are probably a good idea for any marriage.

Hear from the experts on money and marriage

I’ve recently started listening to a terrific podcast, So Money with Farnoosh Tobari. I was delighted to discover Episode 579, which is co-hosted by Jo Piazza, author of How to Be Married: What I Learned from Real Women on 5 Continents About Surviving My First (Really Hard) Year of Marriage.

When she married at 35, Piazza discovered that, while there were a lot of books about how to save a failing or troubled marriage, there weren’t many books on how to simply be married. In the podcast, Piazza stresses the importance of having the big financial discussions prior to getting married. You need to know how your partner views earning, spending, and debt, and how much debt your partner is carrying.

Money is one of the leading causes of divorce

While doing research for The Marriage Pact, I stumbled across plenty of evidence that financial issues are one of the leading causes of stress in a marriage and one of the primary causes of divorce. Having grown up in a household where money was scarce, and where my parents argued on almost a daily basis about finances, I wasn’t surprised that money issues so often lead to divorce. It seems like common sense that, before deciding to spend their lives together, two people should come to a consensus about how they will earn, spend, save, and invest, not to mention how they will handle taxes. But too often, the subject doesn’t even come up until the glow of the honeymoon has worn off.

Know where your partner stands on earning, spending, and debt before you marry

For me, having those conversations before marriage was a no-brainer. I did not want to be trapped in the same cycle of endless fighting that had played out in my parents’ marriage. My husband and I have a running agreement on how much we can spend without first mentioning it to the other person. While the number has increased over the years, the principle has remained the same: there is a set number beyond which we won’t make a purchase without first letting the other person know.

Similar financial values go a long way toward marital harmony

Because my husband and I have similar values and goals, we have never in all of our years of marriage had an argument about finances that I can recall. It helps that we are on the same page about debt: we do everything to avoid it, with the exception of the necessary debt of a mortgage. (It happens to be a necessity where we live, because a mortgage is a far less risky and more financially sound venture than subjecting oneself to the whims of the ever-skyrocketing Bay Area rental market). We each have the freedom to purchase what we want within reason, but neither of us spends extravagantly. Of course, when it comes to the major investments?—?home and vehicle?—?we are equal partners in making the decisions. Which brings me to the boat…

The albatross that follows a marriage

I remember that one of the albatrosses of my parents’ marriage was The Boat. At a rare moment when they had a little extra stored by thanks to a small gift from my mother’s uncle, my dad decided to buy a boat. My mother didn’t want the boat, but she let him talk her into it. I do remember a lot of fun outings on that boat to a deserted island in the Gulf of Mexico called Petite Bois (pronounced by Alabamians as Petty Boy), but to my mother, that boat was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the way my father spent money. As Jerry Seinfeld says, nothing good ever comes of buying a boat. In this case, over the unhappy decades of my parents’ marriage, the boat came up frequently as an accusation.

Get on the same page about major purchases, if for no other reason than to avoid the albatross.

The relationship between earning power & personal power

One of Piazza’s interesting observations is that Americans tend to conflate earning power with personal power. Many of the women Piazza interviewed had given up lucrative careers when they had children. This loss of earning power made them feel less powerful in the marriage, and less confident about asserting their own opinions in how the family spent and managed money. Piazza found that women in France and Denmark didn’t have these same feelings of insecurity in the marriage when they gave up earning power.

I’m fortunate to have a flexible career as a writer that allowed me to continue working and earning steadily after becoming a mom, but I do know that during the early years of our marriage?—?before we had a child and when I was earning much less than my husband?—?I felt uncomfortable about buying things for myself. This discomfort didn’t come from my husband; it was purely my own feeling of not wanting to spend what I hadn’t earned. I don’t think I’d feel this way now, but I do think it’s natural in the early stages of a marriage, especially before children, to feel more comfortable saying “What’s mine is yours” than with saying “What’s yours is mine.” For many people, it truly is easier in a committed relationship to give than to receive, because being on the receiving end for too long may make you feel as though you’re not doing your part. In healthy marriages, the feeling of being in it together only intensifies over time, so that the feeling of imbalance based on earning tends to even out.

If you have to keep secrets about spending from your spouse, something is wrong

I remember a friend telling me that she kept it a secret from her husband about how much she spent on books. I found this sad, because it implied that she felt guilt about her book purchases. She had given up her career and therfore her salary when they had children. She didn’t feel guilty about what she spent on the family, just about what she spent on herself.

The childcare equation

This is something couples should have honest conversations about before they have children: if one partner will be taking on the childcare responsibilities and giving up a paycheck, should personal spending be split evenly between the two spouses? One is working outside of the home, while one is working in the home; to be sure, both are working and contributing to the family’s well-being. And once children enter the picture, it’s impossible to go to work without childcare, whether that childcare is provided by one spouse or by a babysitter or day care.

Your thoughts on marriage and money

How do you and your spouse handle money? Did you come to an agreement before you were married? How have your shared values or financial disagreements affected or shaped your marriage? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Read an excerpt from The Marriage Pact

Read an excerpt from How to Be Married

Also published on Medium.