Pursuing a Healthy Marriage Before You Say ‘I do’ (Finances)

As I am editing this post to publish to my website, it occurred to me that I should write about the many areas that are important for couples who wish to start their marriage in as healthy a way possible, finances is only one. As a realist I understand that some couples who may be reading this may have already been married, I will make sure to include some information for those who are endeavoring to pursue a healthy marriage in their new relationship.

As a marriage and family therapist my clients are those who are not currently happy in their marriage or are struggling with a particular (sometimes more than one) issue. Sometimes the issue(s) is related to a new development in the relationship; having children then disagreeing on how to discipline them, changes in financial situations that are causing stress, or disagreements that arise from other stressors. Typically, but not always, these stressors are causing problems in the marriage in part because of uncommunicated expectations that are created from earlier experiences in life. For example, a coupe may have had a change in their financial situation, it could be positive or negative, either way the couple is in disagreement about how to manage the change in income generation. For sake of this example let us assume the couple has a decrease in income generation because one of the partners has lost a job. One partner wants to cut off all spending and remove any unnecessary spending from the budget; cable, internet, club membership, etc. The other partner wants to leave everything as is because they know a new position will come along shortly so they do not want to disrupt their way of living for a short-term problem. This disagreement has caused each partner to become resentful of the other and conflict about money is almost a daily occurrence. What neither understand is that their perspective likely derives from earlier experiences about how to handle a lack of financial means. Money problems are one the most significant factors that can lead a couple to therapy or potentially toward divorce. Even minor differences in money management styles between two partners can wreak havoc on a marriage.

What can you do to prepare for potential relationship pitfalls like financial strain?

One of the first things I suggest to couples who are wishing to get married is to consider pre-marital counseling where at least one of the topics covered is financial management. Financial issues are causing so much distress in relationships some therapists are becoming certified financial planners and some financial planners are becoming licensed as counselors or therapists. The notion that financial stress is not only causing relationship distress but may also be causing some emotional or mental health issues has prompted this dual specialization from some. Whether you utilize a therapist to help you work through some financial management information in the context of preparing for a healthy marriage or a financial therapist, getting some basic information about good money management prior to saying ‘I do’ is important.

Secondly, I suggest couples who are ready to make that lasting commitment to one another have many discussions about the expectations they have regarding financial management in the marriage. I often ask couples who are struggling in this area whether they discussed financial management prior to getting married; if it happened at all, this discussion was typically very short, only happened once, and amounted to asking ‘who’s going to pay the pay the bills?’  Not fully discussing expectations of financial management in the relationship can be a disastrous mistake. Perhaps there is one person in the relationship that does not have any problems with money, maybe is a spend thrift, and is happy for their partner to take care of all the financial issues. But most people want to be involved to some extant in the decisions made about money. The following questions may help you get started with this conversation:

  1. How did your parents teach you to manage your money?
  2. Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?
  3. How much debt do you currently have?
  4. What are some of the dreams you have for us as a couple? (This question may help you elicit some ideas about where money will be spent or saved; does your partner want a big house, wants to go sailing around the world, want a big family, etc).
  5. How should we plan a budget for the next year?
  6. What should our budget look like for the next five years?
  7. Will we have one joint account?
  8. How much money can we spend in a week or month without talking to each other about it?

Obviously, there are many more questions that need to be asked and this may take place over several discussions before the nuptials. The important thing is to have these discussions before the big day. For some couples these discussions may be full of conflict and difficult to have, a therapist should be able to help you manage difficult conflict with some clear communication strategies.

Thirdly, prepare a budget. There are many budget tools available to you, I am not partial to any one in particular so I won’t name any specific budgeting tools, a google search will be of help.  It is important that couples do this together and that the conversation be open and honest. A simple budget will do fine; line items for generated income and line items for expenses. If you have money left over, save it! One piece of advice I would share here is to have a few line items in the budget that are for spending money on wants rather than needs; when you first get married this may be just enough money for an expensive cup of coffee. One of these line items should be some money for a date. Dates for couples do not have to be expensive, sometimes I have the couples I work with come up with 6 ideas for dates that cost under $20. Once finished they have at least one date idea for every month of the year. The other two suggested line items are for money that each individual can spend without discussing it with the other. This need not be a high number but there should be a boundary. Perhaps each person can spend $100 a month on anything they want without discussing it, maybe it is more or less. There should also be a stop gap in the budget, a stop gap is a set amount of money that triggers a discussion about where the money will be spent.

Additionally, much of the literature about couples and financial management is clear that one joint bank account should be used. For almost all couples I completely agree with this expectation and it should be this way from the beginning. However, sometimes you may find that your partner cannot control their spending, does not communicate their spending, often operates outside the family budget, and is not open to or has not shown behavior that is consistent with positive change. These issues can seriously detour a family budget and may lead you to experience relationship distress and emotional or mental health issues. In these extreme cases and with open communication it may be better to have a second account that is used as the primary account to operate the budget. Your therapist may be able to help you have this difficult conversation with your spouse.

What if I’m already married and we didn’t prepare for any of this?

Many of the couples I see did not have any meaningful communication about finances before they were married and now find themselves stressed and in relationship distress over it.  Change is never easy especially when one person in the relationship is entrenched in their negative behavior. Change can occur and often occurs in couples who want to see their relationship grow in positive directions. A therapist may be able to help you and your partner reset the money switch and have those difficult conversations about how to manage your financial situation. The work your therapist may do with you is in part discovering where your beliefs about money come from. A financial planner may be able to help you make some good decisions about how to actually manage your money over the long haul. A financial therapist or a therapist who is certified in financial planning may be able to help you do both. But the key here is have the difficult discussions. Work with your partner to prepare a new family budget. Have weekly conversations about how each of your are doing with staying within the limits of the budget. Understand that conflict will be a part of this process. Learn to manage the conflict in your relationship in healthy ways.

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