But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. – Mark 12:42
Professor Jeffery Dew from Utah State University completed a study where he sent surveys to more than 2,500 couples asking about consistency of marital disagreements. Five years later he contacted the survey-takers again to see who was still together. For couples reporting a financial dispute occurring weekly, the divorce rate increased 30%! This increase dramatically outweighed disagreements with the same level of consistency about sex, in-laws, chores and how much time the couple was spending together.
All this to say what we already know – money is stressful.
Jon and I were blessed to have a phenomenal pre-marital counselor. We’ve heard stories from couples who had counseling sessions filled with awkward cliches and assumptions about who would do what in the marriage. To avoid this, chose the Prepare and Enrich model (a program we highly recommend) after it was presented to Jon while he was in seminary. The model involved a lot of assessments and took a very egalitarian approach to marriage. We decided to seek out a pastor from our area we knew counseled with this program and was well-loved by people in our community. We met 5-6 times for an hour or two – but we cannot stress enough how wonderful this process was in helping us establish goals as a couple.
The process helped us discover areas where we both agreed, areas of life to which we take different approaches and how our family background might influence our relationship. There is no judgement. No assessment result is superior to another and it doesn’t put you in competition with your fiancee.
We point out this process because it allowed us to approach money on an even playing field. It took our emotions out of the conversation allowing our counselor to point out areas that may be in contention. Having a third party reflect these areas to us was important, it prevented an argument and created a safe space to discuss how we viewed money, how our parents handled their money and most importantly what our goals were for our financial planning.
The most helpful part of all of this? Talking about money before it was an argument. If you’re looking for the right time to have the conversation and you’re engaged – do it now. If you’re married – do it yesterday. We believe in marriage, and as believers in marriage we don’t want to see money destroy any more relationships.
An important place to start is whether you lean toward spending or saving money. We all encompass both a spender and a saver in our personality – but we’ll also generally lean toward one or the other as a default. Jon and I happened to both be savers – and no this does not win us some sort of prize. We realized we’d need to address how to relax about our finances, how to enjoy some of our income now rather than stressing over every cent and our financial future.
Figure out if you’re a spender or saver – then talk about what having two spenders, two savers or one of each means for your financial health – what should you be wary of?
Another area to talk about immediately is debt. Not telling your fiancee how much debt you have is the same as lying to them. Get it out there quickly and discuss strategies for handling the debt. Entering a marriage without a grasp of the other person’s debt leads to a rocky start – just talk about it.
Whether you have zero debt or $80,000 in student loans, your debt will be your partner’s debt and they have a right to know where they stand.
Discuss how your parents handled money. Often this will be the financial approach you’re drawn to or sometimes repelled by depending on your background. You may not even realize what you assume is normal. For example, my parents chose to maintain separate accounts and handled a lot of the bills divided between the two. This seemed normal to me. Jon thought this wasn’t how a normal married couple handled money. Before the conversation we didn’t realize all of the assumptions we had based on our experience.
We eventually realized that whether it’s a joint account or separate accounts both are valid approaches to married finances. The pros and cons for our situation is important not which way is the “right way.” If you find yourself in this conversation where your spouse reveals something about their parents’ finances and you’re thinking ‘Well that’s weird’ ask yourself; is it weird because it’s a bad finanical decision? Or weird because my parents didn’t do it that way?
Discuss what your parents’ or role model’s approach to finances looked like. Is this how you assume you’ll manage your money? What about your spouse’s parents? Combine the positives from both sides and create your own unique approach to managing your money.
Word to the wise: avoid phrases like ‘that doesn’t make sense’ or ‘that’s clearly not a good way to do things’ This easily leads to an argument. Keep it technical even if you don’t understand or agree with your spouse’s view of normal. Why would this approach benefit you? What pitfalls might there be in handling money this way?
Finally you’ll need to figure out what your goals are. Jon and I found it helpful to see our financial goals in light of our goals as a couple. Goals like reflecting Christ, valuing all people, being generous, being good stewards and role models for those who might look up to us. Of course many of these fit quite obviously into financial goals – yours will probably look different. Having a clear set of goals may seem odd in a relationship, but it helps us in the same way having a mission statement helps a company. When we face a major decision, we can look to these goals and feel confident by the guidance our goals provide.
Goals will include visions of the future. Both of us saw ourselves buying a home (an idea we’ve revisited multiple times), we saw ourselves adopting children, helping them pay for their undergraduate education (but they’re on their own for grad school), I really saw us traveling, Jon wanted to leave a large financial legacy… the list goes on. A lot of these things we’ve tweaked as we understand more about who we are together, but having them is a very healthy way to begin conversations – and dreaming together is fun! Seriously, one of our favorite parts of being married is getting to talk about our future together.
Establish your major financial goals. Think about the big things, kids, retirement, house etc and decide how your approach to finances will help these visions come to life. Be creative and enjoy this process!
What other topics do you think should be covered in this conversation? Any reasons why you wish you would’ve had this conversation earlier? Out of pure curiosity, anyone out there who wishes they would’ve waited?