One of the most common themes I see in questions I receive from readers is an uncomfortable sense of what financial roles are in a relationship. A person lives with someone/is engaged to someone/is married to someone and is unsure about how to handle their partner’s debt/spending/shared purchases. That sentence covers the core of a lot of the questions in the reader mailbag.
There are a few key elements that seem to often come up in my responses to these questions as well, and those elements really form a strong foundation of how people in relationships should think about and handle their money.
It really boils down to four key principles that really flow together.
Talking about money in a relationship is absolutely essential. When you’re in a relationship intense enough that you’re sharing many of the costs of life, you have to be able to communicate clearly about those costs, as well as the income you both have with which to cover them and the plans you each have for the future.
The debts and expenses of your partner are also your debts and expenses. If you owe a debt and have to make a monthly debt payment, that takes money out of the shared pool that you both have with which to cover your monthly expenses. If you spend money somewhere, that money is removed from the overall pool that you have to cover your monthly bills.
Let’s say you’re out and about on the town. You tell yourself that your partner is going to be able to cover the rent this month, so you convince yourself it’s okay to spend some money. Because you spent that money, you’ve eliminated your ability to help pay the rent.
Now, what happens if your partner isn’t able to pay the rent? You’re suddenly in a serious pickle, one that’s caused not only by a communication failure, but by the reality that your spending, bills, and debts affect your partner’s spending, bills, and debts.
Whether you like it or not, if you’re in a relationship, your finances are shared, whether in actual practice or not. Your actions affect your partner and vice versa.
The third principle is something of an extension of this one.
Hiding debts and expenses from your partner affects them in many ways and is deeply dishonest and damaging to your relationship. Since your spending alters how your partner is able to spend money, hiding a debt or an expense from your partner is essentially the same thing as taking money out of their pocket without telling them why.
It undermines financial stability. It undermines the trust in your relationship. It ensures that your partner is unfairly being asked to shoulder an additional burden without even knowing why.
Usually, the root cause of this is a communication breakdown. You’re afraid to tell your partner because you’re afraid of the retribution you envision in whatever form that may take. You can’t bring yourself to admit a mistake to your partner because that shows weakness.
All of this culminates with a simple statement about the stability of one’s relationship.
If you can’t talk about money with each other, then your relationship is on tenuous ground.
A relationship is about mutual support. If you can’t talk about your financial situation because it shows weakness, then you’re not mutually supportive. You’re antagonistic and combative. If you can’t talk about your financial situation because you fear retribution, then your relationship is at best combative and at worst abusive.
If you can’t communicate through your mistakes and honestly evaluate your full financial situation together on a regular basis, your entire relationship is on tenuous ground. You need to take a serious look about whether this relationship is something you should be continuing, because there are some deep trust issues (and other problems) running right through the relationship you’ve built.
The solution to all of this is simple, and it’s right there in the first principle. Communicate. Talk about everything with your partner. Admit your failings, and don’t brow-beat your partner over his or her failings. You’re both human beings. You’re both going to make mistakes. The entire purpose of a relationship is to be there for each other through both the high points and the mistakes. Otherwise, there’s no point in having a long-term relationship.