During the first three or four years of our marriage, Sarah and I regularly argued about money issues. It never seemed as though there was enough money to pay for everything and, of course, it must be the other person’s fault, so we’d argue.
Now? I honestly can’t remember our last argument about money. We have had some disagreements, but those disagreements haven’t escalated into an argument in a long time.
I could go on and on about our money conversations. We talk about goals all the time and we run through bills separately and together. We make sure to have a chat about any expenditure that’s even slightly unusual. Communication is incredibly valuable.
Still, I believe the source of our financial and marital peace goes deeper than that. It comes from a few truths that we both hold dear and because of those truths it is very easy to talk about money.
Here are six of these truths that I consider to be at the core of our marriage and how we handle all financial issues.
You are equals and you depend on each other. There is no “my money” or “her money” or “his money.” There is only “our money.”
It doesn’t matter if you earn fifty times as much as your spouse. The moment you agree to entwine your lives, you’ve both drastically altered your individual decision-making processes. You are no longer making choices just for yourself. You are making choices for both of you.
Every financial choice you make affects not just you, but your spouse (and your family). You might want to maintain an idea of “your money” and “your partner’s money,” but even if you put a wall up there, it’s still a false wall. If you overspend and can’t make the rent, it will be on your partner to take care of it.
The reality is that there is no wall, even if you’ve tried to keep one in place. Your lives are entwined and your decisions have a huge impact on your partner. The money decisions are no longer your money decisions because the impact goes beyond you.
Once you go beyond spending limits agreed upon with your spouse, you are damaging your marriage.
If you’ve sat down with your spouse and agreed that you can each spend $100 a month on hobbies and entertainment and you choose to spend $125 because, well, you really want that item and you don’t check with your spouse first, you’re choosing to damage your marriage. If you overrun your agreed-upon food budget because you really want to go out to eat with your coworkers at a steakhouse, you’re choosing to damage your marriage.
Really? Damage your marriage? Isn’t that a little much?
It’s not. Marriage is about trust. When you pledge something to your spouse, your spouse should be able to trust you on that word. When you make a choice to knowingly overextend your budget, it’s not just your own financial future that’s affected. Your spouse is affected, too. That’s $25 or $50 or $100 or $1,000 that you pledged to use for shared goals with your spouse that you’re instead choosing to spend on yourself without even talking about it. That money might cause an overdraft or might cause a credit card to hit the limit at a bad moment. It will mean that money intended for something else will have to be used to cover your greedy choice.
How can you genuinely expect trust to come out of that choice? You can’t.
Your spouse has a right to call you out on your spending.
If your spouse notices something that might indicate that your spending is out of control, he or she has the right to say something to you, and they should be able to do that without a negative response from you.
Again, their future is at stake here. Marriage isn’t about the things you want in the moment. It’s about the things both of you want and need, both now and for the rest of your lives.
When you choose to overspend, you restrict the other person’s future. They absolutely have the right to know when this is happening and why this is happening.
Put yourself in your partner’s shoes. How would you feel if you found out your partner had foolishly spent money that you were relying on to pay rent or insurance with? How would you want your partner to react if you discovered this and tried to talk about it? Would you want him or her – a person who spent your shared money without checking with you – to react with anger? Of course not, because you’d have a right to be upset and to expect answers.
If the money discussion is triggering your emotions, ask for a 24 hour break before you start responding emotionally.
Most money fights I’ve experienced (or heard about from other marriages) have resulted from a violation of one of those principles above. Someone didn’t respect that a spending decision might have negative ramifications for his or her partner. Someone didn’t like to hear about their spending mistakes. Someone refused to acknowledge that the spending is a serious problem.
The response is often emotional. No one likes to think that they messed up. We’ll deny to ourselves and to others that we made a mistake. We’ll get angry and start digging up old bones in order to have “weapons” for the “fight.”
All of that nonsense is emotional. It’s not rational. It does nothing to solve the problem. It usually just makes the problem worse.
If you ever find your emotions rising to a point where you feel the need to start shouting or you need to start bringing up long-buried issues, then you need a time out. Everyone gets emotional sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you have to turn a natural disagreement or a bad feeling into a big fight where nothing gets resolved.
Just check out for a bit. Tell your partner that you want to resolve this sensibly, but that you can feel your blood rising and this path is just going to lead to a fight. Suggest that you revisit the issue in 24 or 48 hours. During that time, work through what was making you upset or angry and figure out how to put it aside or express it without making things emotionally charged.
Anger, tears, and rage have never solved a financial or marital problem, but they’ve created quite a lot of them.
If your spouse is worried about something, listen and respect it, even if you don’t feel it’s worthy of worry.
Sometimes, Sarah brings up issues with me that I think are non-issues. I’m sure that some of the things I bring up to Sarah are unimportant to her as well.
However, if it is important enough to Sarah for her to bring it up, I need to give it my attention. I need to listen to the problem and figure out what’s going on here, because even if it doesn’t bother me, it’s bothering her.
Sometimes, all you need to do is listen and be serious and respectful about the concern. There might not be any action to take. Sometimes, you’re still going to feel as though the issue wasn’t that big of a deal.
The thing that matters is that you’re paying attention and that, even if you don’t find it personally important, you know that your partner finds it to be important. Even if you don’t see it as a crisis, you can still be a major positive force in resolving your partner’s concern.
If you reach that point, then you know you can bring up anything with your spouse and that person will help you out. You don’t have to filter things or worry about what your spouse is going to say. When you can knock that filter out of the way, financial issues – and every other kind of issue – become much easier to resolve.
If you have reached a point where you no longer feel as though you can trust your spouse with regards to the steps above, your marriage needs serious work because it’s not functioning.
A successful marriage is hard work. There are no two ways about it. It’s a complicated and confusing thing to figure out how to move from being independent to sharing your life with someone.
If you’re finding that it’s hard to do – or you’re finding that your partner is not listening or trying at all – then your marriage needs work. There are many good marriage counseling guides out there. Seeing a marriage counselor can also be a good solution.
You’re better off addressing these problems before they become too serious and one (or both) of you make choices that will permanently damage the marriage. Some marriage counseling sessions and some difficult conversations are far less painful than a divorce and a struggle to find new paths in life.