Updated on 03.27.09

A Reasonable Marriage

Trent Hamm

This is the final entry in a five part series this week on the stages of a relationship and how you can make financially sound choices throughout. Other entries include courtships;, engagements;, weddings, and honeymoons.

You’re now a married couple, settling into a long life together. Now what?

It’s easy to fall into routines in your marriage, and often those routines are hard to break. You can establish routines that lead to a healthy marriage that’s grounded in healthy relationships and healthy money practices, or you can establish routines that are very disruptive.

Which do you choose? Here are ten tactics for getting yourself on a great path to a long-term successful marriage, both financially and otherwise.

Talk to each other as often as possible. Have a healthy conversation every single day. Ask what your spouse is doing and what they’re thinking about. Tell your spouse what you’re up to and what you’re thinking about. The better you understand your spouse in the good times and the normal times, the easier it will be to work through the difficult times.

Listen to what the other person is actually saying. It’s easy to get used to the routines in your life and in your spouse’s life, making it easy to somewhat gloss over the specifics on a daily basis. Don’t fall into that trap. Listen. Almost every time that a problem is developing, your spouse is telling you about the problem in some fashion. Pay attention to the things your spouse is saying, and if something doesn’t seem right, don’t blow it off. Follow up – and be there for your spouse.

Be honest and actively admit your mistakes – you will make them, after all. Everyone makes mistakes in their marriage. They make a poor choice. They don’t correctly interpret what their partner wants. I know I certainly do it often enough. The best thing you can do when you make a mistake – money or otherwise – is to confess to it. Tell your partner about your splurge. Tell your partner about your mistake. Not only will your honesty make it easier to talk about, you’ll also be driven to do better.

Talk about your long term plans together on a regular basis – and be open to changing them as you grow. Where do you want to be in a year? In five years? In ten years? Tell your partner your thoughts and encourage your partner to share their thoughts. You’ll find that some of them are different, but that many of the goals are in common. The common goals are great ones to focus on because you’re both driven to get there – and you’re able to reinforce each other’s resolve. Talk about these goals regularly.

Work together on the small steps you can do right now to reach those big shared goals. Once you’ve figured out the goals you have in common, spend time talking about what you can do right now to bring you closer to those goals. For us, this has been invaluable at keeping our spending choices in check. We talk about almost every significant purchase and decide together whether or not it’s in line with what we want out of life. Which leads to…

Plan big purchases together – and think about how they’ll impact your other big plans. Excepting any “spending allowance” that you both have, any significant purchase should be discussed together. My wife and I discuss anything more than $20 – and often, we discuss it to death (which is a good thing, because then we don’t spend the money). We are basically checks against unnecessary spending for each other – and that enables us to accomplish our real goals faster and keep our less-focused sides in check.

You’re going to disagree. Work on disagreeing well. You’re never going to agree all the time with your partner. Sometimes, your partner is going to be right and you’re going to be wrong. This will happen. Don’t turn disagreements into competitions. Instead, look at disagreements as opportunities to really figure out the truth of a situation. Do your research and figure out the real deal, then follow whichever side is actually in the right. You’re far better off being wrong and then changing your mind than being wrong and sticking with it like a dog with a stick just so you can “win” – that’s a recipe for long-term failure in multiple ways.

Always strongly support the positive moves your partner makes. Whenever your partner makes a good move, congratulate them. Reinforce the idea that the move was a good thing, and then use their good choice as motivation to make your own good choice, not as an excuse to coast because your partner is carrying the weight. At times, my wife and I almost compete at positive things like cleaning the house or saving money.

Don’t plan for retirement in a bubble – include your partner’s plans and income to develop an overall plan for retirement. Plan for retirement together and make choices that will provide you both with the money you’ll need for your later years. This may mean that one partner saves more than the other because they have a better 401(k) opportunity or they have a higher income. Having said that, it is a good idea to not have all retirement handled by one partner – if one partner has a fully funded 401(k) in his/her name, the other partner might want a Roth IRA in their name, just in case. However, the overall planning should reflect your shared goals.

Reaffirm your love every single day. Tell your partner you love them. Give a hug or a kiss or an embrace. It’s so simple to do, yet so many couples miss out on it. Simple little tokens of love provide a constant reaffirmation of your relationship, plus they ensure that you’ll never feel regret if something unthinkable happens.

Here are some earlier thoughts on tactics for a successful marriage, though they’re not financial in nature.

Got any good, reasonable, frugal advice for people getting started in their marriage? Please leave them in the comments.

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  1. Totally agree on communicating about money(and of course, other things!). We didn’t talk enough about money in the early years of our marriage.

  2. Well done series Trent.

    Enjoyed reading something different and learned a little a long the way.

  3. Rob says:

    Nothing is more valuable than trust in a marriage or relationship. I hold that as number one. Then again, I can only speak for myself. For me, trust is key.

  4. DebtGoal says:

    This is all great advice, but something else absolutely critical is specifically setting up a budget together. Everyone budgets differently, and even the nuances to one’s financial priorities are rarely identical between a married couple. Also, writing down each person’s outstanding debts and then compiling them into a fused list to set household pay down priorities is just as important. Especially if taxes are filed jointly, both debt reducers need to be in sync to optimize financial health.


  5. Dana the Common Cents Coach says:

    @DebtGoal–I like your thoughts on this. I’m going to throw another scenario at you. I have a client who is living with her boyfriend. They do not co-mingle finances and they do not know what kinds of debts/savings that the other has because she is scared of being taken. She owns her own home and her boyfriend pays her rent to her. He has expressed concern that he has no equity in her house even though he is contributing. She told me today that if they were still together in a few years, maybe she would open up her books to him. What questions would you ask her in order to get her to understand that the sooner they both lay it out on the table, the sooner they will both be on the same financial page, which will probably make her feel more secure in the long run? The reason I say “what questions” is because as a coach, I cannot tell her what to do, but I can question her until she comes to this conclusion on her own. Would love some feedback on this!

  6. michael says:

    oh God. Life Coaches! Trent! Tell us about your thoughts on Life Coaches!!!

  7. Mr. GoTo says:

    Too many young couples start their married lives preparing for the financial worst case scenario (divorce). Instead, you should focus your energy and resources on preparing for the best – a lifetime of contentment together.

  8. Reasonable Marriage: 2 words combined that don’t make sense.

  9. Java Monster says:

    Dana the Common Cents Coach–your client sounds like she has issues related to a prior relationship where she ended up with nothing.

    Boyfriend should be the first to “open up his books” as you put it. He’s living in *her* house; she sounds like she wants assurance that he’s trustworthy. They’re also *not married*; she has a right to ask him for rent; he has no right to ask for house equity in a relationship which does not have legal freight.

  10. Becky says:

    I would add, be honest about each partner’s strengths and weaknesses. I am smart with the mechanics of money – I pay bills on time and don’t bounce checks. But I spend more than my husband. He used to be *horrible* at managing money – failed to file taxes for years, would not pay bills even when he had the money. However, he’s fantastic at shopping frugally, and he can be trusted to stick to the grocery list.

    We always knew this, but we had some idea that we would embrace personal growth by “practicing” what we were bad at; so we decided that my husband would handle some of the bills and file the taxes, and I was the primary shopper because, duh, I like to shop. It was a disaster; instead of a series of wholesome learning experiences, we fought a lot, lost trust in each other, and actually brought ourselves to the brink of divorce over this and some other issues.

    Our lives improved in many ways when we decided to play to our strengths rather than compensating for our weaknesses, and I took over all the day-to-day money management and he took over all the shopping. This sounds really obvious, but hey – we were young. :-) He has one credit card that he is responsible for paying on time, and I confess I surreptitiously checked the bills as they came in for a year to reassure myself that he was handling it. Which he was. I’m pretty sure that now in our late thirties/early forties, we have gotten to the point where each of us can be trusted not to wreak havoc in the other’s area of expertise. But we are comfortable with the status quo.

    One of the advantages of marriage is that you *can* compensate, somewhat, for each other’s weaknesses. I have decided that as long as we aren’t so dependent on each other that either of us would be utterly helpless if we split up or one of us dies, I’m not going to worry about each of us being great at everything. What a relief.

  11. GayleRN says:

    Be sure to have separate retirement plans for each partner. Not necessarily related to the possibility of divorce or death, but related to the fact that businesses can and do go bankrupt and you may see retirement plans go up in smoke. Case in point is GM, how many GM retirees are aabout to see their retirements change radically? Literally millions. My x has seen 2 retirement plans disappear entirely, one pension at a company that went bankrupt literally days before he became vested, and an ESOP forced to be folded into another company. That was a forced liquidation at the divorce which now looks pretty smart as it was a bank that is now in dire straits. Please don’t depend on a pension no matter how good it looks.

  12. IRG says:

    If you can’t discuss money openly and talk about debts, etc that would affect any living arrangement (be it when you’re wedded or not), then you really should not be thinking about “sharing” your lives.

    It’s surprising to me how many people, with intelligence, education and even common sense, have not had open discussions with their spouses about money. And we’re talking all ages and soci-economic backgrounds.

    Yea, money and spending and debt are VERY personal. And yes, there will always be one person who has “more” (makes more, inherited more, saved more, invested more) and one who may “spend” more. Knowing how each person views their money is critical. Knowing how each person views spending is essential.

    I’ve had money and no money. My attitude is the same in both situations. As a SO, we share certain things (mortgage, basic household expenses). Then, we proportion our contributions to things like emergency savings, vacations, big joint purchases, based on income.

    Debt: We are each responsible for personal debts and basically try NOT to incur shared debt, other than a mortgage. (Cars were individual debts.)

    We are responsible for meeting our expenses and so far, no problems. (When we don’t, that will be an issue, because then one of us will have to do a “loan” to the other. Neither of us is in a position to support the other. Might be different if it were the case.)

    If we each meet our shared expenses, there is no need to discuss personal spending or debt repayment issues. Frankly, I will not justify what I spend or not on anything to anyone nor would I expect them to do the same. If you’ve got the money to spend, it’s yours. You’ve earned it.

    The way to avoid debt issues? Personal debt (credit cards) is all in one person’s name, not as a married couple. And we have our own individual retirement, health insurance, etc.

    We have discussed our financial goals as a unit and also addressed the need for each of us to have money that is independent of us as a couple. (Hey, stuff happens. It’s naive to not think about stuff, even while you open your heart in present moment.)

    Issues have come up based on both of us having our own businesses and we’re working through that. The goal is basically to ensure that no one is stuck with the debts of the other and that the living partner has some way to utilize the assets and has access to them, to dispose of as per a will.

    We’re both generous people and are fond of gift giving, so that’s not an issue and our basic approach to life is, if you want something, save for it and buy it for yourself. Don’t expect someone else to fund your dreams, fantasies or lifestyle. That’s a great way to cause huge rifts in relationships. (And why should it be my SO’s responsibility to purchase stuff for me?)

    it works only because we’re similar in approach. (I have lovely friends who are frugal, borderline cheap. I could not live with them, nor could I deal with a shared life with my very wealthy friends who don’t get that people aren’t really able to enjoy a similar lifestyle.)

    In this world, it makes sense to treat your finances as separate entities with provisions for the other in case of death.

    Today, everyone has to work and build up their own financial stability. You can’t expect one partner to just take care of another, except in emergencies (like job loss…but even then, it can get very tricky.)

    In the end, it’s never really about money. It’s about how you view your life and what you consider to be your responsibilities and your own personal generosity.

    I’ve seen families with quite a bit of money where the non-working spouse is basically doled out an allowance. Ugh. No way, no way.

    To me, being part of a couple means still being responsible for who you are. And understanding that if you split, pretty much somebody is going to lose some “stuff” unless it was acquired separately.

    I’ve watched friends lose homes they built (think of the War of the Roses) in divorce, whole lives they created in the name of a family. To me, that’s an unnecessary loss.

    If I were a stay at home mom, work at home wife, I’d set up a payment schedule for the SO for my services(and vice versa). I’d put that money in escrow/savings. Then, at some point, I’d put it towards a joint goal, or if needed, I’d have for a divorce, to start over.

    Sometimes, the difficulty is that one partner makes more than the other and this partner then wants to dominate the choices and the spending. This is a disaster. And should be avoided.

    You should separate romance and love from ideas of money and financial stability. Too many folks confuse the two. It’s the best way to find yourself on the street.

    I’m a woman. We’re the ones most often left with nothing–but kids and debt. So I believe we really have to be practical. But it applies equally to men who may find themselves married to a woman who gets them into huge debt. It works both ways.

    If you’re really in love, you won’t expect someone to be responsible for you. That’s not love. And if you’re really in love, you won’t drag someone down into debt either.

    When you think about it, most people are truly not prepared to create shared lives. Especially when they are not clear about what their expectations are about lifestyle, etc.

    Too much focus spent on wedding planning, and not enough on THE MARRIAGE and what comes afterwards.

    Some schoools have good courses on this but everyone should be required to go thru the equivalent of a “degree” program before marriage and before having children. It might stop a lot of pain and messiness.

    It should be really, really hard to get married and easy and not expensive to get out.

    And the marriage tax? It should be credits that accrue for partners so that in case of divorce, they can both start over.

  13. Kevin says:

    I think the “frugal bachelor” has a hard time getting dates.

  14. Lenore says:

    A “frugal bachelor” can make up for not blowing needless cash by being creative, spontaneous, romantic, fun and genuinely attuned to his date’s enjoyment. If he doesn’t act like a “playa” he’ll already be ahead of most of the competition. And what if you’re attracted to one of those greedy attention-aholics who expects to be wined and dined at the fanciest places and wooed with expensive gifts and jewels? Do yourself a favor and dump her now. Just imagine what life would be like trying to please a spouse like that.

    Great series Trent, and I think the logical follow-up would be How To Teach Your Kids About Money at the various stages of their lives.

  15. Hogan says:

    Trent: I like the title of this post “A resonable marriage”. It shows maturity and insight. While we all strive for the “Perfect marriage” it usually means it is “perfect” for only one of the spouses and not the other.

  16. Sound advice- communication and joint decisions are key.

    I know from personal experience– divorce is expensive!

  17. Sharon says:

    Before marrying, our youngest son and his wife spent much time discussing guiding principles. The best one they agreed to follow: when they don’t agree 100%, they will go with the choice of the one who is being the most conservative.

  18. CathyG says:

    What a huge amount of diversity these comments show about the attitudes of money in a relationship. I am fascinated by IRG’s comments – very well thought out and very logical, but completely opposite my own experience and my own preference for how to handle money. In my marriage, all money is joint. We make enough money so that we haven’t ever had to live paycheck to paycheck, but we are both fairly frugal people by nature. Maybe it’s this combination that makes it easier for us – we really don’t have any worries about money. We each spend whatever we want on small expenses (we don’t spend much, but neither do we track every penny) and we talk about big expenses. I make a lot more than he does, but it’s never been an issue – it’s OUR money, not mine or his. Sometimes I spend it, sometimes he does, sometimes we spend it together.

    We may be setting ourselves up for a big surprise if we ever get divorced, but it’s been 23 years and we still haven’t even considered it, so I think we’re doing pretty well.

    I was especially struck by IRG’s distaste for the monthly allowance. I agree with that, if it is a one-sided thing, which makes it seem very patronizing. But I think if a couple has the need to save more, my preference would be to hold everything jointly, then give EACH spouse an allowance to live on, not based on how much each brought to the account, but make it the same amount, or else make it based on what each spouse needs after discussing it together.

    Interesting views, all. I think the bottom line is absolutely communication. I think either of these plans (or others) would work, but ONLY if both spouses are expecting it and agree that the plan will work.

  19. Steve says:

    I think a piece on divorce would fit well into this series. The cheapest option is to not get divorced in the first place, naturally! But some people end up getting divorced anyways, and there are good and bad ways to go about it!

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