Making a Long-Term Committed Relationship and Financial Success Go Hand in Hand

Today is Valentine’s Day, and for millions of couples around the world, it’s a day spent finding ways to share in some form of romantic bliss. It can be deeply meaningful for some and stressful for others. Sarah and I will celebrate today in a pretty low key style, not ignoring it but not going all out in any way. I stuck a note in her car and am making a dinner I’m sure she’ll like; she’ll likely come up with something similar for me.

For many couples, however, Valentine’s Day is just another day, another step on the long journey that is a long-term committed relationship. Such relationships offer a lot of challenges, especially over an extended period of time. Stresses, changes in each person, little issues that can grow over time into big ones – they all add up to major obstacles for a successful long term relationship and/or marriage.

One of the biggest irritants in such a relationship is money. Money is often cited as the most common reason that couples fight. Financial shortfalls cause individual stress on both members of a relationship and can easily translate into blaming and intense disagreement. Even issues like agreeing on financial goals and plans can cause intense disagreement.

Early in our marriage, Sarah and I often disagreed about financial issues. We found ourselves walking a financial tightrope and struggling to keep our bills paid. This often translated into disagreement, as we would blame each other’s individual spending habits for our financial issues.

While that was an easy “surface” issue to disagree on, the real causes of our financial pain were much deeper. Those real causes are ones that I often see popping up in the money and relationship issues I notice with other couples, both in my own life and in messages from readers.

Figuring out how to resolve and fix these issues made our relationship far stronger. We’ve been married for fifteen years now. I can’t even recall the last time we had a financial disagreement that wasn’t quickly settled by a calm and rational conversation. We have no debts – not even a mortgage – and are well on our way to retiring early, ideally around the time our youngest child leaves the nest.

Here are some of the key strategies we’ve used to build our financially successful long term relationship.

Strategy #1: Check the Blame Game

Blame for financial problems is virtually always the result of different values. If you see your partner spending money foolishly, that’s because you view financial success as having a higher priority than what your partner spent money on, whereas your partner likely views that situation in the opposite way. When you bring it up in a confrontational way, what your partner actually hears is “the things I care about are more important than the things you care about!”

Ladies and gentlemen, that is never, ever going to end well.

In a healthy relationship, there tend to be three different groups of priorities. There are the things you care about, the things your partner cares about, and the things that are of mutual concern. All three of those areas deserve respect and attention, but none of them should completely dominate the other two.

Almost all financial disagreements occur when someone sees their partner prioritizing something that’s important to just the partner over the other groups, and that can hurt. Then, if there is a problem with the things that should be a shared priority, that quickly translates into blame. “You spent money going out with your friends and we can’t even pay off the credit card bill!” That’s just another way of saying “You put a higher priority on something important to just you than something of shared importance, and that frustrates me greatly!”

Most of the time, your partner is not trying to be harmful to your relationship or to your financial state. They’re simply acting in accordance with something that they see as a high priority for themselves. They really value a particular hobby, or they really value their relationship with a few key friends. That’s part of what makes them who they are, and that should be respected.

If you want someone to respect what you care about, you have to respect what they care about and come to a balanced arrangement. You can’t simply buy into the idea that they’re somehow at “fault” for you not achieving your high-priority goal when it’s not necessarily their high-priority goal.

In other words, the very first thing you need to do is stop the blame game. If you’re in a situation where things like this are happening, both of you are struggling and you need to step back a little bit and get things in better shape.

Strategy #2: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Many couples who are struggling financially avoid financial topics entirely and then blow up into an angry screaming match because of the stress of the problem and the many unresolved smaller issues underlying the financial struggles. No one will say anything for months, and then a big credit card bill comes in and we’re off to the races.

That’s an incredibly unhealthy approach to a financial partnership.

A much better approach is to openly discuss any and all financial concerns and bills and other matters as soon as they occur, before they have a chance to develop into real problems. If you have any uncertainty at all about spending money, you should talk about it with your partner, sooner rather than later. If you’re uncertain about goals or about how to progress toward a goal, you should talk about it with your partner, sooner rather than later.

These conversations are often skipped because they’re uncomfortable or they seem so minor as to not worry about it. In both cases, however, those minor bumps in the road grow into major problems that can turn into very uncomfortable and often difficult and painful conversations and arguments where both people are so emotionally invested that they can’t resolve things in a sensible way.

The trick is to not make a mountain out of a molehill, but not let a molehill fester and grow into a mountain, either.

So, how do you even do this? One good strategy is to consciously check emotions at the door. If you find yourself getting angry, defensive, or upset with any financial topic, then everyone should take a 24 hour timeout. Very few financial issues are so urgent that they can’t afford a brief break. During that timeout, think about why you’re so upset. What caused you to feel that way? Consider not just blaming others, but also your own faults. What did you do to get things to that situation?

Another solid approach is to simply review any and all bills together. This can be a very defensive thing at first, especially if you’re walking through a credit card statement where you’ve been doing some overspending, but not only does this serve as a good check on each person’s behavior, it also provides a regular window to talk about finances. There’s nothing wrong with having one person “in charge of the bills,” but both people should be involved in examining the spending.

Sarah and I used these approaches, and over time they trained us both to consider our spending choices in light of each other. If I’m about to spend money that I don’t want to show Sarah on a credit card statement… why exactly am I doing this? It’s obviously not helping our future, and thus it’s probably not helping my individual life either. Simply knowing that everything is so out in the open and available for conversation makes me second guess my own worst impulses. I don’t feel bad about spending money on things I want; I just feel bad about spending money excessively on things I want when clearly some of that money is being spent on things that are less important to me.

So, communicate frequently. When there’s something on your mind regarding finances, talk about it now when it’s minor rather than later when it’s grown into a crisis. Review bills together in an open fashion, even if it’s a bit uncomfortable at first. If you feel upset, don’t let that emotion translate into words you’ll regret – rather, take a break and reflect before you respond (this is actually a great tactic with any relationship disagreement). Over time, doing this nudges you into considering how your spending choices affect both partners, which is a vital step for financial success.

Strategy #3: Openly and Frequently Talk About Goals and Priories and How You’ll Get There

One big thing that keeps people from making smart financial moves is the lack of some kind of concrete vision for the future, especially a shared vision. If you have an idea of what you’re working for and you know someone else is working for that very thing, it becomes incredibly powerful. You’re drawn to want to put forth effort to make that thing happen.

This is particularly true in relationships. If you and your partner have figured out what you each want out of your future and, more importantly, the things where those visions overlap, you’re going to find it much easier to make strong financial choices. Not only are you working for things you want, but your partner is, too, and you’re working for things that your partner holds dear.

One big thing to watch out for here is to make sure that the visions and goals aren’t one-sided. If they are, then the person in the relationship who wasn’t involved in really developing that vision for the future isn’t going to be invested in it. They’re going to feel like they’re being told to work hard and sacrifice for something someone else wants. That’s going to (a) build resentment and (b) result in that person not putting forth much effort toward that goal.

The best way we’ve found for overcoming this is to talk about our goals frequently, both our individual ones and our mutual ones. The thing that works best for us is that we’ll each on our own come up with a list of things that we want for our future, then we’ll sit down together and talk about them. We try to focus on the things that overlap, and then we try to figure out which of the things that don’t overlap are of the greatest importance.

Here’s a good practice for you to try if you’ve never done this. Each of you should take a week or so and individually spend some time thinking about what each of you want out of your future, both together and individually. What does your ideal life look like in ten years or twenty years? Each of you should spend some time really thinking about that question.

Then, come together and figure out what overlaps on your lists. Those should be central to your focus going forward. Beyond that, you should each identify a thing or two that’s individually important to each of you – a career goal, maybe, or something else that’s very focused on what you want out of life as an individual.

Those goals – the shared ones, your primary individual ones, and your support of your partner’s primary individual goals – should be your main goals. They should undergird a lot of what you do going forward. Knowing that you’re working with your partner on those same goals – and that your own missteps directly costs your partner – imbues them with a lot of power, especially if you talk about them frequently and keep each other updated on how those goals are going.

Strategy #4: Pay Yourself First

One aspect of being in a relationship where you’re financially accountable to your partner is that it can feel like you’re working hard but you have no financial freedom whatsoever. This is especially true if you’re the partner who is not handling the day-to-day financial mechanics of paying bills and so on. You work hard, then your money just vanishes and you’re left with little sense of fulfillment.

One great way around this is to set up a system of “paying yourself first.” What this means is that money is directly set aside from paychecks to go toward life goals before it’s used for the everyday stuff. You’re “paying yourself first,” for example, when money is taken out of your paycheck and put into your 401(k). You’re “paying yourself first” if the first thing you do when you receive a paycheck is to make a big extra payment on a debt (without adding to that debt with your spending habits, of course).

If you set up a system of paying yourself first, preferably an automatic one, having a financial conversation with your loved one about your shared goals is a source of pride. There will be money set aside for those big goals you shared. You will be closer to a down payment or to retirement or to whatever your goal is. It doesn’t matter what else is going on – you will be closer to your big goals, and that will feel tremendous for both of you.

If you use this approach, the remaining money in your checking account should mostly be used to pay the required bills – utilities, food, insurance, basic household items, housing, basic clothing, and so on. Anything beyond that merits a conversation.

Strategy #5: ‘Me’ Money Really Works

While you’re “paying yourself first,” it’s well worth considering the idea of funding a small “financial freedom” account for both of you. A “financial freedom” account is a small pool of money for each of you to spend freely, without question or anger from your partner. It gives you the ability to do things that you enjoy without worrying that it’s going to upset your partner or disrupt your financial future in any way.

Doing this allows people to have their cake and eat it, too. If you’re “paying yourself first,” you know you’re working towards your own financial goals and your shared ones. If you’re also putting aside a little “financial freedom” money for both you and your partner, you’re also able to spend money occasionally without having to worry about how it will affect your partner or your goals. It works extremely well.

My wife spends her “financial freedom” money on a wide variety of things – books, sometimes, or coffee or things like that. My money usually goes toward my hobbies and for gifts for others. It’s nice having money that can be spent without worry, and as long as you keep a cap on it, it’s not financially disruptive at all.

Final Thoughts

Don’t blame each other for failure. Communicate. Check your negative emotions. Share goals. Pay yourself first so that those shared goals happen. Allow each of you some financial breathing room. Automate as much of this as you can. Make what you can’t automate into a routine.

If you’re celebrating Valentine’s Day today with your loved one, give each other a truly loving gift and sit down together and talk about those principles. Start by setting goals together over the next week, and then figure out how you’ll achieve them together.

Let today’s bit of romance turn into a strong relationship that lasts.

Good luck.

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Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.