I was once asked to talk about finances to a small group of engaged couples attending a marriage preparation program. As I observed the couples, I felt as though I were watching a scene from Oprah focusing on dysfunctional relationships. What I saw were three textbook examples of how money and marriage don't necessarily mix well.
One man, Don, expressed annoyance that his fiancée, Louise, spent weekends at the mall shopping with her mother -- a colossal waste of time and money, in his opinion. Louise shot back that she had a job, and how she chose to spend her own money, and her Saturdays, was her business. She also pointed out that her shopping didn't cost any more than Don was spending on his hobby, golf.
Then there were Carlos and Maria. Although they weren't married, they had been together for some time and had two children. Their financial relationship was a traditional one, in which he was the breadwinner while she stayed home with the kids. He couldn't resist needling her about having no income of her own and complaining that she couldn't seem to run the household on the money he gave her. Maria retorted that she kept the household accounts and knew where every penny was going -- and if they didn't have enough to buy everything they wanted, it wasn't her fault.
Sitting on the other side of the room were Peter and Gabrielle, recent immigrants to this country. She was spending a lot of time and money scouting out native markets so that she could re-create the way of life he was used to back home. But what Gabrielle considered thoughtfulness Peter considered a wasteful extravagance -- a revelation that appeared to take her by surprise.
I couldn't help wondering whether any of these couples had a chance of making a successful marriage, given such obvious differences about money -- and, especially, their apparent unwillingness to compromise. It wasn't a question of, "Can these marriages be saved?" but, "Should these marriages take place?"
What went on in the room that night is typical of scenes in households all over America. Merging assets and combining money-management styles that often conflict are among the greatest challenges couples face. The situation is aggravated by the fact that when it comes to money, as in so many other aspects of our lives, opposites attract. If disagreeing about money were sufficient grounds for ending a relationship, we'd be a nation of celibates.
For the sake of keeping peace, women are often inclined not to make waves. But ignoring fundamental differences can be perilous to your marriage. The trick is to address the subject in a way that's not threatening either to the relationship or to your own financial well-being.
That doesn't necessarily mean keeping your assets scrupulously separate, or setting out the terms of your marriage in a prenuptial agreement (although it could mean both). At a minimum, it does mean talking about money early on and being willing to compromise. (See Ten Questions to Ask Before Saying 'I Do' and Schedule a Money Date for more on how to broach the subject.)
Defusing hot spots
Communication and compromise are critical to resolving money disputes with your spouse (or partner or significant other). But you also need practical money-management techniques to cool off some of the hottest issues:
1. Spending too much. Sometimes a spender is in conflict with a saver, and sometimes two spenders stroll hand in hand to the brink of bankruptcy. In either case, each of you would benefit if you wrote down your goals -- a new house, a Caribbean cruise -- plus how much you need to achieve them and whether you're on track. Once you see where you stand in dollars and cents, one of you may be convinced that you need to spend less, or the other may feel more comfortable about spending more.
Another solution is to allow each of you a slush fund to spend as you wish, with no questions or recriminations. Or agree that on purchases above a certain amount -- say, $500 or more -- you'll consult with each other before buying.