Money and Marriage: There are Options!

As we approach the holiday season, financial issues can sometimes become a source of, shall we say … discussion … when debating what to purchase for gifts or maybe just where to have dinner tonight. If these issues seem to repeat themselves, perhaps it’s time to sit down and fine-tune the family finances.

There are many ways to deal with money in a relationship. One way is to maintain separate bank accounts. Another is to combine the funds, no matter how much each partner makes. But beware: Each presupposes a different set of expectations.

If the parties truly want to share, it need not be a sacrifice for a couple to pool their money, so long as each party is productive. Since income is typically a function of the market, two individuals can be equally productive even though one makes more money than the other. You might, for example, believe in your spouse’s art ability and support her work, even though she may enjoy little or no income for a time.

Some still want separate finances. Maybe they were taken advantage of in the past. Others seek to shelter money in the event of a divorce. We live in a litigious age, and this has sadly transferred to marriage and family. Many women feel safer with separate finances and the sense of autonomy. Some women make more money than their husbands, and want to keep finances separate for the same reason that many men do.

Conflicts can arise when one member of the relationship wants to handle finances differently. One advantage to separate finances is that neither party can assume that he/she has automatic access to the others’ funds. It creates a sense of personal boundaries.

The bottom line is communication. Make it clear — first to yourself, then to your spouse — how you prefer to handle money. If you both agree on the terms, great. If compromises can be reached, that’s fine too. Where most people go wrong is that they don’t even mention to each other (or to themselves) what they want. They proceed on either blind adherence to family/social tradition or on emotionally held expectations about money. They assume everything should happen automatically with no effort or thought. When this fails, they go on the defensive and may mistakenly conclude that the marriage is in trouble. This haphazard, unexamined approach (to anything, in fact) can result in misunderstandings, hurt feelings and worse.

Fighting over money is always a mistake. Hurtful things are said that can be impossible to take back. Unfortunately, too many people are afraid to try something different. They won’t consider separate accounts, for example, “because that’s just not how it’s done.” People cling to old ideas simply because they are old, and they end up paying the consequences.

People sometimes feel that money shouldn’t be an issue in a marriage — until it is. For example, parents-to-be should reevaluate their finances once a child is on the way. Children are the ultimate lifestyle change and a couple needs to share at least part of their income to cover expenses.

Separate accounts are still not the norm, but more and more couples are doing it. The knee-jerk reaction is to lament today’s “selfishness,” but I don’t agree. It’s wonderful that people have more choices. Why live blindly by others’ standards or “tradition” when it doesn’t make logical sense to do so?

Some will approach their spouse with the idea that, “We’re married. So it’s your job to take care of me.” This entitlement mentality is ugly and destructive. It’s one thing to care about somebody and want to be there for them, but it’s an entirely different thing to assume it’s someone’s moral obligation to support you, “just because.” Nothing can snuff the romance out of marriage faster than that. So common sense must prevail: No matter what the financial arrangement, if it brings peace to the marriage, try it.

If this groundwork is in place early in a relationship, then financial discussions will be a lot less stressful.