A coworker with more time on the job than I have behind the wheel of a car once joked about his love life. He said that the next time he thought about getting married, he was going to find a woman he hated and buy her a house and a car. That's not exactly rousing support for the institution of marriage, but it reflects a fact too common in society and even more common in law enforcement: most of today's marriages end in divorce.
I am not a marriage counselor and I don't play one on TV, but I have been blessed enough to have the same woman tolerate me for 15 years, so I have found a few tricks that work... especially about money. Since that is one of the biggest reasons that couples argue, this month I want to share some money tips to help reduce stress in your marriage.
Who are you?
One of the first steps you and your spouse (or spouse-to-be) must discuss is, what type of money person are you? When you get down to the core of it, people generally can be divided into spenders or savers. Don't lie to yourself as you consider this; one is not better than the other, but you do need to know what you are. Do you have 12 months of salary saved and put 15% of your income into deferred comp? Saver. Are you one of the first to buy the latest fashions, newest car, or best HDTV? Spender.
By talking about the type of person you each are, you open the door to understanding how and why your partner spends the way he/she does. While you may be able to change the severity of your partner's behavior, you probably won't reverse it. You need to know who you are so you can talk about the other issues in an open manner.
Who's in charge?
With an understanding of your money personality, you can then talk with your partner about financial responsibility. It's good to have one person primarily responsible for money matters. This person pays the bills, maintains the account balances and follows your overall financial condition. Common sense would indicate this should probably not be the biggest spender, but that is not a firm rule. One person in charge ensures that bills and the like do not fall through the cracks, with each person believing the other was going to take care of it.
Even with a primary money person, the other person is not off the hook. That person needs to stay interested and involved in money matters. He/she should be asking about the budget, how debt reduction is going and how much is saved towards the next goal. Think of it like contact-and-cover when dealing with a subject: one person deals with the subject while the other person offers support and keeps an eye on the overall situation.
What's the plan?
Saving just to save is hard; at least it is for my wife and me. Saving for a specific purpose gives a firm vision on why you are doing what you are doing. Sit down with your spouse and talk about your goals. This will be critical if one of you is a spender while the other is a saver. You need to agree to a plan that makes you both happy. You might want to save 10% to your deferred comp; your partner might want a new car. You have to negotiate the issue, because you probably cannot afford both.
If you are both savers, it will be easier to agree on a plan. I still recommend attaching specific goals, though; it's motivating. For example, are you saving for a nice vacation (or honeymoon)? Are you saving for a new fishing boat? Put an item or purpose behind some of your savings.
If you are both spenders, it will be easy to agree, but be careful. You still need to agree on a plan. Say you want a new car and your partner wants a new boat. If you both go out and start spending on those items, you will find yourself drowning in debt in a matter of months. There is nothing wrong with wanting new toys, but you need to make sure you both agree on the timing and order of new purchases. You also need to be careful that you are saving for emergencies and the future.
I have found that keeping marital money split usually causes problems. I don't have any formal research or evidence to support that, but it seems that dual checking accounts usually results in dueling priorities. If you scrimp to pay the bills with your money while your spouse spends his/her money on a new DVD collection, that causes resentment and that leads to stress about money. The reality is the courts consider your money communal, so you might as well do the same. I think there is value in the relationship to saying, "Hey, this is our money. What are we going to do with it?"
Despite the endless jokes, marriage is not supposed to be miserable, but it isn't easy either. It takes work and planning, and that means talking about money matters before and during your marriage. My suggestions are not the only way to have a marriage without money-driven stress, so please don't take offense if I suggest ideas that are opposite what you do. If you have a different system that works, that's great. If you don't, or you are just getting started, I encourage you talk about your money. By planning your money matters together, you can reduce the stress in your marriage. It might keep you from giving a house to someone you don't like.