Financial Teamwork For Couples

Financial Teamwork: Increasing Couples’ Communication About Money

No matter how rich or poor a couple is, one of the constant subjects discussed in a relationship is money.

Good money communication is critical to building a strong partnership and marriage. Fighting about money is the most common reason couples give for relationship difficulties and divorce in marriages. Long before most couples realize they are having significant relationship difficulties, struggles about money are almost always occurring. 

Attitudes toward money are learned in childhood. When partners are raised with widely differing attitudes toward money, conflict is inevitable. The key is for couples to discuss their views on money and decide among themselves how they will make decisions about how the family money will be controlled.

Like it or not, money tends to define us in this society. Many people measure their self worth by their money and possessions. The first step to good financial teamwork is to understand how you and your partner each feel about money and how important it is to your self-esteem. How each of you chooses to spend money is often based on emotional baggage from childhood. If money was tight growing up, you may watch every penny, even if it is no longer necessary to do so. If money flowed easily from your parents, you might spend too freely without thinking about the consequences of how you will pay your bills today. Understanding each other’s money philosophy will give you the foundation you need to work through many of your money differences throughout your relationship or marriage. 

Dividing Up Financial Chores 

While it is not a bad idea and not at all uncommon to divide up the financial responsibilities in a household, it is probably not a good idea to have one partner in complete control of all family assets. That’s not to say that a partner with a particular skill in managing money should not use that skill, but that spouse should always discuss with the other what he/she is doing. Dividing up responsibilities, for the sake of efficiency, is fine…splitting responsibilities just to avoid communication about money is a recipe for future disaster. 

There are several ways you may decide to divvy up the responsibilities. Some couples keep their earnings separate but agree in advance who will pay what bills. Some couples put every penny of their financial lives into a joint account. Financial togetherness can be as intense or as separate as the parties wish. As long as communication is kept regular and the goals and attitudes a couple has toward money are shared, the day-to-day mechanics of fiscal management are far less important. 

Discuss how you will handle everyday money matters and determine your financial roles. For example, who will pay the bills? Who will balance the checkbook? Which of the partners will be responsible for making follow-up calls or for researching a particular financial question? Of course, it is encouraged that when one person pays the bills, the other person reviews the billing statements to stay in the communication “loop”. Also, to avoid overmanaging one another and head off potential conflicts before they occur, discuss with your partner a specific dollar amount up to which each of you may spend without having to consult with the other. 

In addition, decide whether you will have joint or separate checking accounts. It may well be useful to develop credit in each spouse’s name. It is important to maintain separate credit cards- both of you need to have a good and separate credit rating. This will also give you more options if one of you gets into credit difficulties. Save for retirement in individual accounts for each partner, whether that is through employer-sponsored plans or individual IRAs. You’ll be eligible to save more and you can take advantage of both your employers’ retirement benefits. If you are married and one of you doesn’t work outside the home, open a Spousal IRA so you don’t miss out on the tax benefits, as well as the retirement savings. 

Dealing with a Reluctant Money Partner 

Often, one partner is reluctant to discuss finances with the other because he or she doesn’t know what to do, or is afraid to be criticized or put down. Other times, a lack of cooperation results when one partner tries to control the other by remaining silent about finances and “doing their own thing”. This latter situation may indicate the presence of an underlying marital problem having to do with trust and should be addressed by the couple on their own or with the help of a trained counselor. Don’t wait until a problem arises. Find that you can’t agree? Seek counseling before the situation becomes impossible to rectify. 

Make a commitment to avoid blaming or abusive language. The key to effective communication is to position your concerns in the context of your personal fears, anxieties, even the effect of your partner’s behavior on you. For example, I feel afraid and helpless when you spend a lot of money without consulting me.” 

Try to enlist your partner’s help by using language that makes you allies, not enemies. Resolving the problem becomes easier by phrasing it like this: “If we keep on spending so much, we won’t be able to afford the down payment for the house we want to buy. I’m feeling frustrated about what we could do to change this. Do you have any ideas?” This allows the other person to join with you in wanting to help solve the problem, instead of reacting with defensiveness hostility. 

Keep the lines of communication open, set aside time regularly to focus on your money concerns. Speak with your partner about your goals and dreams, and decide the role money plays in reaching those goals. Prioritize your goals together- be certain each person’s needs will be met to the best of your financial ability. Decide what the steps will be for implementing your plan and who will be responsible for each of these steps along the way. Remember to revisit your goals often- your plans should be flexible and should be reviewed at least quarterly to be certain you and your partner still share the same goals and are both comfortable with your progress toward meeting those objectives.

In essence, communication is the key. It will enable you to identify your couple strengths and roadblocks. Persevere in building on what you do well together and try to relate to and understand the feelings of your partner.

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