Every relationship expert in the book says that to survive in a marriage, a couple must talk about money. Constantly. And in excruciating detail. Such was the case in my first and ultimately failed marriage, and the discussions usually revolved around how we didn’t have any, or later when we did have money, that my income-generating job was getting in the way of her hippie ideals.
In my present marriage (13 years and counting) we don’t talk about money. Ever. And despite what the relationship experts say, it works.
Yes, there are some things that have to be discussed, but there’s no compelling need to report every small detail. I go to lunch every Friday with some old high school friends, and she understands that without my having to give her a financial heads-up that I’m about to spend fifteen dollars for lunch, and that yes, I’m probably going to also have a martini, which is another eight dollars.
The point isn’t that you should never talk about money with your spouse, it’s that the need to talk about money has to be balanced with some level of understanding and trust. She understands that I might have a martini and I don’t have to ask ahead of time, but she trusts that I probably won’t have three, so I don’t have to present her with the bill when I come back home, and neither of us is obligated to itemize small details. Do you have to account for every nickel? No you shouldn’t, and neither should she. Doing so may be good accounting practice if you’re running a business, but it causes resentment in a marriage and creates an environment where there is no trust.
Accounting for nickels and resenting it
The principle of zero tolerance has become popular in our culture – high school students with a Tylenol in their backpacks are expelled for drugs, judges jail people for long sentences for minor, non-violent offenses, and fingernail clippers are considered a weapon. The zero tolerance financial approach recommended to couples by some financial counselors is equally nonsensical, and takes what should be common-sense advice and a sentiment of working together towards a common goal, and transforms it into an inflexible dogma that too often ends badly.
A better approach is to set a threshold. For example, depending on your income, set a rule that any purchases over $100 (or whatever figure you decide) should be discussed. Girls’ night out with margaritas? Don’t sweat it, and don’t make her feel guilty for spending twenty dollars on a good time with friends. About to pawn your car so you can buy a new fishing boat? Yes, that’s something that needs to be discussed, and depending on the title loan laws of your state, both of your signatures may even be required. But unless your situation is extremely dire, reporting to your spouse every time you put a dollar in a vending machine for a guilty treat is going to cause resentment, no matter how many times a week you schedule the “money talk.”
Even financial hard-liner Dave Ramsey, who tends to be more of a zero-tolerance guy, says a little discretionary spending is good for a marriage. Allocating a little extra fun money for both you and your spouse – which you can spend on whatever you want, guilt-free and without prior discussion – not only alleviates stress, it also helps keep your formal budget solid. That’s because those little fun extras are going to sneak into the budget anyway, and if you don’t allow for them one way or another, they will end up coming out of the rent money.
I really love my wife’s approach to buying personal luxury items.
Like many women, she loves designer handbags and name-brand shoes. But we shop for them together, and I have two words of advice for alleviating some of the pain of these big-ticket price tags: Outlet Mall. Her new Michael Kors handbag (70 percent off) makes her feel good when we go out, and I do enjoy my Aldo dress shoes (half price) and my Izod blazer (90 percent off!). It may just be a cultural thing – she’s from a country where bargaining is always part of shopping – but we’ve made it into a fun game with a big payoff for both of us.
The bottom line is this: Money is stressful in relationships only because we make it so, and the money talk is often fraught with finger-pointing, shame and guilt, couched in an environment of inflexibility. We get so caught up in counting pennies that we fail to see the big picture. Have the money talk. Create a budget. But the only way it will succeed is with a little bit of flexibility and discretionary spending for both of you.
Photo Credit: Getty Images