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♥ & $: What Baggage do you Bring to Your Relationship with Money?


Whether you realize it or not, everyone brings financial baggage to a relationship. The better you are at talking about it, the happier your relationship will be.

Please join me in welcoming Lisen Stromberg to Money Under 30. Lisen is an accomplished journalist who will be writing a new biweekly series “♥ & $:” focusing on how young couples can better tackle financial issues together. Welcome, Lisen. -DW 

My husband came home the other night and asked me if I’d heard it.

“Heard what?” I asked.

“That car ad. It’s like they were listening in to one of our old fights.”

He was right. Here’s the scenario: A couple has agreed to buy a new car. The guy comes home excited because he bought one with all the “bells and whistles.” As he is recounting all of the extras the new car has, his wife is getting angrier and angrier. She finally yells: “I thought we agreed to save money and get the base model!”

As she rants, he, sounding defeated and dismayed, tries to tell her he did, in fact, buy the base model; the car was a deal that included the extras for the base price. She can’t hear him, though. She’s too busy ranting.

The ad nails one of the most common conflicts every couple must face. Someone wants or needs to purchase something and his or her partner is worried about how much it will cost. It could be a big ticket item like a car. It could be something small like new towels for the bathroom. It could be an experience like a vacation. It doesn’t matter what “it” is. All of us bring different experiences, material wants, and financial philosophies to our relationships. When it comes to money and relationships, we all have baggage.

I wish I had understood this when I got married oh-so-many years ago.

My husband was the first in his family to go to college. He managed to do so thanks to a hefty scholarship and lots and lots of loans. At the dinner table, his family discussed money — and the frustrating lack of it — all the time. Now, he jokes that his parents played Russian roulette with the past due bills. To this day, whether he has it or not, my husband hates to spend money. He calls himself a “conservationist” … others might call him a  “tightwad”.

In my childhood home, we never talked about money; it just wasn’t considered polite conversation. My father was a lawyer and my mother a homemaker. He made the big financial decisions, she made the little ones. They both valued education and gave me the gift of a college degree with no debt at graduation. But for all that love of knowledge, they didn’t teach me a thing about how to manage money. It took years for me to learn to budget, plan, and eventually invest the money I (or rather, we) have. My husband is too kind to call me a “spendthrift,” but that label used to apply.

According to study after study, money is on the top of the list of issues couples fight about. A research report in the journal Family Relations found conflicts about money are “more pervasive, problematic, and recurrent, and remained unresolved, despite including more attempts at problem solving.” In short, relationships are fraught when it comes to money.

Take the couple in the ad. She was like my husband used to be. He was so busy worrying about money, he couldn’t hear when I had actually found a bargain. To be fair, I rarely spent time looking for bargains, so when I did bring home a shiny new purchase, my husband assumed the worst. It’s taken work — a lot of work — but now we rarely fight about money. We finally understand both our own and each others’ financial personalities. While we’ve worked hard at it, many couples have divorced over it.

But there are ways to preempt the conflict. According to a 2006 study on marital happiness, premarital financial education “was associated with higher levels of satisfaction and commitment in marriage and lower levels of conflict, and also reduced odds of divorce.” If only I had known how much money would be a source of tension and discord for us, I would have come to our relationship with more knowledge, training and compassion.

I’ll be writing the  & $  column with the younger me (and us) in mind, focusing on what I wish I knew when we were under 30 and building the financial foundations for our future. I look forward to hearing from you about your issues and concerns in the comments. Also, feel free to email me. In the meantime, you might want to pick up a few good books about money and relationships. Here are some I recommend:

  • The Couples Guide to Love and Money by Jonathan Rich (Yep, that really is his last name. Of course, someone named “Rich” has to write about money).
  • First Comes Love, Then Comes Money by Bethany and Scott Palmer (Wife and husband financial advisors. When they got married, they decided to share what they knew with others. Now, they call themselves the “Money Couple”.)
  • The Secret Meaning of Money by  Cloé Madanes (She’s a psychotherapist and writes about getting at the root issues of conflict around money. She says, “we use money as a secret weapon in manipulating the myriad of underlying, unresolved conflicts about sex, love and power.” Heavy stuff, but worth it).
  • Financially Ever After by Jeff Opdyke (The original Love and Money columnist for The Wall Street Journal. The writing is informative if a bit stiff. Lots of useful advice).
What about you? Do you or your partner have financial baggage in your relationship? How have you dealt with it?

Photo credit: Thanks to Austin wedding photographer Kaoru Kohashigawa of NovaleePhoto.com.

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About Lisen Stromberg

Lisen wishes she had money under 30, but she didn't. She had credit card debt, a husband with nearly $200k in school loans, and a job that barely covered the rent. Today at 50, she's made some, lost some, and learned a lot along the way. She had a successful business career, started and ran a non-profit, opted out and then opted back in. Now, she's an award-winning writer who focuses on issues important to women, men, and families. Read her personal blog, follow her @LisenStromberg or become her friend. Email her at lisen (at) prismwork. com with your ♥ & $ questions and concerns.

Comments

  1. The woman I am currently seeing lives well beyond her means. She is a stress shopper (shops to relive stress), has over $100,000 in student loans, can’t find a decent paying job… I on the other hand have a great job, no debt, a significant savings/retirement plan, and don’t buy large purchases without doing all the research and saving for it in advance. If this relationship continues to progress the way it has, I will lovingly help her get out of debt after marriage. I guess where I get fearful and upset is thinking about the worst and how unprotected the wealth I have built would be if it didn’t work out between us. My question is this: Is there a way to bring up prenuptial agreements without it automatically souring the relationship? Can they be written such that certain things brought into the relationship (my retirement savings, her student loan debt) are untouchable in divorce? Are there better solutions to two completely opposite people financially coming together?

    • I should add, she knows she is not good with money and we have discussed at length budgeting and trying to help her get rid of consumer debt. We are working hard to limit her spending and she has even started asking my opinion when she does buy things and whether she needs them! She is very receptive to help and I genuinely appreciate that.

      • I married a woman just like that 20 years ago. It was the worst mistake I ever made. She pretended to want to change and I genuinely believed her. After the first year of marriage I swore she picked fights with me just so she could go put various charges on our credit cards. I tried to make it work for so many years, but it didn’t. We broke up and I needed to give her my house, my 401k needed to be cashed out, and I need to pay alimony to her over $2,000 a month so she can drink wine with other men in the house that used to be mine.

      • Lisen Stromberg says:

        Timmmay,
        What a peach you are. Patient.Understanding. Lovingly committed to guiding your SO. Sounds great if she wants a daddy. But, if she wants a partner, she’ll need someone to call her on her @#%$ and convince her to get some clarity (and perhaps even counseling) on why she stress shops. What’s the stress? Who is she trying to hurt? Or, more to the point (and as Jason so painfully experienced), what kind of control is she trying to exert? Sounds like she wants someone to take care of her. If you are willing to do that, go for it. If not, seriously consider what you are getting into.
        Lisen
        P.S. I’m not a lawyer or tax attorney, but I would get some serious advice about what debt you are responsible for once you are married (it can depend by state).

      • Stephanie says:

        Sorry to say but the phrase “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” comes to mind. I dated a guy who made less money than me and at first it was fine, but after a while I noticed that he stopped offering to pay for things. He also borrowed money from me and genuinely forgot about it. When I would ask him for installments, he would get mad and say that I had no faith in him. To this day he has not offered to pay me back, even after asking to get back together.

        I’m not saying your girlfriend is similar, but I am saying that people tend to take what they have for granted. It starts off as paying for dinner, buying a gift. Then it turns into helping out with a purchase,covering a bill one month, borrowing money. That then turns into a mentality of “Oh well he can afford it so it’s not big deal. THAT then turns into “well I deserve this money because of the stress he has caused me. He’s the one who’s wrong.” You need to prevent such a scenario from happening. Do not be afraid to hurt her feelings, you are both adults and need money to survive in this world. If you are not 100% comfortable and confident in the financial situation, you will only regret it later. You should definitely talk about a prenup, and probably talk to a lawyer and accountant before speaking to her. It is great that she is receptive and open to changing her ways, but you also need to value yourself and not end up in a situation like Jason(sorry dude), or like me. The best option would be a prenup because it is the only legally binding agreement that would protect you.

  2. Hello Lisen! I’m so excited you’ll be writing the <3 & $ series. I think this is a great topic (and one that I'm currently dealing with in my own life). It's difficult enough to work through one's own financial issues, but add another person in to the mix and things can get explosive! My parents went through a messy divorce, lost their house to foreclosure, and are now both bankrupt. I've learned a lot about what NOT to do through their struggles, but I'm hoping you can offer some positive advice as well. I'm 26 and have finally developed a budgeting and savings plan that works for me, but my fiance has very different habits and I worry that our differences may cause problems in the future. I'd love to learn how to communicate effectively about finances without starting an argument!

    • Lisen Stromberg says:

      Mattie,
      Thanks for reading and for engaging. Over the next few months I do plan to write about just this issue. How can a couple with different spending/saving styles work together? Or, is it best to keep finances separate. Or, is there some middle ground that could work for both of you.
      Stay tuned. If you have a specific question, feel free to email me.
      Lisen

  3. What I would like to see some more advice about is how to handle when one person in a relationship makes much more money than the other. I make significantly more (~3x) than what my SO makes. As a result I have been saving for retirement and a house, which he hasn’t been able to, and I would like to take expensive trips that he can’t afford. I hate to sound/be selfish, but I don’t feel it is fair that I should be the one who ends up taking responsibility for all the major things in life. We have similar levels of education, but I have a full time career that I take seriously. He lives and works with relatives, and doesn’t go in to work when he doesn’t feel like it, and gets away with that because he works for family. While I appreciate and love him, I find these facts about his work and financial life to be very troublesome. Sometimes we have talked about this, and he has said he will look for another job, or go to school again to get trained in something else, but he never follows through and actually finishes doing any of that. And neither of us will commit to future plans because on my side, I don’t want to sign up for all that responsibility, and on his side, he doesn’t feel he has anything to offer or plan for.

    • Lisen Stromberg says:

      Saver,
      Congratulations on having your act together. Love it when I hear from a woman who is taking charge of her finances. So, why aren’t you taking charge in your personal life? Are you funding your SO’s slacker lifestyle? Or, is he happy with his slacker life and you’re insisting he join you on the things you like to do. Mixing caviar tastes (and pocketbooks) with hamburger budgets can be challenging if the caviar maker is resentful. Ask him, if he really wants to travel and/or settle down. If that’s not his gig, then you might not be a love match.
      Just sayin’…

  4. I’m in a similar situation where I make more money than my SO does and he has student loan debt and a car payment where I have mine nearly paid off. If we’re planning a future together, do we still split living expenses or do I pay for more while he pays off his debt? And should I help him pay off his debt or continue to save and pay for our house? I wish things were equal, but that’s just not the case, and I’m starting to resent him. Any suggestions?

  5. My husband and I fought a lot about money in the past. I was raised and taught a lot about handling money while he was given everything he wanted without working for it. We fought about simple things like where to eat and how much to invest on something. We had lots of talks and for me, it would be easier for him to adjust to my lifestyle than for me to adjust to his. Eventually, we learned to understand each other. He valued my opinion on money and I let him spend on the things that he want sometimes. In relationships, it is really important to make way for each other’s wants and needs.

  6. I came into my current relationship with some debt. It wasn’t easy to sit down and talk about it, but we did. It’s good knowing where we both stand with money and that we talk about it so openly. We both have many of the same views when it comes to money, but there are still times when we disagree. I’ll have to check out the books you mention to see if there is anything more/different we should be doing.