Managing finances may not be the first thing that comes to mind when falling in love and starting a life together. But as love and commitment grow and day-to-day financial realities arise, how can couples cooperate in harmony?
"The single most important question for couples concerns their underlying attitudes about money, and it's very hard for couples to talk about this because sometimes they are not aware of their beliefs," says Hara Estroff Marano, editor-at-large of Psychology Today. "And if they are, they almost always feel their beliefs are correct."
Money issues are deeply bound with feelings of security, Marano says, and these are so deep that people feel threatened when even thinking about them.
She adds that money is an arena in which power and control dynamics, which are very hard for couples to face openly, also play out.
"The healthiest approach, independent of who earns how much, is for there to be a joint marital pot that covers all essential expenses and then some," she says. "If there is more left over from their incomes, they need to agree on how that is apportioned."
The dynamics of each couple can vastly differ based on personal experiences, upbringing and relationship with money, says Dr. Hillary Goldsher, Psy.D, MBA. "But often couples seem to struggle with the balance of earning and spending over the course of marriage. Perhaps couples start with an agreement about who will work and bring in the money, who will stay home with kids and what the relative mindset is about spending. But sometimes feelings about that change. Maybe the husband, who once agreed to be the sole breadwinner, finds himself resentful and wants relief and support. Maybe the stay-at-home wife now wants to work. And maybe how to spend money, such as practical purchases versus luxury purchases, changes over time for couples too. This should be expected. We are all evolving human beings, and our feelings and thoughts about these things may change."
She suggests that couples check in regularly with each other about where the family is financially, any upcoming large purchases, how to deal with continued debt and any issues or grudges being held about recent spending.
"The key, the absolute key, is to communicate about these things openly and directly and to adopt a spirit of negotiation and understanding," she says. It is the only way to get through what is inherently tough material. It allows for a sense of teamwork and openness that is critical to managing money in a united and respectful way. Planning is also key. It is a mistake to be impulsive and/or cryptic about the couple's approach to spending and saving. In order to make a plan, the total amount coming in each month must be weighed against monthly expenses. It is fundamental, but it is the only way."
She advises a simple spreadsheet to track this information and recommends a joint bank account, which develops a sense of trust and togetherness.
"Obviously, if there is a lack of trust or an inability to be accountable financially that puts one or both partners at risk, a separate account is clearly smart and safe for self protection," she says. "In terms of prenups and postnups, that is a very individual decision. If there are business/financial reasons (such as a great deal of money earned by one or both parties pre-relationship), this might be a situation in which a prenup or postnup is considered. It's not about the notion of it being inherently right or wrong; it's about making sure both members of the couple are on the same page about the idea of it and the language of it. It doesn't necessarily reflect a lack of love or trust."
Eris Huemer, MA, MFT, says a recurring problem she has encountered in couples seeking her counsel is keeping secrets from each other.
"Big financial secrets can ruin a marriage," she says. "I see more often than not that one spouse is hiding purchases from the other. Many times, this is because we don't want to feel like a child again and ask permission. The solution for this is to treat each other like independent adults."
This can mean establishing separate bank accounts for personal purchases or setting limits on what each can spend without asking, she explains.
"Be each other's teammate," she says. "You are in healthy control when you have open communication. Your life will spiral out of control if you don't have it. Think about it this way: When you make a commitment to take a job, you know the rules and expectations. You know what time you have to show up and what your responsibilities are. Your job gives you structure. A relationship should be handled in the same way. You need to know what you are getting yourself into, because the 'La La Land' feeling of love does pass, and 'Reality Land' takes over. Reality Land is the truth about all of the areas in your life: financial, career, health, recreation, home, spirituality and community. Don't hide your head in the sand when it comes to finances. Be open and honest, and communicate."